Kalleberg explores the pitfalls of precarious work and what can be done about them

Arne Kalleberg stands in his office with arms crossed, bookshelves filled with books behind him.
Arne Kalleberg (photo by Jon Gardiner)

As an academic who has spent a lifetime studying the world of work, Arne Kalleberg will be paying close attention when Labor Day rolls around again on the first Monday of September.

Labor Day was created in the late 19th century to celebrate the rise of the labor movement, and along with it, the social and economic achievements of the American industrial worker.

Kalleberg, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts & Sciences who has authored, co-authored or edited 14 books, is stuck with one recurring thought: “There isn’t much cause for celebration for the American worker anymore,” he said.

For Kalleberg, Labor Day serves more as a reminder of the grim reality of  “precarious work” that he wrote about in his 2011 book Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States 1970s to 2000s.

Kalleberg identifies three key aspects of precarious work. First, it is work that is insecure and uncertain. It is work that implies not only a high risk of job loss, but also a low probability of finding a comparable job to replace it.

Second, it is work that provides limited economic and social benefits, such as a living wage, as well as health insurance and retirement benefits.

Third, it is work that has limited statutory entitlements provided by labor laws, regulatory protection and labor rights.

The book details the rise of secure, well-paying industrial jobs after World War II that enabled millions of Americans to join the middle class. That upward movement began to reverse in the 1970s as those good-paying factory jobs began to disappear.

“Labor Day doesn’t mean what it used to because we have very few unions,” Kalleberg said. “I think one of the great unresolved challenges for our time is the balance of power between employers and workers that has fundamentally changed in the past 30 to 40 years from what it was after World War II.”

Work and well-being

In his new book, Precarious Lives: Job Security and Well-Being in Rich Democracies, released in July by Polity Press, Kalleberg explores the same subject, only this time with a wider, more prescriptive lens.

Comparing the United States with Denmark, Germany, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom, Kalleberg presents data to buttress his argument that more can and should be done to counterbalance the harmful effects of precarious work.

Precarious work creates economic insecurity that has far-reaching effects on almost every aspect of life, from uncertainty about paying bills to putting food on the table, and has even damaged overall well-being, Kalleberg said.

Although the consequences of precarious work were exacerbated by the global economic crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed, Kalleberg argues that the rise of bad jobs in America was not the result of fluctuations in the business cycle, but rather the result of economic restructuring and the disappearance of institutional protections for workers.

Work is more than just a job, Kalleberg said. It is a core activity in society that connects people to each other and defines who they are. A good job is the foundation for a good life, and in this new era, that foundation is crumbling.

Holes in the safety net

All six countries in his comparison have been buffeted by political and economic forces unleashed by an increasingly global and technology-driven economy. All six countries have experienced a decline in long-term employment among prime-age men.

Kalleberg argues in his new book that government’s response to these new realities can make all the difference by providing help and support to people when they need it the most. He says that countries such as Denmark and Germany do much better than the United States through stronger social welfare policies and labor market institutions.

Labor market institutions, he added, are policy interventions or collective organizations that mitigate the harmful effects that precarious work has on people’s lives. Examples include labor unions, minimum wage legislation and unemployment insurance.

In the United States, the labor movement’s long slide began in the late 1970s and accelerated under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, Kalleberg said. As labor unions lost membership and their economic leverage, American workers continued to lose benefits such as health care insurance, sick days and paid holidays that unions won for their members through collective bargaining following World War II, Kalleberg said.

The loss of secure union jobs had widened the gap between rich and poor and pushed the American Dream out of reach for a majority of American workers who lack the skills or education needed to advance their careers by moving from one organization to the next.

U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions was 10.7 percent in 2017 compared to 20.1 percent in 1983. Even more revealing, Kalleberg said, is the fact that union membership for
public-sector workers in 2017 was 34.4 percent—more than five times higher than the 6.5 percent within the private sector.

What has the decline of the American labor movement meant for American workers?

It has meant fewer of them can count on keeping a secure job with the same employer for the rest of their lives, Kalleberg said. It also has meant fewer of them can expect to get a private pension when they retire or have access while they are working to basic health insurance provided to them by their employers,
he added.

In countries like Denmark and Germany, where many of these same benefits have historically been provided by the federal government, the government safety net has stayed intact and remains strong enough to catch people when they fall and lift them up again, Kalleberg said.

Kalleberg’s research found that, among these six countries, the United States and the United Kingdom ranked at the bottom among these safety-net protections.

Government, by working with labor and employers on long-term strategies to expand the safety net and offer better training opportunities, can create the kind of positive change these workers need, Kalleberg said.

He says he has the data to prove those strategies can work— and holds out hope this country might one day test them out.

“If there is no hope things can change for the better, what is the point?” he said.

By Gary Moss, University Gazette