Monday, May 15, 2017

The frightful adjunct economy

The US is embarking on a potentially disastrous experiment--to create freelance work without a social safety net.  This does not bode well.

Freelancers are not new to the higher education industry--over the years, the system has been increasingly employing part-timers, whom we refer to as "adjuncts."  In large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, it is not uncommon for adjuncts to teach classes at more than one college.  Given the time they spend traveling from home to different campuses, they are also referred to as "road scholars."

Life as an adjunct is tough.  The additional income is great if one already has a full-time job.  This was my story when I started teaching in California.  But, without a full-time job, and relying on adjunct positions means they have to keep the departments and students happy--else, they lose the gig.  And, if budgets tighten up, they are the first ones to be let go.

When they lose their jobs, the former adjunct professors scramble for health insurance--this is a benefit that is tied to the job.  The lack of a national health plan was addressed only a few years ago with Obamacare, which might be gone really soon.  Retirement and disability benefits are also benefits that full-timers have.

This adjunct thing has not worked out well in higher education.  And now we are taking this disastrous approach to the rest of the economy, via Uber, and AirBnB, and ...
The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.
Remains uncertain is an understatement.
Normally, every efficiency has a winner and a loser. A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.
We are rushing to decimate full-time work, and replacing that with part-time "gigs" that do not offer benefits and in a society with a frayed and tattered safety net.  All these are profound political transformations, but without the needed political discussions!
A century ago, liberalism was a systems-building philosophy. Its revelation was that society, left alone, tended toward entropy and extremes, not because people were inherently awful but because they thought locally. You wanted a decent life for your family and the families that you knew. You did not—could not—make every personal choice with an eye to the fates of people in some unknown factory. But, even if individuals couldn’t deal with the big picture, early-twentieth-century liberals saw, a larger entity such as government could. This way of thinking brought us the New Deal and “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Its ultimate rejection brought us customized life paths, heroic entrepreneurship, and maybe even Instagram performance. We are now back to the politics of the particular.
For gigging companies, that shift means a constant struggle against a legacy of systemic control, with legal squabbles like the one in New York. Regulation is government’s usual tool for blunting adverse consequences, but most sharing platforms gain their competitive edge by skirting its requirements. Uber and Lyft avoid taxi rules that fix rates and cap the supply on the road. Handy saves on overtime and benefits by categorizing workers as contractors.
 I don't understand how people think that all these will work out without serious discussions on a new social contract that reflects the rapidly changing 21st century conditions.  A new social contract will require the mega-mega-rich to spare a few dimes, but the GOP is only keen on giving them more tax breaks!

If all that doesn't worry one, there is more:
We are, all of us, in inescapable thrall to one of the handful of American technology companies that now dominate much of the global economy. I speak, of course, of my old friends the Frightful Five: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.
Enjoy, for now, because "It’s too late to escape."


Ramesh said...

I didn't know adjuncts existed in higher education. I can now understand it. The concept of tenure and the reluctance of academicians to be held accountable for results will inevitable lead to something like adjuncts. I can completely understand the logic of tenure, but perhaps its time for it to go.

You make a very important point. The rise of part timers and temporary jobs, is by itself not such a disastrous thing. But the more dangerous trend is the complete absence of benefits to part time workers. The pendulum has completely swung back the other way. As you rightly observe, during the industrial revolution, workers were little better than machines. Then there came a period (that still continues in France) where workers had every benefit and no responsibility. Now its swung back the other way with part timers.

What we need is the old clichéd word, balance. Either extreme is disastrous.

Sriram Khé said...

Apparently that is not an easy thing to achieve in most walks of personal life and in our collective behavior.

It is not the tenure system that is messed up--any system can/will be abused. Tenure is the lesser of the evils--the lack of a reliable social safety net is the greatest evil in the US that then causes so many issues. And, yes, France and Greece represent the other end ... balance, my friend, ain't easy :(

Most read this past month