Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
For most of human history, work meant gathering or producing food. The industrial revolution changed that, replacing farm work with factory jobs, and eventually manufacturing, in turn, began giving way to service employment. In the early industrial years, many jobs were strenuous, dirty, and low-paying. But in the decades following World War II, from roughly 1945 through 1979, the quality of work life in the world’s rich democratic countries improved. Jobs became less physically and mentally taxing, and a growing number offered a moderate degree of autonomy. Pay rose steadily. Job security increased. Fewer people worked absurdly long days, more had weekends off, and the number of holidays and vacation days increased. Workplace injuries and deaths diminished. More people had a realistic opportunity to move to a better job, whether within the same firm or at a different one.1
A prominent view holds that since around 1980, the improvement in job quality has stalled or reversed. Globalization, reduced barriers to entry, and the rise of low-cost behemoths such as Walmart and Amazon have increased the competitive pressure many firms face. Falling transportation and communication costs have made it easier for companies to move jobs to lower-cost parts of the world, or to threaten to do so. Computers and robots have created new possibilities for automating tasks. The “shareholder value” revolution in corporate governance has encouraged managers to prioritize a rising stock price ahead of the well-being of workers. Advances in government regulations aimed at protecting jobs and improving work conditions have slowed or reversed. For these reasons and more, a growing share of firms have felt compelled or incentivized to pursue a “low road” approach to job quality — to minimize labor costs above all else, to treat workers simply as commodities.
The result: deteriorating work conditions, flat or falling wages, more contingent or temporary jobs, more people forced to work multiple jobs, more frequent loss of one’s job, more irregular and unpredictable scheduling, and cutbacks in company provision of fringe benefits such as health insurance and pensions.2
Is this pessimistic conclusion correct? If so, how bad have things gotten? How does the United States compare to other affluent nations?
Let’s begin with work conditions. The declining-job-quality hypothesis predicts a deterioration in elements of work such as autonomy, the speed at which employees are expected to perform, and help from supervisors. The General Social Survey (GSS) has asked a representative sample of employed American adults about these and other job conditions since the late 1980s or early 2000s (depending on the question). Figure 1 shows the share experiencing poor conditions for 12 of them.
Many of these poor work conditions are experienced by 5% to 15% of employees, and for most of these there has been no change over the period for which data are available. There are three, however, that are experienced by a larger and rising share: about two-thirds say their job requires that they work “very fast,” around half say they “come home from work exhausted,” and about one-third say they “have too much work to do everything well.”
How common are poor work conditions in other affluent democratic countries? Figures 2 through 7 show the share of employed persons who are exposed to stressful posture- and movement-related conditions, who are exposed to noise and extreme temperatures, who say they can’t work independently, who seldom are able to use skills and past work experience in their job, who disagree that their job is interesting, and who say work often is stressful. Americans are the most likely to experience poor movement, posture, and ambient work conditions. They are among the most likely to say they can’t work independently and that their job isn’t interesting. On use of skills and job stress, the US ranks in the middle of the pack.
Two of these six measures of work conditions don’t have over-time data. For three of the other four, the trend in most countries has been toward better, not worse, job conditions. The only exception is the share of employed persons who say their work is always or often stressful, which has increased in most nations. Interestingly, the US is one of the few countries in which the incidence of work stress appears to have decreased.
Wages for Americans on the lower and middle rungs of the pay ladder rose steadily from the mid-1940s through at least the end of the 1960s. We don’t have reliable data for this period on wages at, say, the 10th percentile, but a decent substitute is the statutory minimum wage, which increased sharply in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and then decreased a bit in the 1970s, as we see in figure 8. Since then the minimum wage has been flat, as have wages at the 10th percentile, the 20th percentile, and on up to the 50th percentile (median).
Canada has a consistent data series that goes back much farther in time. As we see in figure 9, average wages in Canada rose steadily from 1915 until around 1980 and then flattened out. Wages at the 10th percentile and at the 50th percentile also were flat after 1980. (At the 50th percentile they increased from 2000 to 2010, due mainly to an oil boom in the western part of the country.) This wage trajectory is similar to America’s, which is what we would expect to observe given that Canada’s economic structure and union strength are relatively similar to ours.
