Andrew Ross, Chair of NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, is author of Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. Illustration courtesy of The Painter Of Pancakes.
Susan Boyle is the would-be Scottish Edith Piaf, whose vocal prowess on a TV talent show brought her instant global fame month. The stark contrast between her humble station and the nobility of her voice caught the mood of the recession. Indeed, the story of this unemployed and socially isolated woman who hit the media jackpot may be the first of many such parables thrown up by our hard times. As millions around the world lose their jobs every month, and countless more confront the fear of falling, the Depression genre of “rags-to-riches,” which brought us Seabiscuit and other unlikely champions, will get a good airing. The lucrative talent show industry (which exploits “free” amateur labor) is in the right place at the right time to sell us this kind of solace.
But consider how the spectacle of underdogs walking off with the top prize is just another expression of the casino economy that has proven so catastrophic to the security of most of our livelihoods. Over the last two decades, paid work has become more and more of a gamble. More and more employees have had to go it alone, involuntarily for the most part, as they compete for the lucky break that will bring security and wealth. Even before the recession, over 30% of the American workforce were in non-standard employment, in a limbo of uncertainty, working from one temporary contract to another as members of the precariat. The high wage temps, once lionized as “free agents” for breaking their dependence on a regular paycheck, frazzled their souls in pursuit of a career hit. By definition, most of the contestants are sorry losers in this game, and they were among the first to fall into the unemployment hole.
Financiers who placed their plush bets using other people’s money have rightfully earned themselves public contempt. Now it’s time to de-glamorize risk, and to draw a firm line between the fantasy of auditioning for a TV talent show and the reality of making a living. If and when jobs reappear, they have to look less like lottery tickets. It would also help if their products were sustainable (land-gobbling subdivisions, gas-guzzling vehicles, earth-poisoning armaments, high-carbon energy, and financial instruments are not). But much of that depends on the people formerly known as employers, for those who answer to that description are increasingly thin on the ground. Can they learn how to behave like stewards of peoples’ livelihoods, by committing to workers in the long term? If not, then the definition of a job is going to mutate into something closer to its etymological origin–a discrete “lump,”or “piece,” of work that exists only for the duration of its fulfillment.