Free-Fall Employment

The definition of a full-time job is changing radically in Canada.

Mary is a Toronto writer. Thirty-three years old, she is the author of several excellent magazine features and is currently working on a novel. She lives for the written word and is hilarious on the subject of money. A veteran of unpaid or low-paid media internships that eventually turned into short-term contracts before evaporating, she now teaches sessional courses at colleges around her city. She carries significant student debt from two degrees, is unmarried and has no house or children. Whether by luck, design or a mixture of both, she has been unable to find a permanent job.

Supposedly at the other end of the employment spectrum is Sarah, a lawyer. Also in her mid thirties, Sarah graduated from a top Canadian law school, capping an academic career in which she attended another top school, made the dean’s list, represented her peers as a student advocate, learned Spanish via work on development projects across Central America and consistently earned straight A’s. She interned at a legal aid clinic, articled, then took contract positions at a government agency. She has since worked nights, weekends and round the clock, managing upwards of 30 lawyers across Ontario, mediating disputes and defending the rights of some of the weakest members of our society. She loves her work, emotionally draining though it is. But after four years, she, like Mary, is also still on contract.

Mary’s and Sarah’s stories will come as no surprise to members of what some call the creative class and others unfairly call the slacker generation. For those aged 40 and under, breaking into a profession today usually requires shouldering significant debt in education or skills development, then undergoing a grim cycle of unpaid or low-paid internships, leading to a cycle of underpaid or insecure contract positions. Employers expect constant outperformance in return for few benefits, minimal pay—and virtually no long-term commitment.

Neither of these two people sees herself as a hapless victim of circumstances. Both have deliberately eschewed careers on Bay Street or in corporate communications in favour of work they regard as engaged and meaningful. Yet both live with a constant sense of low-level anxiety regarding their next paycheque, and neither is likely to be moving into a more permanent position anytime soon. (In both cases, the more permanent positions in their respective fields are held by baby boomers whose retirement plans disappeared in the 2008 market meltdown.)

Why should you care about the fortunes of this generation? Because these two women’s experiences increasingly represent contemporary economic reality. And as labour and policy analysts Wayne Lewchuk, Marlea Clarke and Alice de Wolff argue in Working Without Commitments: The Health Effects of Precarious Employment, that carries serious, long-term implications, both for our physical health today and for our longer-term social and economic future. Regrettably, the authors do not really deliver on the promise of the book’s subtitle. They do not go into detail regarding the specific health issues that can be linked to precarious employment, nor do they go into great detail into the potential impact it is likely to have on Canada’s healthcare system. Instead, they build a picture of the broader social and economic impact of this new, more noncommittal way of working on households, places of employment, families and communities.

What emerges is a cautionary tale. In cultivating a society of less committed workers, this research shows, we also risk cultivating a society of disengaged cowboys—isolated individuals who move from contract to contract, who expect and receive minimal support from family, state or employer and, given their need to focus on finding and keeping work to the exclusion of so much else, often give little support back to their families and communities in return.

The benchmark for the authors’ findings appears to be the standard employment relationship that characterized working life for (mostly white male) workers after the Second World War—a long-term relationship with a single employer. Said employer provided decent wages, benefits and career opportunities over decades, in return for employee loyalty and trust. That world is disappearing. In its place: short-term employment contract work that is insecure, constantly being renegotiated and, in certain circumstances—notably those faced by lower-class workers in the service sector—actually hazardous to the health and well-being of Canadians, their households and their communities. Ultimately, the authors argue, there is a limit to how much employment uncertainty and risk can be downloaded to individuals. At some point, workers become overstressed and the working relationship becomes toxic.

All told, this book provides a needed reality check to the rosy rhetoric from Richard Florida and others about fulfilled “creatives” enjoying employer competition for their talent. In its place, Lewchuck, Clarke and de Wolff ’s exhaustive research and analysis, based on a multi-year study of 3,244 Toronto workers, renders in sharp and useful detail the economic and social difficulties we are likely to face if we continue down this road. The book forces tough questions about the nature of the society we are creating, and puts forth a series of intelligent policy solutions designed to help policy makers structure a more humane, if still flexible, existence within this brave new economic reality.

Intellectually, the authors’ thesis draws from Richard Karasek’s job-strain model, which links analysis of the kinds of working relationships we have to indicators of well-being. The authors then extend this model, probing Canadians’ own views of the relative permanence or impermanence of their work, how much effort is required to find work and their sources of support in times of illness or other crises.

The research is extensive, if Toronto-centric: a pilot survey from a large sample of Torontonians in 2002, followed by focus groups and a second survey over 2005 and 2006. The final phase in early 2007 involved repeat interviews with about half of those interviewed during 2006 to assess any changes in their situation.

It turns out approximately one quarter of those surveyed are currently in less permanent forms of employment relationships. (The authors define less permanent employment as short-term contracts, self-employment and employment through temp agencies.) Job losses from the financial crisis have exacerbated this trend, indicating a rise in numbers of self-employed or non-union workers and in the number of those entering the low-paid, low-benefit service sector. Meanwhile, two thirds remain employed in relationships that are permanent and full time—the so-called standard employment relationship.

