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Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security

Author(s):Hyman, Louis
Reviewer(s):Jacoby, Sanford M.

Published by EH.Net (May 2022).

Louis Hyman. Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security. New York: Penguin Books, 2018. xii + 388 pp. $17 (paperback), ISBN 978-0735224087.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sanford M. Jacoby, Distinguished Research Professor of History, Management, and Public Policy, University of California, Los Angeles.

 

Louis Hyman’s Temp is a history of what economists term “alternative work arrangements” and others “the gig economy.” Despite the title, workers supplied by temp agencies form only one part of the book. It also considers other types of nonstandard workers: independent contractors, on-call workers, and workers provided by contract firms. The book rests on the assertion that the standard employment model—characterized by direct, dependent employment of substantial duration, with some risk insurance provided by the employer—is giving way to these alternatives. Some of the same terrain has been canvassed in Erin Hatton’s historical study Temp Economy (2011) and David Weil’s The Fissured Workplace (2014).

Temp is gracefully written, straddling general and academic audiences. The sweep is broad, covering the last seventy years. Temp contains original archival material, especially on Manpower, one of the largest and earliest (but not the first) temp agencies.

Chapter 1 discusses the origins during the 1930s of “good jobs”—the standard employment model that was propelled by unions and by New Deal labor policies. The next three chapters examine the rise of new employment models during the postwar decades. First came the growth of temporary clerical positions staffed by women supplied by agencies like Manpower. Lacking pensions, health insurance, and the expectation of continuous employment, temps were cheaper than full-time workers. Chapter 3 is a brief history of McKinsey, the consultancy, which adopted another alternative to standard employment, the up-or-out partnership. Chapter 4 turns to the Bracero guest worker program, which began in the 1940s as a way of regulating low-wage farmworkers brought from Mexico. Hyman views the Braceros as a precursor to widespread reliance on undocumented workers.

Chapters 6 through 9 focus successively on the three decades between 1960 and 1990. Manpower and McKinsey adapted to the multidivisional (M-form) conglomerates and multinational corporations of the 1960s, but then had to shift gears as those organizational forms unraveled during the 1970s and 1980s. It all came together in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, where consultants advised tech companies to adapt to cyclical and product life-cycle instability not only with temps but a panoply of other job types: on-call workers, independent contractors, freelancers, and undocumented workers. It’s unclear how employers choose among these options, which vary in their economic and regulatory logics.

Chapter 11 is the book’s longest, where we meet the downsizing and restructuring of the 1990s, with the focus mostly on tech. It led to the burgeoning of “temp slaves,” “Microserfs,” and “disposable workers”—the Gen-Xers closed out of stable jobs in the corporate core. The narrative passes quickly through other topics, including subcontracting and misclassification, as well as leased workers.

The last two chapters jump to the present. First we meet Uber and Instacart, and also the scheduling algorithms that have turned retail and other jobs into a just-in-time system of on-call work. It gets confusing when robots, blockchains, digital cooperatives, and bitcoin are tossed into the mix. Finally, the book takes a stab at public policies to ameliorate the loss of income and employment security that full-time jobs provide. Here Hyman pieces together a melange of proposals that are in the zeitgeist: infrastructural spending to take up labor market slack created by robotization and offshoring; revision of labor and employment law to accommodate gig work; and a universal basic income that would ameliorate the insecurity of flexible work. Flexibility, says Hyman, is the new reality, and rather than fighting it “we can find a way to provide a new American dream that is, in essence, the oldest one of all—to declare our independence.”

One concern with the book is that it’s overambitious. It moves rapidly through a plethora of topics, so that the analysis becomes superficial in several places. General readers may welcome the fast pace, but academics may find themselves overwhelmed by generalizations. What is variously called a thesis, guiding argument, or central theory is difficult to discern.

Contrary to the book’s thrust, alternative work arrangements are not sweeping the labor market. The share of employment accounted for by temps, contract workers, and on-call workers was stable between 1995 and 2017. The fourth and largest group—independent contractors—saw its employment share rise two-tenths of one percent during that period. In all, alternative work arrangements represent about 10 percent of jobs (not including part-time work). These data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A re-analysis by Katharine Abraham and Susan Houseman finds an increase in alternative arrangements from 1995 to 2005, and a subsequent decline nearly to the 1995 level. They also find that dissatisfaction with alternative work arrangements is high. Most workers do not like most of these jobs.

In Europe, alternative arrangements are more heavily regulated than in the Anglo-Saxon countries, out of a concern that it’s important to protect full-time jobs. Recently, however, the UK and US have stepped up regulation. Courts and regulators have ruled that Uber drivers and other gig workers actually are employees who have been intentionally misclassified to cut costs, as with temp workers during the 1950s. On the other side are economists, like the late Alan Krueger, and employers like Uber, who assert that gig workers can’t be jammed into the Procrustean bed of the standard employment model. Hyman seems to agree with that assertion but could have done a better job defending his position.

Despite these criticisms, the book surely will find its way into these policy debates. I found its breadth impressive, the evidence original and interesting, and the prose engaging.

 

Sanford M. Jacoby (sanfordjacoby.com) is Distinguished Research Professor of History, Management, and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Labor in the Age of Finance: Pensions, Politics, and Corporations from Deindustrialization to Dodd-Frank (Princeton University Press, 2021).

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Subject(s):Business History
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII