Wed Sep 7, 2005

Crossing the Great Divide

Alan Wolfe and Tyler Cowen are discussing Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bait and Switch on Slate this week. The book is a kind of white-collar counterpart to Nickel and Dimed, where Ehrenreich tries to get a job (using an invented identity) in the media/public relations sector. Neither Wolfe nor Cowen is much impressed by the result, so I wonder whether they’ll be able to keep agreeing with each other about this for the next few days.

Today, Tyler opens his comments by saying, “We still need a good book on why white-collar workers are having a harder time finding jobs.” I suggest Vicki Smith’s Crossing the Great Divide: Worker Risk and Opportunity in the New Economy, which does what Ehrenreich is trying to do, only—if Tyler’s characterization of Bait and Switch is accurate—with more nuance and better methods. Smith is a sociologist at U.C. Davis. Her book looks at the efforts of non-union, white-collar workers to build careers for themselves at three companies (including a photocopy service firm and a computer outfit) and a job-search club. It’s a clear and nuanced piece of work, and it might be what Tyler is looking to read. (The next few paragraphs draw on an unpublished discussion of mine about the book.)

Smith found that the labor market was indeed an uncertain and difficult one for all the workers she interviewed:

[T]he reality is that institutional, structural insecurity is an unrelenting possibility … What looks like a good contract for workers—participate, give extra effort and intensity to the job, sweat over production glitches and outcomes, all in return for being admitted to a partnership with management—is a contract betrayed when employment security is replaced with uncertainty or termination. (Smith 2001, 176-77.)

But Smith also discovered that many interviewees “were willing to adapt to uncertainty because they felt they were gaining skills and insights that would allow them to maintain a solid footing in the new economy” (9). Moreover, many were “poised and willing to experiment, to undertake new responsibilities, to be held more accountable, and to identify their interests with those of their employers if they perceived that employers were committed to working with workers and not against them and to building quality work environments” (175).

Smith had expected labor market conditions to push workers towards collective action in an effort to insulate themselves from labor market instability. The absence of such efforts is partly explained by structural features of the labor market. Temp workers, for instance, routinely move from project to project, which makes it difficult to begin organizing. But the self-conception and choices of workers are also important. The Temps that Smith studied thought of themselves as good workers who were more reliable than the stereotypical “bad Temp.” They preferred to identify themselves with permanent workers or even management rather than with other Temps (114-116).

In general, workers were prepared to act on new economy rhetoric, though not in all circumstances. The work environment and its institutional setting were important to their willingness to do all that was demanded of them. Smith’s research deliberately tries to go beyond the good jobs vs bad jobs debate, arguing that “it is time to consider the possibility that these elements are planted side-by-side in dissimilar cases, not separated off with unquestionably ‘good’ jobs and work settings on one side and unquestionably ‘bad’ jobs and work settings on the other” (7).