It is on these self-described “permanent full time workers” that the authors focus to make their case. They say we need to think about, not so much the numbers of people who say they are working in permanent full-time positions, but rather the insecurity and apparent lack of commitment from either side of the employer-employee relationship. In other words, the definition of permanent employment seems to have changed quite radically.

Consider, for example, that nearly one in ten permanent full-time workers reported being in a job lasting less than six months on average. Five percent of those who described themselves this way said they were on-call workers with no guarantee of hours, and 8 percent said they did not always receive the pay they expected. One third of them lost pay if they were sick. Fewer are being covered by company pension plans (indeed, in Canada the majority of workers with pension plans are now working in the public sector). This suggests that for many workers, the concept of permanence has eroded—any job that is not a temporary, short-term assignment is considered a permanent job.

What the spread of less permanent employment and the transition to the household with dual insecure earners have changed, in the analysis of Lewchuk, Clarke and de Wolff, is the role of households. The result is environments in which both men and women feel increasingly insecure about income and where it is going to come from. This, in turn, drives choices similar to those made by Mary and Sarah: young and mid-career Canadians are putting off decisions such as getting married, buying a house and having children until they are more than halfway into their working lives—having never held a job that could be described as either permanent or truly secure.

The implications of this shift are serious, and it would be nice to know more about the health implications in particular. While this book does not delve into the actual health effects of precarious employment, it does show the social and economic effects. Consider, for example, that in short-term jobs with high levels of what the authors describe as “employment relationship uncertainty”—namely, lack of commitment, whether in the form of contracts, benefits, training or the like—they found an almost total absence of company pensions or sick leave plans. Instead, such workers reported a higher frequency of not being paid on time, or being paid incorrectly, forcing them to spend time fighting for pay they are actually due—a finding corroborated in a recent Toronto Star investigation into unpaid hours by Laurie Monsebraaten.

Such workers also reported expending considerable effort on finding employment, being employed by multiple employers and working at multiple worksites. Throw in the small matter of having to fight for pay while living with a sense of being constantly evaluated, and it is small wonder there are strong correlations, for some, between jobs described as semi permanent or less committed and elevated levels of stress and poor health.

What’s more, the research that Lewchuk, Clarke and de Wolff cite shows the kinds of jobs that might protect workers from having to fend for themselves are drying up. New hires experienced a more dramatic fall in union density, with only 19 percent describing themselves as unionized in 2004, compared to 38 percent in 1981. Such non-unionized workers were more likely to have jobs in health care, retail, construction, commerce and manufacturing; on average were three years younger than the median; and were also three times more likely to be from minority backgrounds or be of colour.

And that, of course, is another serious problem that the authors deal with. We have of late been doing a poor job of integrating those who historically have powered much of Canada’s economic growth (and provided a substantial portion of our population growth)—recently arrived immigrants. Lewchuk, Clarke and de Wolff find that recent immigrants from racialized groups are earning nearly 17 percent less than white Canadians. This bolsters similar findings from research commissioned by Canadians ranging from economist Don Drummond to diversity leader Ratna Omidvar to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which found in one study that fully 78 percent of small business owners reported not hiring an immigrant in the boom years between 2002 and 2006. On this basis, it would appear that Canadians are actually growing an economic underclass of new immigrants, which is an issue we all ignore at our peril.

In sum, and in particular given the recent publication of research that arrives at similar conclusions from the Metcalf Foundation, the overarching evidence put forward in Working Without Commitments linking more precarious work to a more precarious society is compelling. Although the writing is unnecessarily turgid, case studies poorly integrated and benchmarks for comparison of new working life over old not always clear, the reader leaves this book fairly convinced this country is overdue for a more engaged public conversation on the changing nature of work today, and what to do about it.

To that last point, Lewchuk, Clarke and de Wolff provide a few interesting ideas, policy solutions to this issue that have already been tested out in some of the more flexible labour markets in Europe’s social democracies, namely Denmark, Britain and Holland. These range from increased support for child care to a proposal for employers to make regular contributions to a central fund, managed by the state, which could then help pay benefits to those on short-term contracts.

Unfortunately, judging by the lack of discussion of these issues in our most recent federal election, the changing nature of work and its impact on workers are subjects that continue to be ignored in Canada. That, however, is probably about to change.

Canada stands on the cusp of a major demographic shift, most dramatically illustrated by the new crop of youth members of Parliament elected to office in May. This is a group whose taxes will have to support the healthcare costs of the boomers while, at the same time, reinvesting in pension plans, caring for aging baby boomer parents (many of whom have either been shut out of a comfortable retirement by the market meltdown or have not given sufficient thought to their own retirement strategies) and raising their own kids. And increasingly, all this is to be accomplished, in these authors’ analysis, through contract work, while receiving minimal support from their employer or the state.

Pair that mix of prospects with unsustainably high levels of student and household debt, rising housing and energy prices, baby boomer anxiety about the financial security of their own retirement and pensions, and an ongoing jobless recovery, and it would appear that all Canadians are facing increasingly uncertain economic prospects.

All of this makes now a crucial time for Canadians to take a closer look at the longer term implications of our uncommitted workforce, because unlike most of the people who live on this planet, we are lucky enough to have a choice in the matter. We could choose to ignore this data, do nothing to change these trends, and then simply react to the series of coming socioeconomic time bombs as they start to go off. Or we could start thinking anew about building the kind of society we actually want to live in, and work toward creating that society instead.