Precarity not limited to Adjuncts. Or Academia.

There’s a very vocal, and very loud contingent of folks in higher education who talk about nothing other than the precarity of adjuncts, and how unfair it is. As someone whose spouse could find nothing other than an adjunct role for 8 years, I COMPLETELY agree. And I will continue to support that we need more advocates for adjuncts, more positions that pay livable wages, positions that come with REAL benefits including sick leave, healthcare, professional development, and retirement, and alt-ac careers that can save adjuncts from a lifetime of worry about where their next paycheck is coming from, or how they’ll cobble together enough work for housing & food.

And yet. Unpopular take ahead.

Precarity is not limited to adjuncts. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s true. I’ll give you a couple obvious examples and then dive into some data that shows how the landscape of long-term employment is ever-more-precarious.

Jobs that are Equally Precarious

The most obvious ones that come to mind (for me, anyway) are easy to think of, without any brainstorming effort.

Actors. And I know you’re like Puh-leez. Jennifer Anniston has NOTHING to worry about. Even if she never works again she’s set. Correct!

But you’re seeing the outlier.

The VAST majority of actors are out there scrambling to get a single, very short-term gig, and then repeat. Competition is incredibly fierce. So even success looks most often like stringing together short-term gigs. Local commercials. Local radio voiceover spots. An unpaid role in community theater. A limited-term engagement PAID role…but 2000 miles away, and then it ends after 4 weeks.

The VAST majority of athletes are the same. You might be able to name a handful of extraordinarily famous professional athletes, but there are scores MORE professional athletes working largely in pursuit of their craft. Women professional road cyclists. Professional rock climbers. Coaches owning a small business in your local strip mall.

Chefs. Restaurants are notoriously known for not making it. They’re constantly on the lookout for their next gig, should their current employer shut down.

Trust me when I say museum professionals and archivists. Many are project / grant-funded and when the project ends, buh-bye!

Web and graphic designers. Build my website or logo and then thanks, there’s the door!

Okay, and I’m just stopping my stream-of-consciousness in the interest of time.

WHY this is happening

Even if you’re well aware of adjuncting / gig work becoming the norm replacement for faculty, why is this happening? I’ve talked a lot about the reasons that are specific to higher ed (the great recession turning higher ed upside down, the loss of public funding forcing institutions to make awful choices and fill 80% of their teaching needs with adjuncts), so let me talk about bigger picture. Meaning not just in higher ed.

Employers have changed.

They know that their current business needs may not be their long-term business needs. So they staff up for specific endeavors and pull back the reins when those endeavors close out. Here’s a real-world example. My work needed to get ISO certification. So they pulled together a team of Quality experts to make that happen. Guess what? Once the certification is in place…the organization has decided that team can now be dispersed and the ongoing Quality work can be managed by existing staff.

Employers are desperate to keep costs down, including the costs of keeping full-time benefitted staff long-term. Add on to that the challenge that recovery has been uneven depending on where you live, and you have some regions where employers have fully recovered and others are still MUCH more hesitant to staff back up.

The Job Market has changed

Not only did the Great Recession affect higher ed, it affected all sectors. Full-time jobs are increasingly scarce. According to the 2019 edition of What Color Is Your Parachute, “the number of people with part-time jobs who really want full-time work is 4,793,000.” The same book says that “by 2020, the number of part-timers, temp workers, free agents, freelancers or whatever you want to call them – will number 60,000,000, or 40% of the US workforce.”

FORTY PERCENT.

Not even Employers Know Their Long-Term Needs

Employers’ needs for certain kinds of work continues to dissipate. When’s the last time anyone needed a dedicated typist? New technologies keep emerging, and technology companies keep soliciting employers for how their product will automate XYZ, eliminating the (costly) need for highly-trained humans to do that work. For instance, my organization subscribes to a product that scours faculty’s publications and citations to autogenerate a profile of that person’s areas of expertise. The faculty member can claim and manage that profile manually, but most don’t even know they can or bother to do so. But it means that my organization has bought into the idea that we can eliminate the role for someone to research and publicize our faculty’s expertise.

I’m not AT ALL saying that robots are coming for all our jobs. That’s absurd. (Even the World Economic Forum forecasts admit that only certain KINDS of jobs in certain very specific SECTORS (automation and manufacturing will be affected).

Employers also Recession-Proof!

Since not even employers know what the future holds, and all of us – employers included – were affected so strongly during the Great Recession, they continue to be VERY conservative in rebuilding their workforce and committing to long-term, permanent jobs. Even ten years post-recession, employers are continuously tweaking and restructuring to mitigate the losses a future recession could bring. So even though employment in professional and management occupations actually INCREASED during the recession, they did (and continue to do) so more slowly even now. 

Finally, Job Holders are Holding On

Those of us who were of prime working age who had already weathered the Great Recession? Even though things have improved, the nonpartisan think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states that “whether works are happy or unhappy in their current job, they are far less willing to quit to look for another one when job prospects are poor than when they are good. The percentage of workers quitting their jobs fell sharply in the Great Recession and [while it has risen], it remains below” the rate of previous economic expansions!

We’re still gun shy about moving on. We are afraid of taking a new job….in a role that gets axed first in the next recession? In an organization that folds when things get tough? In a sector that gets automated?

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