BY: JESSICA BURDE
What makes a good job offer? In a Tower Watson Global Workforce Study, 32,000 employees were surveyed about what they look for in a job offer. The results of the survey were released in July: Job security comes second only to pay rate. This isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with the current job market, but it is a sign the U.S. workforce is dangerously behind the curve on how the new economy works. Here is the hard truth: From now on, job security will never be more than temporary.
More than 60 percent of the U.S. workforce is employed “at-will.” At-will employment means your job can be terminated at any time, for any reason that is not unlawful or discriminatory. It means your hours, pay, and benefits are entirely at the discretion of your employer. The sad truth is when private-sector unions lost their grip on U.S. industries, the vast majority of employees lost their bargaining power.
For a long time, at-will employment worked to the benefit of the company and the employee. Employees were free to leave a job any time they wanted, and companies didn’t need to jump through hoops to fire an employee who caused them problems.
Everything changed in the Great Recession
A New Way to Show a Profit
Barring intervention by the government, job security traditionally moves with the stability of the economy. So the way the Great Recession destroyed job security across the country isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising is the way many corporations responded to the recession.
The “traditional” corporate responses to a recession are to fire workers when the economy is down, and rehire them when the economy improves. In the early recession of the 1980s, 20 percent of layoffs were considered temporary. Twenty-first century corporations found a new and better way to bounce back from hard times: Instead of increasing profits, cut costs. Payroll is the largest ongoing expense for most large corporations. Cost cuts resulted in corporations shedding jobs like water. During most recessions, payroll costs decline at the same rate as the GDP. During the last downturn, payrolls dropped by 1.8 percent more than the GDP.
In 2006, and again in 2009, corporations saw their cost-cutting policies pay off. Profits rebounded quicker than a celebrity romance. The job market, on the other hand, has barely rebounded at all. Cost cutting meant millions of jobs moved off shore, cut from full- to part-time or replaced with temp staffing. In 2010, an article in Bloomburg Businessweek predicted, “When employment in the U.S. eventually recovers, it’s likely to be because American workers swallow hard and accept lower pay.” They weren’t wrong, but it hasn’t been just lower pay U.S. workers have swallowed.
The New Age of “Flexibility”
“Flexibility” has become the new workplace buzzword. Some of that flexibility has been good for workers, such as increased options for telecommuting, but, for workers without the leverage to negotiate their employment, flexibility is a curse. Jobs that once offered set schedules and set hours weekly are now scheduled by computer algorithm on a weekly, or even daily, basis. This change has hit hard in retail, where workers are expected to be available 24/7. Shifts often change on less than a day’s notice. If you can’t be available, or drop what you are doing when they call—well, it’s at-will employment, and given the economy, they can be certain someone else will want the job.
In a 2011 survey by Retail Action Project, 71 percent of retail workers said the number of hours they worked varied from one week to the next. Perhaps even worse, half of those workers said their bosses would change their scheduled hours whether or not they agreed to the change. The number of “involuntary” part-time workers has doubled since 2007.
The New Temp Economy
Unfortunately, we can’t turn back the clock. Employers save money using temp, part-time and contract work in place of full-time employees. After all, part-time and temp employees don’t receive employee benefits, contract workers don’t cost taxes, and all three types of workers are only paid as long as the employer needs them.
According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker today stays at their job for only 4.4 years.
Over the long term, this shift will turn the tables on corporations. Once upon a time, companies could count on employee loyalty and the drive for senior status to keep workers around. As the economy improves and companies seek to grow, they will find their best workers jumping ship to take advantage of new opportunities.
What has been destroyed is the sense of loyalty. When a better offer comes along, everyone will jump. We no longer have any reason not to.
The days of steady, career-long, full-time jobs are over. While some exceptions remain, jobs of the future will be no more than temporary stops for workers who would prefer to pursue their own long-term agendas, just as employers would prefer to pursue theirs.
Looking to the Future
A moment of silence for the days of the 9-5, hired-to-retired economy.
Now it’s time to move forward.
Forget the antique delusion of job security.
Adaptability is the new security.