Frankly, I find it hard to think of a recession only in terms of the numbers that matter to the people that got us into one. It’s still a recession, or worse (we don’t like the word depression), if people are hunting for jobs for 16months, qualified people with degrees are still losing their houses for not finding work, and applicants are having to go through eight interviews just to get a rejection letter. Replacing employee relationships with temp jobs isn’t a stabilization of employment (without employee-like benefits), either, so the numbers can’t always be taken at face value.
It may well be that what has happened to the workplace for job holders and job seekers is not temporary at all – but is unprecedented and isn’t going away, not really. Hard to predict at this point, but signs that some changes may be more permanent are the reduction in employer funded retirement plans with widespread elimination of matching, and reduction of health care benefits with widespread use of contractors to avoid such entitlements. Pay cuts might be temporary, and it might be just belt-tightening to cancel the company picnic or the Christmas party. But eliminating health care and retirement – that’s changing the employer-employee relationship substantially.
Now even employees, in some cases, are really just ‘contractors’ with unemployment insurance. If that! Cut someone down to four days a week instead of five, and they’re not full time anymore. They may not be entitled to much of anything.
Some shifts in the employer-employee relationship have been building for years, but the recession, by making companies acutely cost-conscious, has accelerated them.
“I think we’ve entered into a fundamentally new era,” says David Lewin, of the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. He describes employers as “leery of long-term commitments,” including both benefits and pay increases. . . .
In some cases, employers keep workers, but not on the payroll. Last December, staffing company Spherion Corp. laid off Roberta Marcantonio, a 14-year veteran who sold franchises to local operators. It brought her back as a contractor paid by commission. “We didn’t need the fixed costs, because of the recession,” says Spherion’s chief executive, Roy Krause. “But we needed the skills when she was able to sell something.”
[Wall Street Journal, Oct 20, 2009]
When you combine a trend toward ‘trial employment’ arrangements, with the growing practice of filling out workforces with contractors on a larger scale, and the reduction of the kinds of benefits that signify a long-term relationship (the equivalent of an engagement ring for an employee), it seems as if the relationship of employee to employer may itself be obsolete, at least in some fields, in some jobs, for some populations, and that what we’re witnessing is a work-culture shift, not a setback, not a minor adjustment, and not perhaps a temporary redistribution.
The contractor ranks are swelling. After all, even the unemployed are what, ultimately? Contractors waiting for a gig. The question will be whether this is empowering, for most, in the sense that it’s more like running your own business, or whether it will be debilitating, so that being a contractor is just another word for full-time employee with no benefits. If the latter, it may essentially ruin contracting for a lot of people who thrived with it. What I hope, with glass hope, is that it’s more the former, and that a shift to enhanced fulfillment from work, and from the very character of a traded, value for value relationship, will enliven the world of work for more people than ever before. We’ll see.