What’s happened with wages in other affluent democratic nations? Here we are hampered by a lack of reliably comparable data. One useful piece of information is the statutory minimum wage. Not all of these countries have one, but many do. Figure 10 shows that the minimum wage has increased in most of them in recent decades. A few — Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain — have had no increase, though the level in Belgium and the Netherlands remains quite high compared to most of the other countries. The US pattern, with a fall in the 1970s and early 1980s followed by no increase, has been the worst among these nations.
We also have data for a number of countries on the average rate of growth of median (50th percentile) compensation over the period from 1995 to 2013. This is shown on the vertical axis in figure 11. On the horizontal axis is each country’s rate of economic growth. We would expect pay to rise more in nations that have had faster economic growth, so this chart helps to put wage growth in perspective. The line in the chart is a 45-degree line; a country will be on the line if its median compensation has grown at the same rate as the economy. The countries that are close to the line or above it are mainly ones that have strong labor unions (such as the Nordics) or mechanisms through which union-bargained wage increases are extended to nonunion firms (France, the Netherlands). Sitting farthest below the line are the United States and other countries that have weak unions and no wage-bargaining extension mechanism.
To sum up: While we don’t have the data needed to be certain, it is very likely that during the period from 1945 through the mid- or late 1970s, pay for the lower half of Americans increased rapidly, at about the same pace as the economy. Since then, pay for this group has been essentially flat.
Wage stagnation for the lower half of American workers is the result of two processes. One is stagnant or slowly-rising wages in low- and middle-paying jobs. The other is a shift in the economy’s job structure, with middle-paying jobs decreasing relative to lower-paying jobs.3 Figure 12 shows this “hollowing out” of middle-paying jobs in the US economy from 1995 to 2007. This corresponds to the mental image many people have of how the US economy has evolved in recent decades, with (middle-paying) manufacturing jobs steadily disappearing and (low-paying) in-person service jobs replacing them.
Has wage stagnation forced more Americans to work multiple jobs?4 Data are available only since 1994. As we see in figure 13, approximately 5% or 17% of employed Americans work more than one job, depending on the data source. One of the sources with over-time data suggests a slight decrease in recent decades, while two others suggest a slight increase.
According to a number of knowledgeable observers, job security has decreased since the 1970s. Paul Osterman sounded the alarm in his 1999 book Securing Prosperity, in which he noted a rising frequency of job loss. In 2006, Louis Uchitelle echoed this conclusion The Disposable American.5 The US public agrees: nearly two-thirds believe the average working American has less job security now than in the 1980s or 1990s.6
Data on job tenure — how long a worker has been with her current employer — suggest a different story. As we see in figure 14, there has been no decline in the median length of tenure.
Another indicator of job security is the share of people who stay with an employer for a long period of time. Figure 15 shows the share of 55-to-59-year-olds and 60-to-64-year olds who have been with their current employer for 25 years or more. This share has decreased from about 23% in the early 1980s to 18% in 2018.
Because measures of job tenure are affected not only by people who get fired or downsized or whose firm goes out of business but also by people who leave a job voluntarily, they are at best only indirect indicators of job security. A more direct measure comes from the Displaced Worker Survey (DWS) conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics since the early 1980s. It asks a representative sample of American adults “During the last 3 calendar years, did you lose a job or leave one because your plant or company closed or moved, your position or shift was abolished, insufficient work, or another similar reason?” Figure 16 shows that, on average, this has happened to about 10% of American workers in recent decades. The share moves up and down with the economy, decreasing in periods when the unemployment rate is low and rising when unemployment goes up. But there is no indication of a sustained increase over time.
What do Americans think about their job security? Since the mid-1970s, the General Social Survey and Gallup have asked people how likely they think it is that they will lose their job in the coming year. As we see in figure 17, the share who believe it is likely has hovered around 10-13%. There is no sustained rise over the period since the late 1970s.
