The Upsurge in Uncertain Work

As Labor Day looms, more Americans than ever
don’t know how much they’ll be earning next week or even tomorrow.

This varied group includes independent
contractors, temporary workers, the self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and
free agents. Most file 1099s rather than W2s, for tax purposes.

On demand and on call – in the “share” economy, the “gig” economy, or, more prosaically, the “irregular” economy – the result is the same: no predictable earnings or hours. 

It’s the
biggest change in the American workforce in over a century, and it’s happening
at lightening speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.

Increasingly, businesses need only a relatively small pool of
“talent” anchored in the enterprise –  innovators and strategists responsible
for the firm’s unique competitive strength.

Everyone else is becoming fungible, sought only
for their reliability and low cost.

Complex algorithms can now determine who’s
needed to do what and when, and then measure the quality of what’s produced. Reliability can be measured in experience
ratings. Software can seamlessly handle all transactions
– contracts, billing, payments, taxes.

All this allows businesses to be highly nimble – immediately responsive to changes in consumer preferences, overall demand, and technologies.

While shifting all the risks of such changes to workers. 

Whether we’re software programmers,
journalists, Uber drivers, stenographers, child care workers, TaskRabbits, beauticians, plumbers, Airbnb’rs, adjunct professors, or contract nurses –
increasingly, we’re on our own. 

And what we’re paid, here and now, depends on
what we’re worth here and now – in a spot-auction market that’s rapidly
substituting for the old labor market where people held jobs that paid regular salaries
and wages.

Even giant corporations are devolving
into spot-auction networks. Amazon’s algorithms evaluate and pay
workers for exactly what they contribute.

Apple directly employs fewer than
10 percent of

Originally appeared at: http://robertreich.org/post/127426324745