The military is tasked with something almost pre-modern in scope and seriousness: destroying the enemy. Not maximization of value for shareholders. Not the opening of new markets. The goal is simply to defend the lives and property of the United States. In other words, the focus is on people instead of profits.
Civilian employers are fundamentally different from the military because their animating goals are different. And their goals often do not prioritize their workers’ well-being. The result, for many, is economic insecurity, which is about more than stagnant wages or wealth distribution. Precarity is an all-inclusive term that describes a lack of predictability, stability, and sense of security in the workplace. It’s a word that can be used to describe the tenuous legal status of migrant laborers, the Weltschmerz of Millennials clinging to unpaid internships, or the desperation of the underemployed holding down multiple part-time jobs that offer few benefits or none at all. Precarity is at work in things like forced telecommunication, being paid per minute, and the trend towards turning employment into a quickly revolving door. As Barry Asin, chief analyst at labor-analysis firm Staffing Industry Analysts told Bloomberg Business, “When I hear people talk about temp vs. permanent jobs, I laugh. The idea that any job is permanent has been well proven not to be true.”
At the frontline of precarity is the gig economy. In theory, the gig economy gives workers the freedom to remain untethered to a single employer, pursuing work piecemeal as a series of individual short-term tasks. No need to be limited by a set salary when there’s a potential to work and earn as much as you want. These are the promises of companies like Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit. Of course, played out in the real world, the reality of the gig economy is different. Jobs and workers are traded back and forth in a bid to simultaneously minimize the responsibility of the employer and maximize value for shareholders. Uber drivers have to purchase and maintain cars themselves. AirBnB hosts purchase and maintain their own property. Neither company treats those providing their services as employees. The gig economy has served, as Melissa Gregg writes in The Atlantic, to “liberate workers from a single employer,” a liberation that in actuality serves to liberate employers from “the traditional responsibilities of being an employer,” resulting in greater precarity for workers.
The charge that modern capitalism fails to create meaning isn’t a new one. Since the 19th century, social thinkers like Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim have critiqued consumption as fundamentally nihilistic. The experiences of those who have served, who have had the opportunity to cultivate experiences outside the logic of the market, complement these critiques. Bryan Wood echoes the chorus of dissatisfied vets when he writes in his memoir Unspoken Abandonment, “I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life … I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.” Most civilians I’ve talked to about military service dismiss it as a brutal and alien experience. But in many ways, the gig economy, and the contemporary economy more generally, provide the more brutal environment: People are isolated, uncared for, fungible or disposable, and without the opportunity to cultivate the higher human need to sacrifice for a noble purpose. In this sense, it’s the military—and similar occupations—that provide the more humane option.