The GSS also asks Americans how easy they think it would be to find another job with similar pay and benefits. As we see in figure 18, here too there is no evidence of a rise in perceived job insecurity.
We can combine these two questions to create an indicator of overall perceived job insecurity: the share of employed persons who believe it is fairly likely or very likely that they will lose their job in the coming year and who believe it won’t be easy to find an equally good job with another employer.7 Figure 19 shows that since the late 1970s this has held for 6% of employed Americans, on average, fewer when the unemployment is low and more when the economy is in recession. As with the two indicators alone, this combined measure of perceived job insecurity suggests no increase over this period.
Figure 20 shows that Americans are less likely than their counterparts in most other rich democracies to think their job isn’t secure. That has been true since at least the late 1980s.
Seasonal jobs, work for temporary (“temp”) agencies, gig economy positions, independent contracting, freelancing, and some other types of work are outside what is considered the “standard” employment relationship. Many come with irregular pay, which is fine for some households but problematic for others. There are other potential drawbacks: nonstandard workers often aren’t eligible for unemployment compensation, they tend to get few if any fringe benefits, they are more vulnerable to wage theft, and they rarely are unionized.
Recent studies estimate that 2.6% of employed Americans are on-call workers, 1.5% are temp agency workers, 3.1% are workers provided by contract firms, and 0.5% are workers who provide services through online intermediaries such as Uber and Task Rabbit. Around 10% have irregular or on-call shifts. As many as 33% engage in freelance work of various kinds.
Have advances in automation, the rise of the gig (platform) economy, and union decline increased the prevalence of irregular jobs? Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer. Social scientists and government agencies are attempting to settle on measures and data collection methods that can give us an accurate sense of changes in nonstandard employment, but at the moment there is little agreement.8
Firms increasingly utilize “just-in-time” scheduling. This, according to Heather Boushey and Bridget Ansel, “allows managers to adjust—and readjust—employees’ schedules during the week, day, or even in the middle of a worker’s shift. The software can break down schedules in 15-minute increments, meticulously paying attention to even the smallest fluctuations in store traffic, shaving minutes off an employee’s shift if need be. In practice, this often means that managers do not post schedules until they are certain of the number of hours they have to give out (determined by upper management), and the managers’ bosses seek to contain costs by holding them accountable for ‘staying within hours.’ It also leads managers to cut scheduled hours if they have gone over their allotted budget for labor costs earlier in the week…. Furthermore, some employers require workers to remain on-call, keeping their schedules free on the chance their employers may need them. Combined, these scheduling practices mean that many workers often have little or even no advance notice of their schedules.”9 This flexibility allows firms to minimize labor costs without shortchanging customer service. But it can be hard on workers.
In 2014 and again in 2018, about 40% of employed Americans reported that they find out what days and hours they will be working less than one week in advance.10 Studies of US retail and restaurant firms and employees yield similar estimates.11
It is possible to mandate better scheduling practices by employers. In San Francisco since 2014, large retail employers have been required to notify employees of their schedule 2 weeks in advance. In Germany the requirement is 16 weeks, and in Denmark it is 26 weeks. In a number of European nations, firms must provide a guaranteed minimum number of hours to their workers.12
Voluntary moves to another job within the same firm or to the same job in a different firm tend to increase people’s earnings.13 It’s better if there is lots of opportunity for people to do this.
To what extent can Americans move up within the firm they currently work for? We have limited aggregate data. According to one estimate, there has been little or no change since the mid-1990s.14 Since the late 1980s, the General Social Survey has asked employees whether they think opportunity for advancement in their job is high. Figure 21 shows that about one-third say it isn’t. While that may be a larger share than we’d like, it hasn’t risen; if anything, it may have decreased slightly.
We see in figure 22 that, in general, fewer Americans have felt limited opportunity for advancement in their job compared to their counterparts in other rich democracies.
