Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016

From the Editor

Window cleaner, 1990, by Lincoln Seligman; private collection/Bridgeman Images.

The importance of work to Americans is hard to overstate. More than half say they derive their sense of identity from their jobs, and that percentage jumps to two-thirds among those who have annual household incomes of $50,000 or more. While Americans grouse about their bosses and their pay as much as anyone else, they remain surprisingly positive about the work itself. According to one recent poll, an astonishing 93 percent of employed Americans say they like their jobs. How much they like them is also surprising. In direct contrast with leisure-favoring Europeans, Americans who work more than forty hours a week are reportedly happier than those who work less than forty hours.

Work’s importance to the American pursuit of happiness is just one reason we might be concerned about tectonic shifts occurring in today’s workplace, including ones that are putting the very notion of workplace in question. Downsizing, offshoring, flattening, automation, outsourcing, disruption, temping, part-timing—these are just some of the words defining and describing key features of the emerging workscape in America and, indeed, the wider global economy. One troubling consequence of these developments and practices has been a steady rise in the percentage of prime-age Americans who are not working, either because they are unemployed or because they’ve dropped out of the workforce altogether. Another disturbing trend is the increasing rate of underemployment, especially among recent college graduates who find themselves in jobs for which they are greatly overqualified. As The Atlantic recently reported, “The distorting effect of the Great Recession should make us cautious about over interpreting these trends, but most began before the recession, and they do not seem to speak encouragingly about the future of work.”

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