The Politics of Underemployment

In 2014, I seconded the nomination of Mark Fisher for the office of governor at the Massachusetts Republican State Convention. My support for him stemmed, in part, in my faith in his ability to address the problem of underemployment. (This applies to part-time workers that actively seek permanent, full-time employment and the highly skilled that work a low-wage job.) Then, I saw this as a massive problem. Now, I see it as a veritable crisis that stretches from Boston to every corner of the state.

Notwithstanding the persistence of this disturbing phenomenon, underemployment receives no attention and elicits little concern. Indeed, not too long ago, I attempted to talk about this issue with a Boston city councilor. Before I could do so, however, I had to explain to her what the term meant. Unfortunately, we then only had a brief conversation on the subject, with no follow-up.

Why should this politician and others want to talk about this? The answer is simple: It affects a significant amount of people in this city and throughout the state. In September of 2016, the Boston Globe’s Deirdre Fernandes wrote an article on the topic. It featured input from Alan Clayton-Matthews, who is an economics professor at Northeastern University. He estimated that at the time, underemployment in Massachusetts was at 8.5%.

There has been no marked improvement since then. Further, as this has been an ongoing issue, not many can claim that they have never met someone that is underemployed. Nonetheless, for many, this squandering of human capital, again, does not warrant concern. In truth, many now unabashedly and callously argue that working multiple jobs simply to make ends meet is the new normal. As for the highly educated workers that earn a salary that is not commensurate with their training, many will explain that problem away with a laugh and a shrug: How many of us are lucky enough to find the perfect job?

These blasé attitudes toward the malaise that has become a fixture in our economic landscape are unacceptable though. Underemployment is not an unfortunate development. It is a factor in the rise in poverty. It is, therefore, necessary to try to articulate what it is and address at least some of the causes: the gig economy and nepotism.

According to a 2016 study from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution that was released in October, the growth of jobs in the gig economy has been outpacing that in the traditional workplace. While this newer type of employment offers flexible hours and opportunities to explore different professions, its drawbacks are considerable. Seldom are there benefits. Moreover, workers experience great instability, which can, in a short time, create substantial financial difficulties, and they find themselves exploited more and more. For these reasons, the gig economy cannot account for a hefty percentage of the new jobs. More robust efforts must be made to stimulate job growth in the 9–5 workplace.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, nepotism is also a factor in underemployment. Although many frequently extol the virtues of education, a rising number of workers are discovering that what they know is not nearly as important as whom they know. People with little or no experience for well-paying positions in the public and private sectors, nevertheless, land them on account of their connections whereas those with the requisite qualifications might not even get an interview. Consequently, the people that fall into the latter group must often take one or several positions for which they are overqualified and underpaid in order to do little more than survive.

Hence, elected officials, in addition to others, must promise to tackle underemployment on both the local and state levels. Merely making mention of it is insufficient. They must be able to discuss it knowledgeably. They also have to be able to take an honest look at the causes, notably the aforementioned ones. Finally, they must be ready to acknowledge that underemployment has changed the poverty narrative. Certainly, politicians no longer have the luxury of clinging to the absurdly and offensively romanticized idea of those that are impoverished. Those living in poverty come in all colors and increasingly from all zip codes. Additionally, in a number of circumstances, they boast a level of education that equals or even surpasses many of the politicians themselves. So, as Bostonians prepare to vote in elections this year and Massachusetts residents look forward to weighing their options in statewide elections the next, they must look for the political candidates that affirm their commitment to the most precious resource this city and state have: the people.