What about the rate at which employed Americans move to another firm? This has been decreasing since at least the 1980s, although data are somewhat fragmentary. The decline appears to be especially prominent among younger employees. Social scientists aren’t sure what has caused this. Suspects include a slowdown in creation of new firms, the high cost of housing, better matching with an initial employer due to the internet and job search technologies, and the proliferation of occupational licensing requirements.15
SAFETY AT WORK
People who work in agriculture and mining are the most likely to die from workplace accidents and injuries, so with jobs in these sectors being replaced by service jobs, we would expect workplace deaths to decrease. Probably more important in increasing safety at work has been pressure from labor unions, government regulations, and to some degree public opinion.16 As figure 23 shows, we do see a large, steady reduction in deaths from work in the United States.
The rate of decline has slowed a bit since 1980. This could be because of the changed economic environment, but more likely is that it’s simply a result of these deaths approaching zero. In the most recent year for which data are available, there were 5,000 workplace deaths, or 3.5 per 100,000 workers.
There are no reliably comparable long-run data on workplace deaths in other rich democratic countries. But an OECD compilation of separate data series from assorted countries suggests that there was a sharp decline in almost all of them from the 1950s through the 1980s, similar to what we observe in the United States.17
Figure 24 shows that, despite their significant decline, workplace deaths are more common in the US than in nearly all of these other countries.
Data on workplace injuries and illnesses aren’t available very far back in time, but figure 25 shows that they have decreased sharply for Americans over the past two decades.
Figure 26 shows cross-country data on the share of people whose jobs expose them to biological and chemical risks, such as inhaling smoke or vapors, handling chemical products, and handling infectious materials. Approximately 13% of Americans face such exposure, a larger share than in other rich democratic nations.
Since World War II, many large American employers have helped to pay for health insurance and retirement pensions for their workers. Have they increased this to offset the lack of increase in wages for many working-class and middle-class Americans? Or have the heightened pressures and incentives they face led companies to cut back on benefits too?
The evidence suggests the latter. The share of employee compensation that goes to nonwage benefits has been essentially flat since the late 1970s, fewer workers get health insurance from their employer, and employer pensions have shifted from ones with a defined benefit amount to ones with a defined contribution but uncertain benefit.18
A focus on employers as a key source of health insurance and pensions may be counterproductive. In a world in which workers want the ability to switch employers and locations and in which firms put a premium on flexibility, individuals and households will be more economically secure if benefits come from government. Think of a stereotypical member of the modern “precariat,” working irregular shifts at a coffee shop and driving for an on-demand ride service. In the contemporary United States, such a life can be challenging — low income, unpredictable, at the mercy of finicky managers and customers. Now imagine it in a country where every person has government-provided health insurance, access to good-quality child care and preschool, paid parental leave, paid sick leave, free or low-cost college, a decent pension, and other services and benefits. In this latter context, while irregular or low-paid employment may still be suboptimal, it will be noticeably less stressful and problematic. And with benefits provided by government rather than by employers, people will have greater ability to change their firm, job, or career in search of better pay, work conditions, or work-family-leisure balance.19
Since 1972, the General Social Survey has asked employed Americans how satisfied they are with their job. Figure 27 shows that the share responding “not too satisfied” or “not at all satisfied” has averaged around 13% over this period, with a slight decrease over time.
Job dissatisfaction is more common in the US than in many other rich democracies, as we see in figure 28.
Since the 1970s, economic developments, shifts in corporate culture, and labor union weakness have encouraged and allowed American firms to worsen the quality of work life. This has led to declines in some, but not all, aspects of job quality in the US.
- For workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution, pay has barely budged since the late 1970s, despite significant economic growth. Low-paying (and high-paying) jobs have grown much more rapidly than middle-paying jobs, and wage levels in many low- and middle-paying positions have been stagnant.
- Some employers have cut back on provision of fringe benefits such as pensions and health insurance.
- Despite the stagnation in pay, there is little indication of a significant increase in the share of Americans who have multiple jobs.
