After World War II, there was a golden era when Americans, especially those that had an education, could expect to have a job and keep it until retirement and retire with an adequate pension.
Those days, which Allison Pugh, professor of Sociology at University of Virginia, refers to as the "20-year career and a gold watch" model, are over. Between a competitive global market, recession and job automation, and a switch to part-time and contingent workers, Americans now live in a culture of perpetual job insecurity, in which they are easily laid off, at both high and low-level jobs, and can expect to switch jobs, or locations, at least a half dozen times during their careers.
Last year, Hewlett-Packard eliminated 34,000 jobs, and JC Penney and Sprint announced cuts, while JP Morgan Chase has cut 20,000 from its workforce since 2011. In double-earner families, at least one parent reports feeling "insecure" about their job, and in almost half of those both think their job is insecure.
This dynamic creates a constant tension for workers, who are beset by uncertainty. It has bred what Pugh calls the "one-way honor system," in which workers are beholden to employers, but employers are not, says Pugh, author of “The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity,” out earlier this year.
How does insecurity impact our love lives, Pugh wondered? How do these changes go beyond the cubicle to our romantic partners, friendships, and children? For her book, she interviewed 80 people about their work lives and personal lives. Pugh talks to the Deseret News about how the "insecurity culture" infiltrates our homes and amplifies or diminishes our commitments and obligations to those we love.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DN: In the title of the book, you refer to the "Age of Insecurity" in America. What does that mean?
Pugh: Part of what's new about this time in America is that employers are restructuring not just during recessions, but when times are flush. Over the past 30 years the American economy has added 60 million jobs, but it's not clear to workers if they will keep their current job or where the next will be. There is also evidence that long-term employment is on the decline.
At the same time, the churn at work parallels changes in intimacy. Partnerships dissolve and reform much more rapidly than they did 50 years ago. Divorce rates have plateaued since the 1980s, but 20 percent of marriages end within five years, and so do co-habitators. These have implications for stability.
DN: You call these twin phenomenae — job insecurity and family insecurity — the "two whirlwinds." Are they connected?
Pugh: The rise in job insecurity and the rise in divorce and separation doesn't necessarily imply linkage. It's not that simple. But we know that the old style of organizing work — the social compact, lifetime careers — encouraged particular kinds of intimacy and families.
Job insecurity does lead to family disruption, and job stability lends stability to the home. You could make the argument that job security enables families to endure. Families of all kinds can experience longer relationships when they are not scurrying around figuring out new ways to make a livelihood.
DN: One curious effect that you notice within job insecurity is a "one-way contract" in which workers feel supremely beholden to employers without holding employers responsible. Can you explain that?
Pugh: The one-way honor system is when individual workers profess having an intense work ethic that also involves loyalty or identifying with the employers. Many people that I interviewed said that they give "150 percent, or 100 percent, or 125 percent," so the individual is pledging themselves as a statement of personal character. They're saying, "I'm a good person, see how much I identify with work and can be relied on."
On the other hand, for the last 30 years or so, employers have been pulling away from making any similar pledge. And there's no blame for employers — even people who had been laid off said it's not the company's job to worry about workers, they have to be lean and mean in a tough economy. Americans appear to have entirely capitulated to the model of the high-performance company that doesn't owe anything to workers aside from, as one woman that I interviewed said, "a paycheck and some respect."
DN: You say that we just take that attitude for granted, but is there an alternative? Is it unique to America?
Pugh: It feels unique. We do know that American work hours are extraordinarily long — we are neck-and-neck with Japan. Usually long work hours are a sign of low productivity. For example, if you look at work hours in Europe, it's not Germany that has long work hours, it's Greece. But that's not true in the U.S. We have high productivity, climbing higher all the time, but we have long work hours anyway.
One of the principle messages I give when I talk about this book is this: everyone finds it hard to envision another way. But isn't that what we need to thrive in a globalized economy?
DN: You argue that job insecurity is actually driving the rise in inequality. How does that work?
Pugh: The engine for inequality is job precariousness. People and policymakers don't talk about job insecurity because they have given up on it, so they talk about income transfers, or schedule predictability, or character, but those aren't the engine.
It's the engine for inequality because one-third of those that get laid off get work again at a comparable wage, 1/3 don't get work, and 1/3 make less. People who get let go suffer wage decreases, and people who are hired back are hired back at less.
DN: Going back to how this affects families, what are some of the impacts that insecurity has on home and personal life?
Pugh: It's interesting. Some people build a "moral wall" to corral the insecurity they feel at work from their home, but placing nearly all their hopes for enduring connections on their personal lives can put a long of pressure on those relationships. This can spark the very instability that they long to avoid. Take Gary, for example. He is a single, white mechanic who has been laid off multiple times and is very devoted to his kids, but he's brittle and embittered about his failed relationships. He's very rigid and has almost impossibly high expectations, which is interesting, since he has had almost none for his employers.
The moral wall is a kind of intensity barometer, and people felt more intensely about their home lives when they felt besieged by insecurity in the work world. Intensifiers can be good and bad. Some "commitment heroes" like Gary are inspired to take on unbelievable burdens, but that's also the source for a lot of anger and vitriol when people feel betrayed.
DN: What about how insecurity affects parenting and relationships with children?
Pugh: We know that job insecurity makes parenting harder. It makes teens believe less in the idea that working hard will get you somewhere, and that you can change things around you rather than be controlled by them.
What was striking to me was that for everyone that I interviewed, children were the last frontier in terms of duty and our obligations to each other. People cared deeply for their children. But not everyone parents the same. Affluent people were raising their kids to be flexible, to take advantage of opportunities. Low-income people were raising their children to brace themselves for bad news and inevitable hardship.
One group was groomed for opportunity, the other for catastrophe. One is prompted to wonder how much of that ends up becoming self-fulfilling prophecy.