Feeling disposable? Don’t worry, it’s just the new workplace trend

Categories: Career, The Juggle, Uncategorized, Working? Living?


Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says that the economy is on the mend, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to most of us. No wonder: A recent report by The Conference Board found that only 45 percent of US employees say they’re satisfied with their jobs, down from 61.1 percent in 1987 (when they first started conducting the survey). The dissatisfaction stretched across all ages and income brackets surveyed, the report says.

Right now, honestly, I’m not thinking about job satisfaction as much as I’m just grateful to still have one. But there are plenty of days when I marvel at how the work I do seems to be essential and insignificant at the same time. And an article in this week’s BusinessWeek points out one reason why: many companies are cutting costs by keeping a permanently temporary workforce.

According to the article, pay rates for production and nonsupervisory workers (which make up 80 percent of the private workforce) is 9 percent lower than it was in 1973. And companies that used the recession as a reason to slash salaries and reduce benefits aren’t likely to start spending again once the economy really improves, David H. Autor, a labor economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out.

They have no reason to. We’ve entered the era of the pay-as-little-as-you-can business model, with stores like Wal-Mart leading the way. Just as consumers prefer to pay only rock-bottom prices for goods (and are willing to replace those inferior products over and over again when they wear out quickly) more and more companies are keeping their overhead low by investing as little as possible in their employees.

It seems obvious to those on our side of the fence: A happy employee is a better employee, so those small investments — coffee during meetings, the occasional pizza, a little scheduling flexibility — can pay off big in terms of loyalty and productivity. But cutting benefits (or replacing permanent jobs with freelance or temporary ones outright) is the easiest way for many companies to get rid of their fixed costs. It’s the same reason we rent certain tools instead of buying them: If you rent the massive steam cleaner, you can use it when you need to but you don’t have maintain it ore store it. If companies treat all of their employees as temporary ones, they can offload responsibility for maintenance (health insurance, vacation days, sick time) and storage (upgrading facilities, ergonomic work stations, supplies).

The long-term cost of all this short-term saving is huge, though, and the employees are paying the price in increased levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. And things aren’t expected to change anytime soon. According to BusinessWeek, “The forecast for the next five to 10 years: more of the same, with paltry pay gains, worsening working conditions, and little job security.”

Working moms, dig out your 2 cents and throw it into the comments section: Why do you think the job satisfaction levels are so low? Do you feel disposable or indispensable at the office?

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10 comments so far...

  • Many people were way overpaid in 1973, thanks to unions and protectionism, at the cost of consumers. So I don’t feel badly that the real wage for relatively unskilled workers is down from then. It’s still a living wage and then some. Why should it be all about the money?

    How can a person be made to feel insignificant? If you feel significant or insignificant, it’s in your own mind. Obviously if your employer had no need for you, you wouldn’t be drawing a paycheck. If you’ve identified something else you’d rather do, by all means go do it - become an entrepreneur or volunteer or whatever - as long as you are willing to accept whatever trade-offs that might involve. If you balk at that suggestion, then obviously your paycheck makes your job seem significant after all.

    Naturally, in times of political and economic uncertainty, employers are skittish about making fixed investments. How can you blame them? If you weren’t sure how much you’d be earning next week, would you go out tomorow and sign a 2-year contract with a full-time nanny at $20/hour (plus benefits)?

    The current administration and the leading party in congress have made it clear through words and actions that they intend to sock it to private industry in every way they can. They keep promising to raise taxes on businesses, impose costlier regulations, and take over things that have never been the business of government (and frankly are probably unconstitutional, but that’s not going to stop them). It is hard enough for a business manager to sell the idea of an expansion or workforce investment in prosperous times. It is foolish to expect that level of risk-taking now. (And our leaders would like us to believe they are against risk-taking to begin with, if you recall.)

    People ought to be thankful that most business managers are working hard to try to keep employees that are already on the payroll, in the face of losses and uncertainty. They are under a ton of stress. I don’t think anyone enjoys laying people off. Many of them have sacrificed significantly to save as many jobs as they can. But you never hear about that in these discussions. Instead, “oh, I feel insignificant.” Maybe you should go tell your boss that and see what he says. He might have lost a lot of sleep over preserving your insignificant job.

    SKL  |  January 18th, 2010 at 2:25 pm

  • Whoa, SKL. This wasn’t an attack, against you or against management in general. It’s about the BusinessWeek article, “The Disposable Worker,” which I liked to in my post and which is about how a permanently temporary workforce is the new norm. I don’t say that companies are evil for doing so, but I do point out some of the obvious effects it has on workers. If you click through and read the piece, you’ll see it talks about how everyone, all the way up to the top, is temporary now.

    I think you missed this line in my second paragraph: “Right now, honestly, I’m not thinking about job satisfaction as much as I’m just grateful to still have one.”