- About 5-15% of employees report poor work conditions such as low autonomy, inability to use skills, insufficient help and support, and work that is uninteresting. None of these, however, have increased in recent decades. On the other hand, one-third to two-thirds report that their job requires them to work too fast, that they come home from work exhausted, and that they have too much to do in their job, and these shares have been rising.
- Contrary to a view widely held among analysts and the public, job loss doesn’t seem to have become more common.
- Nonstandard employment — seasonal jobs, temp agency jobs, gig economy positions, independent contracting, freelancing — seems to have increased, but we don’t have data that verifies this.
- About 40% of employed Americans report that they find out what days and hours they will be working less than one week in advance, though we don’t know whether this represents a change from how things used to be.
- The opportunity for employees to move up within their firm doesn’t seem to have changed in recent decades, but fewer have been moving to a better job in a different company.
- Workplace safety has been improving for at least a century, and it continues to do so.
- Job satisfaction has been constant since the 1970s.
Comparison with other rich democratic countries suggests that America could be doing better. Fewer jobs in other nations have poor work conditions. Pay for workers in the lower half of the wage distribution has risen more rapidly. Health insurance, pensions, and other benefits often are provided by government, so they don’t hinge on a person’s particular employer and they aren’t at risk if a person switches firms. Workers must be notified of their schedules farther in advance. And workplaces are safer.
- On how to define and measure “job quality,” see, among others, Christopher Jencks, Lauri Perman, and Lee Rainwater, “What Is a Good Job? A New Measure of Labor-Market Success,” American Sociological Review, 1988; Francis Green, Demanding Work: The Paradox of Job Quality in the Affluent Economy, Princeton University Press, 2005; Eurofound, Trends in Job Quality in Europe, Publications Office of the European Union, 2012; OECD, OECD Guidelines on Measuring the Quality of the Working Environment, OECD, 2017. ↩
- Paul Osterman, Securing Prosperity, Princeton University Press, 1999; William J. Baumol, Alan S. Blinder, and Edward N. Wolff, Downsizing in America, Russell Sage Foundation, 2003; Neil Fligstein and Taek-Jin Shin, “The Shareholder-Value Society,” Indicators, 2003; Green, Demanding Work,; Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American, Knopf, 2006; Robert Reich, Supercapitalism, Knopf, 2007; Henry S. Farber, “Job Loss and the Decline in Job Security in the United States,” in Labor in the New Economy, edited by Katharine G. Abraham, James R. Spletzer, and Michael Harper, University of Chicago Press, 2010; Jess Bailey, Joe Coward, and Matthew Whittaker, “Painful Separation: An International Study of the Weakening Relationship between Economic Growth and the Pay of Ordinary Workers,” Commission on Living Standards, Resolution Foundation, 2011; Arne Kalleberg, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011; Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America, 12th edition, Economic Policy Institute, 2012; David Weil, The Fissured Workplace, Harvard University Press, 2014; Heather Boushey and Bridget Ansel, “Working by the Hour: The Economic Consequences of Unpredictable Scheduling Practices,” Washington Center on Equitable Growth, 2016; Francoise Carre and Chris Tilly, Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies, Russell Sage Foundation, 2017; David R. Howell and Arne L. Kalleberg, “Declining Job Quality in the United States: Explanations and Evidence,” RSF, 2019. ↩
- Erik Olin Wright and Rachel Dwyer, “The Patterns of Job Expansions in the United States: A Comparison of the 1960s and 1990s,” Socio-Economic Review, 2003; Rachel E. Dwyer and Erik Olin Wright, “Job Growth and Job Polarization in the United States and Europe, 1995-2007,” in Transformation of the Employment Structure in the EU and USA, 1995–2007, edited by Enrique Fernández-Macías, John Hurley, and Donald Storrie, Springer, 2012; David H. Autor and David Dorn, “The Growth of Low-Skill Service Jobs and the Polarization of the US Labor Market,” American Economic Review, 2013; OECD, OECD Employment Outlook 2017, ch. 3. ↩
