The Changing Nature of Work

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Kristin Seefeldt, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, expands on our discussion over Neal Gabler’s piece on the shrinking of middle-class wealth:

The financial insecurity experienced by so many Americans is not just rooted in the proliferation of credit cards and other financial products now available but also in the changed nature of the employment contract. Let’s examine Mr. Gabler’s situation.

Twenty-five years ago he might have been a tenured faculty member at a university, and the income he derived from book advances and royalties would have been extra money he was paid over and above his salary or perhaps used to reduce his teaching load. But every year he would have been able to depend upon that salary to support his family and would not have faced lean or uncertain years in between books and other projects. Mr. Gabler mentions that he has had positions as a lecturer at various institutions, equivalent to a temporary position with limited if any access to benefits available to regular employees. The American Association of University Professors estimates that just over three-quarters of all teaching positions at universities are filled by such contingent workers, who may have to piece together jobs at multiple institutions and are guaranteed no job security.

This phenomenon occurs throughout the labor market. Just as a newly minted Ph.D. may find that only lecturer positions are available, the custodian at an elementary school may find her unionized job eliminated and replaced by contracted workers who are paid less and have very few workplace protections.