Contracting Dystopia

The Freelance Economy and You


In “Jennifer Government,” an early 2000s dystopian novel by Max Barry, corporate dominion is the world order. Massive business conglomerates own all three estates of government. CEOs reign over every facet of society, from schools (textbooks are mostly marketing propaganda) to ambulances (which require payment before being dispatched). Private power over individuals is so great that people are not citizens first, but workers, taking on the name of corporation they are employed by as their surname (Julia McDonalds, John Nike).

It’s not much of a leap to see the parallels between Max Barry’s society and our own, though we’re still at least a step behind the corporate last name trend. However, the rise of privatization in all spheres of American life, or the dangers of transient, globalized corporations, is not a new discussion.

However, perhaps more disturbing is that parts of the corporate fascism in Max Barry’s world are downright enviable compared to our current financial system: as enslaved as they are, characters Buy Mitsui and Violet ExxonMobil are provided for by their employer: access to education, an office space, and the stability of working 40 hours a week. You would think that an office space is nothing to get excited about- and Max Barry is certainly describing a dystopian world.

However, our own real life economy has workers of all income brackets increasingly hired only for short term projects, employed just few enough hours to avoid qualifying for disappearing benefits, or hired by grace of them already having the proper tools for the task at hand (see: any job description that requires a car, phone, or computer provided by the employee.) In this freelancing world, a corporation with enough commitment to its employees to provide them with a company last name starts to sound-well, slightly less dystopian than the status quo.

Union power — worker power- has been eroding steadily since the dawn of Reaganomics, but the past few years have shown real deterioration, spearheaded by state executives and Republican darlings like Scott Walker of Wisconsin. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the total number of union members fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million, the lowest membership level since 1916. As employees’ have lost what was once a robust defender of their rights and a near guarantee of middle class living, forces of technology and globalization have left workers with fewer bargaining chips than ever.

In this climate, some companies opt to hire part time, temporary, and freelancing workers, and their cost cutting moves are challenging the nature of modern work. Madeleine Schwartz touts Guy Standing’s notion of “precarious work” as a defining characteristic of our new economy: low paid, unskilled labor without benefits initiated and terminated at the will of the employer. Some 28% of workers are expected to hold hourly low-wage jobs in 2020, and there are 40% more people working temporary or part time jobs than there were in 2009. Precarious labor, it seems, is the way of the future.

As might be expected, low income workers are the most displaced, and most marginalized, in the temporal workforce, and their numbers are only growing. This instability means that low income workers have fewer ties to their employers than ever. Even as our economy recovers from recession (assuming of course, you are part of the households in the upper 7% of wealth), employment austerity remains: nearly 40 percent of the jobs gained since recovery began have come from three low-wage sectors characterized by part time and temporary employment. These sectors are the same ones cutting back on health care benefits and eligibility, overtime, leave, and every other worker right that were once taken as a given in the modern labor force. Even if businesses do provide these benefits, they are achievable for only the select few working full time, often part of a managerial or administrative class. Many more of these positions, like domestic work or food service, equally irregular, do not offer minimum wage, or exist in the nebulous domestic sphere, where labor laws are not always applicable, let alone enforceable. This leaves low income workers at the mercy of their employer and more susceptible to poverty. This disregard for workers defies borders: multinational corporations disavow their own responsibility in international labor scandals, which is how big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Dress Barn passed the buck down the sub-contracting paper trail after the Bangladesh factory collapse.

The individualized economy manifests itself even in the previously stable “professional” class. High unemployment keeps those with a college degree disposal: the majority of job growth in white collar work around the country is driven by temp jobs. Freelance labor is also a source of rapid growth: the “hustling class” is characterized by middle and high income workers who tackle specialized projects for multiple different companies.

Nowadays middle class workers are the sum of their skills, gleaned through unpaid internships and student loan funded education. The “skills gap” oft thought to be hamstringing the business world is, as Sarah Kendzior contends, a myth obscuring the demise of on the job training. Its little sister, the “soft skills gap” equally veils the classed, gendered, and racialized qualities of an ideal employee, justifying the exclusion of groups that are already economically vulnerable. The falsity of this myth does not stop it being touted as a catch all excuse for reduced and frozen hiring, or the propensity to hire part-time, temps, or consultants for a lump sum.

In lockstep with modern capitalism, our professional culture shifts culpability to the worker by preaching adaptation: blogs caution the young professional to “never have a single revenue stream,” offering articles on how to use your weekends to pursue hourly marketing contracts, house cleaning gigs, or touts the delights of working in your pajamas on multiple exciting projects. The ephemeral quality of steady employment is even apparent in fantasies: bastions of worker indulgence like Google, with its free transportation, gourmet cafeteria, and Zumba classes, attract significant media attention. What does it say about our economy when our collective imagination fetishizes- not wealth, not fame- but an appealing office space?

As temporal workers from every income bracket and nation are increasingly employed at will, with disappearing compensation, benefits, and stability, advanced capitalism is fast approaching its end game: the “every man for himself” economy.

What we see now is the return of the journeyman: skills and resources acquired through education at their own expense, economic survival contingent upon out-bidding others for low wage, short term projects. The freelancer is slightly more financially stable than their “unskilled” service worker counterpart, but neither archetype is thriving economically. The rise of these new precarious workers is tied up with the return of unaccountable loci of corporate power. The resulting trends make dystopian free market capitalism sound not like a distant fantasy, but a slowly encroaching reality, leaving us to dream of a more benign corporate power that may take your last name, but at least lets you make a living.

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