Part-time work takes over

Full-time jobs are declining in the U.S. and around the world. The economy is shifting to on-call work because employers love paying less, providing fewer benefits, and blocking unionization. They call it “flexibility.”

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Working people know that the headlines claiming the unemployment rate is low and the economy “strong” are a fallacy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as many are working two or three jobs at terrible wages and barely getting by.

This is the reality of the “part-time economy.” A rapidly increasing number of working people are stringing together “gigs” and “hustles” and other partial occupations that only resemble steady employment, in order to face the gale force winds of rising costs and few or no benefits.

Not that many years ago, “part-time” employment was somewhat predictable. Though never high paying, a certain number of hours could be depended on in food and beverage, travel and leisure, and retail work. These days, the terminology to describe jobs is confusing, distracting, even hip-sounding.

So called “gig work” arose out of technology-driven companies (such as Uber and DoorDash in the United States or Deliveroo in Europe) that allow workers to “check in” when they are available for work and “check out” when they are finished. The worker is an “independent contractor” to the company and it’s called a “gig” because the work is literally as long as that shift, with the employer owing nothing beyond wages. The worker bears all the expense of gas, vehicle maintenance and insurance, and personal benefits if they can afford them, and has to work a lot of “gigs” to get by.

A “side hustle” sounds like a hobby, or maybe something an older worker might do in the comfort of their retirement. Not so fast. Many people with low paying full-time jobs have side hustles, and those older workers have multiple “hustles” to cover rising costs of housing, food, gas and healthcare.

The allure of flexibility and being your own boss that is sold by capitalists is tempting, and acceptable to some. But in fact, these workers join the vast army of the intermittently employed. The size of that army is staggering.

Though data on the matter varies, according to the McKinsey Institute (which studies it regularly) in 2022 36% of American employees, about 58 million people, are “independent” workers. That is up from 27% in 2016. This expansion is global. Throughout Europe, parts of South America and Asia, a significant part of the labor force does gig work already and it is growing rapidly.

The reasons why people “choose” gig work vary. While some, such as lawyers and consultants, are higher paid, they include larger percentages of young, immigrant and low-income individuals. Many prefer the flexibility, but at least 30% take gig work to supplement their income. In other words, they don’t take home enough to pay the bills with one job, so they have to take on another.

Meaningless employment statistics

There are more independent workers in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which collects and publishes employment data, barely has a handle on how rapidly this sector is changing.

The federal government continues to report how strong the economy is, with unemployment around 3.9% in October 2023. But this number, known as the “U-3” classification in BLS terminology, is completely misleading. It only includes people who are available to work but have not been able to find it in the last four weeks. It doesn’t include people who have given up looking for a job or “independent” workers, who are not counted when unemployed.

It also does not include the almost 40% of the U.S. adult population who are students, workers with disabilities, retirees, active-duty military personnel, prisoners, institutionalized, or stay-at-home caregivers.

Factoring in discouraged workers and others who are “marginally attached” to the workforce (the “U-6” classification) increases the unemployment count somewhat to just over 7%. But this glosses over insufficient part-time work and poorly paid jobs. Adding those who are working less than 35 hours a week, but want more, or who make less than $20,000 annually, boosts the “functional unemployment rate” to almost 23%, according to the Ludwig Institute for Shared Properity (LISEP).

When it comes to actual take-home pay, the lines between full-time and part-time (“gig” work or otherwise) start to blur. Whether you are working full-time at poverty or near poverty wages or as one of the increasing number of part-timers, the result is the same. You have few or no benefits, such as healthcare or childcare, you are vulnerable and living paycheck-to-paycheck, and you are not protected by a union.

A good “gig” for capitalists

Under late capitalism, a globalized, technology on hyper-drive economy, means demand for products and services is often fluid. Capitalists find markets where they can, and compete like wild animals for the fattest profit margins. They cut costs, especially labor, as much as possible.

A “variable” pay structure, where a company only hires workers when needed, doesn’t have to sustain them with healthcare, sick leave, vacation, or worry about whether they have a place to live, is simply a dream come true. The newer, technology-based companies started this way, but older established firms have the same aspirations.

However, workers in companies such as Starbucks and Uber have fought with some success for dependable hours and minimum wages in select cities, and have shown the bosses that their aspirations are not a given. Let’s hear it for pushback!

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