- Binyamin Appelbaum and Damon Winter, “One Job Is Better Than Two,” New York Times, 2019. ↩
- See also Farber, “Job Loss and the Decline in Job Security in the United States.” ↩
- Anna Brown, “Key Findings about the American Workforce and the Changing Job Market,” Pew Research Center, 2016. ↩
- Arne L. Kalleberg and Peter V. Marsden, “Labor Force Insecurity and U.S. Work Attitudes, 1970s-2006,” in Social Trends in American Life, edited by Peter V. Marsden, Princeton University Press, 2012. ↩
- General Social Survey (GSS), sda.berkeley.edu, series wrksched; Elaine Pofeldt, “Is the Job of the Future a Freelance One?,” CNBC, 2014; Weil, The Fissured Workplace; Lonnie Golden, “Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences,” Briefing Paper 394, Economic Policy Institute, 2015; Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, “The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015,” 2016; Sara Horowitz, “Help for the Way We Work Now,” New York Times, 2015; Lawrence Mishel, “Contingent Worker Survey Is Further Evidence That We Are Not Becoming a Nation of Freelancers,” Economic Policy Institute, 2018; Mishel, “Self-Employment Headcount Has Risen but Economic Impact Remains Small,” Economic Policy Institute, 2018; Brett Collins, Andrew Garin, Emilie Jackson, Dmitri Koustas, and Mark Payne, “Is Gig Work Replacing Traditional Employment? Evidence from Two Decades of Tax Returns,” 2019. ↩
- Boushey and Ansel, “Working by the Hour”. ↩
- General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series knowschd. The question asks: “How far in advance do you usually know what days and hours you will need to work?” As of 2018, 43% said one week or less in advance, 13% said one to two weeks, 6% said three to four weeks, and 38% said four weeks or more. ↩
- Boushey and Ansel, “Working by the Hour”; Carre and Tilly, Where Bad Jobs Are Better,, ch. 5; Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett, “Consequences of Routine Work Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Wellbeing,” Washington Center on Equitable Growth, 2018, table 2. ↩
- Carre and Tilly, Where Bad Jobs Are Better, ch. 5. ↩
- Mark Gius, “The Impact of Job Mobility on Earnings: Using Occupational and Industrial Classifications to Identify Job Changes,” International Review of Applied Economics, 2013; R. Jason Faberman and Alejandro Justiniano, “Job Switching and Wage Growth,” Chicago Fed Letter, Chicago Federal Reserve, 2015. ↩
- Eliza C. Forsythe, “Careers within Firms: Occupational Mobility Over the Life Cycle,” Working Paper 18-286, Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2018. ↩
- Steven J. Davis and John Haltiwanger, “Labor Market Fluidity and Economic Performance, Working Paper 20479, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014; Stephan Danninger, “What’s Up with U.S. Wage Growth and Job Mobility?,” IMF Working Paper, 2016; Canyon Bosler and Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau, “Job-to-Job Transitions in an Evolving Labor Market,” FRBSF Economic Letter, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2016; Raven Molloy, Riccardo Trezzi, Christopher L. Smith, and Abigail Wozniak, “Understanding Declining Fluidity in the U.S. Labor Market,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2016. ↩
- Mark Aldrich, Safety First: Technology, Labor and Business in the Building of Work Safety, 1870-1939, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997; Michael Zoorob, “Does ‘Right to Work’ Imperil the Right to Health? The Effect of Labour Unions on Workplace Fatalities,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2018. ↩
- OECD, “Occupational Accidents in OECD Countries,” Employment Outlook, 1989, chart 4.1. ↩
- Bailey et al, “Painful Separation,” figure A3, using OECD data; Mishel et al, The State of Working America, pp. 180-183, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employer Costs for Employee Compensation (ECEC) survey; Lane Kenworthy “Stable Income and Expenses,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Inclusion: The Elderly,” The Good Society. ↩
- Anton Hemerijck, ed., The Uses of Social Investment, Oxford University Press, 2017; OECD, OECD Employment Outlook 2019, ch. 7. ↩