    And I never said I felt insignificant. I said that some days, the work I do seems both essential and insignificant at the same time. (Incidentally, some people feel that way about the day-to-day job of parenting!) I mean, I’m not building bridges or saving lives, I’m writing and editing news and feature stories….

    I don’t blame employers for feeling skittish about about making fixed investments. I do think it’s interesting that studies point out that, once those investments stop being made, they rarely restart them. (I mention this in my post; you can read more about it on page 2 of the BW article online.)

    The questions I posed at the end of the post were “Why do you think job satisfaction levels are so low” and “Do you feel disposable?” What do you think?

    Lylah  |  January 18th, 2010 at 4:47 pm

  • “Companies used the recession as a reason to slash salaries and reduce benefits . . . we’ve entered the era of the pay-as-little-as-you-can business model . . . more and more companies are keeping their overhead low by investing as little as possible in their employees . . . cutting . . . is the easiest way . . . they can offload responsibility . . . .”

    Never a word of appreciation for the efforts many, if not most, employers expend to keep paychecks coming to as many people as feasible.

    Never a mention that this is exactly how we act on an individual level when things get difficult and scary.

    I’m sorry, but I still feel that your tone is unfair to employers and managers. Firing and displacing people is not “the new workplace trend.” Frankly, that’s a hurtful statement and it’s right in your headline.

    Where I live, if someone opens up a new factory, line, store, whatever, the whole community shows its appreciation for the new job opportunities. This was true even when unemployment was quite low a few years ago. Maybe it’s just a different mindset. We don’t consider it anyone’s “responsibility” to make (or keep) jobs available to our population. We just appreciate the opportunity. Maybe that’s also a reason why this area tends to be considered a relatively good place for manufacturers to set up shop. Hmm.

    SKL  |  January 18th, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  • I did go check out the link to the displaced worker article. (You did have 6 links, and I didn’t check them all out on my first read.) The tone of the linked article isn’t as anti-business as the tone you took, in my opinion. I think they are saying the same thing I said - that it’s understandable that when business is risky, businesses manage their risks, and fixed costs are more risky than variable costs. So far, so good.

    They also point out that there are other trends that, combined with the bad economy, seem (in their opinion) to reduce the likelihood that some laid off people will be re-hired again when the economy improves. I don’t necessarily agre with that. It assumes certain things will never change - such as the relative efficiency of using offshore labor. The costs and benefits of offshore labor (etc) are not static. They demand higher pay, more benefits, shorter hours, basically a more US-like work experience; and the benefit of offshoring decreases, while still newer alternatives become available.

    20-30 years ago, Americans were convinced that we were doomed because so many labor-intensive manufacturing jobs were shifting overseas. 5 years ago, despite the extensive offshoring of manufacturing, service, and technical jobs, we still had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the history of the world. So this alarmist long-term trend analysis is highly questionable. Maybe a fun exercise, but let’s not lose sleep over the imagined future. Today’s troubles are sufficient for today.

    SKL  |  January 18th, 2010 at 5:11 pm

  • I see what you’re saying, SKL, and I appreciate your point of view. But I do think it’s a trend — one that’s driven by the economy, though, not by any desire to screw over the little guy. I’m sorry if the latter the impression you got from my post.

    Others agree that it’s a trend, and one that’s been years in the making. From the BW article (first page): “You know American workers are in bad shape when a low-paying, no-benefits job is considered a sweet deal. Their situation isn’t likely to improve soon; some economists predict it will be years, not months, before employees regain any semblance of bargaining power. That’s because this recession’s unusual ferocity has accelerated trends—including offshoring, automation, the decline of labor unions’ influence, new management techniques, and regulatory changes—that already had been eroding workers’ economic standing.”

    I think it’s interesting that you’re taking issue with my tone, rather than with the point of the article, which is that more and more companies are keeping costs down by a.) treating permanent employees as if they’re temporary or disposable and b.) outsourcing the workforce outright.

    You cited parts of my post as examples of my “lack of appreciation,” but can anyone really dispute them? Companies *have* used the recession as a reason to slash salaries and reduce benefits — they had to, it’s the economy, but the BW points out that after past recessions companies generally have not reinstated those salaries or benefits. We *have* entered the era of the pay-as-little-as-you-can business model — my post on Wal-Mart, to which I linked to support this statement, makes it clear that consumers are part of this business model and are as much to blame as the companies. More and more companies *are* keeping their overhead low by investing as little as possible in their employees — for economic reasons, and also, I said “more and more”, not “all”. Cutting *is* the easiest way — can you name an easier way to save money? As for companies offloading responsibility… when a company stops kicking in to a health care plan or refuses to offer sick days or discontinues a 401(k), it’s shifting responsibility for the those things — insurance, retirement — to the employee him/herself. One could argue that the employees didn’t deserve those things to begin with. But that would be a different post.

