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Why Nostalgia For The Old Lifetime Job Economy Is Misguided And Dangerous


For the last few weeks, I’ve woken up to the drums and chanting of striking unionists outside of many hotels in San Francisco. Marriott-owned hotel workers in eight cities across the United States walked out of their jobs weeks ago to protest low wages and a lack of protection against harassment from customers. Their picket-line slogan is “one job should be enough.”

It is certainly possible that Marriott should improve the wages and working conditions of its employees, but the slogan made me wonder if lifetime employment at one company is still possible for society broadly in the modern economy. Should we even continue to hold onto this way of thinking? It rests on the idea in our culture that every job should fulfill a monolithic mid-20th century ideal.

In post-World War II America, many workers enjoyed lifetime employment that enabled a middle class lifestyle through providing health care, a generous pension, and a steadily rising wage. In fact, the nostalgia for this arrangement is so strong that it may explain an element of our political fracturing.

Yet we decry as oppressive a one-size-fits-all approach to almost everything else in life. We would all agree, for instance, that one car model does not suit every consumer’s preference, that one system of education does not meet the needs of every learner, and that one beauty standard does not encompass all our tastes in attractiveness. Why insist we apply such a standard for our employment?

One reason not to is that novel employment models offer new opportunities that are good for people with limited options. Yet we constantly attempt to force new models to fit our preconceived expectations what of a “job” should be. This often leads to political action that destroys the benefits that these create in the first place.

Take the gig economy, for example. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit all allow people to use existing assets — a car, empty room, or skill — to earn income. This has produced significant new benefits to workers. First is flexibility. A single parent busy raising children or a student in school can create a work schedule that fits around other core commitments in their lives. Very few other jobs work this way. Second, it offers a source of supplemental income to help absorb shocks in life, such as being laid off or having to take care of a sick relative.

These are amazing benefits for many people the old economy could not help. But the initial excitement for these companies has bent toward viewing them as exploiters. They provide little to no retirement benefits and it’s very hard to earn enough money working full-time to live well, let alone raise a family. There have followed increasing calls for legislation. Hillary Clinton in 2016 said as president she would force gig companies to reclassify contractors as full-time employees and provide them more benefits.

The tradeoff for this would be to destroy the opportunity to obtain a middle-class lifestyle that our public policy purports to support. Without the gig economy, millions of people would simply have to stop working entirely or resort to less-optimal solutions, like finding less flexible work, dropping out of school, or depending on government benefits.

Also under attack are low-skilled jobs in retail and fast food, such as Walmart or McDonald’s. The “Fight for $15” movement is a reaction to the idea that companies like these are underpaying and exploiting their workers. Enacting this policy in many places would force companies to replace employees with robots and increase prices on their products. Some McDonald’s locations in San Francisco, which already has a $15 minimum wage, already use touchscreen computers instead of human workers to take orders.

What is lost when there are fewer low-wage job opportunities in industries like fast food and retail? For one, young people won’t have chances to gain critical work experience and skills that will enable social mobility later in life. It would cause the existing skills gap to widen and dampen prospects for higher paying employment in the long-term.

Companies overwhelmingly look for previous work experience in making hiring decisions. Not having this upon entering the labor market can depress young people’s earning potential for decades. Already, 43 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. Would relinquishing more opportunities for them to gain experience provide a path to the middle class?

The idea that “one job should be enough” for a comfortable middle-class life certainly sounds fair. But it came about in the 1950s and ’60s, when the United States was the world’s sole economic superpower and most households lived on one income alone. During that time, the cost of education and health care was much lower than today.

Trying to force every new innovation in employment into this cultural framework will inevitably create barriers for those who are most vulnerable in society, and raise prices for them in other areas of the economy. It’s not just the rich who will have to pay more for food, transportation, lodging, and skilled help.

Instead we should view innovations in employment as producing new opportunities that are appropriate for certain people at different stages in life. Young people should be able to find jobs that teach them skills they don’t learn in school, like showing up on time, communicating professionally, and dealing with customers and colleagues. People facing hardship should have jobs that give them flexibility and much needed supplemental income.

Instead of reducing opportunity for people with fewer advantages in life, we should look to solutions that take advantage of our economy and society’s strengths. Our education system could be transformed to inculcate skills that Americans are really good at, like creativity, entrepreneurship, and technical savvy. (These also happen to be highly sought after by companies.) Empowered workers, whether through skills or voluntary union membership, can create a more prosperous society.

This is not to say government can’t play a role. Policies that lower housing and health-care costs would also go a long way. We all want to enable people to find work that meets their needs and paves pathways to the middle class, but this is never brought about by one-size-fits-all solutions.