    My company just sent its CEO packing with an additional $500,000 cash bonus, after telling the non-managerial workforce that it needed $10 Million in concessions — a paycut, furloughs, higher health insurance premiums, and layoffs — or else they’d close the company. $500,000 is five percent of the concessions employees made to keep the company afloat. How is this an example of the company sacrificing for its workforce?

    It’s not. That’s where I’m coming from.

    It’s not middle-management’s fault, either — they’re as disposable as the lowest worker right now. I happen to have a fabulous manager at work. Unfortunately, she has very little say about whether the company keeps my job or not, and if they cut my department, she’s at much at risk as I am.

    Lylah  |  January 18th, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  • Using temps and outsourcing are not new trends at all. They are an established, traditional tool for managing business risk, as well as increasing efficiencies in the case of outsourcing. (Usually temps [and virtual temps] aren’t more efficient, just less risky in the short run.) Nor is it a “new” thing to feel like your “permanent” job could end at any minute. The real sense of “permanence” in employment left the American business scene decades ago. I agree that the present economy exacerbates these realities for American workers; that should go without saying.

    I guess we can agree to disagree regarding whether or not the present situation is proof that employers will continue to use temps [and virtual temps] even when the risk level goes back to normal. That’s an opinion; just because two or more writers feel that way doesn’t mean it’s a fact. Same goes for whatever is being said about Wal-Mart (you never hear anything good about them anyway in the media), etc.

    Regarding tone, I am just completely tired of the anti-employer tone on this whole site. It is not helpful in any way. To your original question - why are workers less satisfied - let’s just say the media’s endless assault on business doesn’t help. It fuels an us-against-them mentality that hurts everyone. The Obama administration and Congress overtly encourage this to further their regulatory agenda. Unions, whose gradual demise you seem to consider unfortunate, also thrive on worker dissatisfaction. Hence, employers can never, ever do enough to actually get some positive press.

    Now, why do I care about the trends in worker satisfaction? That’s another question. In my opinion, satisfaction is something “I” feel or don’t feel. It’s not something my employer implants in my skull. Employers have tried all the cute tricks like offering tastier coffee, hiring HR firms to design meaningful performance evaluations, bla, bla, bla. This creates momentary blips in the satisfaction data. But the more we tell people their satisfaction depends on what someone else is doing, instead of empowering them to create it within themselves, the more they will be dissatisfied in the long run. Maybe employers should just let people focus on their work, get rid of all these gimmacks, and see if “satisfaction” improves.

    SKL  |  January 18th, 2010 at 6:37 pm

  • In spite of the Conference Room’s assertion that the trends point away from “Survivor’s Guilt” to explain, at least in part, why American workers are increasingly unhappy, it doesn’t support that - or the American state of mind right now. And I think that has a huge impact on employee satisfaction.

    When an employee feels like they have options, whether it’s to move on to a new department, position, company or even to strike out on their own at some point, they’re happier. It’s simply a given. Right now, regardless of whether or not we feel indispensable, we seem to feel powerless and immobilized, both at work and at home.

    We’re still at war. Fuel prices and thus, the cost of both necessary and unnecessary (read: “feel good” items) have skyrocketed. Wages and benefits have not matched the cost of living increases in most areas. Millions of Americans lost their homes - and more are still losing them. Joblessness overall is at an all time high. We are also a politically polarized nation, with sides being firmly entrenched and in many places, just being affiliated with one party or the other is enough to make your fellow Americans despise you (nevermind that you might be otherwise intelligent and an overall good person).

    This kind of environment is not going to make businesses feel good about investing in the long term or employees feel like they have it in them to take charge and move forward.

    From a personal standpoint, I know I’m indispensable. But I also know that I’m stuck here. People aren’t hiring and they aren’t investing. While I am probably going to see better pay and benefits in the next year, it doesn’t mean that I’m happy to be slogging each day just to make sure that there’s a roof over my head and food on the table.

    But I also know that the overall environment I live in, with the exception of my family life, is a negative one right now. No one’s happy. Everyone seems to feel like they’re simply surviving. No matter what spin you want to put on it, as a collective whole - we’re feeding off of each other and making it worse.

    Phe  |  January 19th, 2010 at 11:32 am

  • It can be hard as a worker not have an anti-management view when the guy at the top slashes 100,000 jobs and takes home a $10 million bonus for it. In 1990, CEOs made about 100 times the average worker salary; by 2001 it was up to 525 times, and they are complaining now that it is coming back to the level of the 1990s. It is really hard to comprehend that his MBA is worth 500 times my M.S.
    And I’ll give a pass to owner/founders of companies, if you start with all the risk you get to reap serious reward. But to come in, shuffle things for 3 years and walk off with $100 million, THAT is ridiculous.

    Mich  |  January 20th, 2010 at 8:00 pm

  • I actually don’t feel disposable at all. Even in this tough economy. I work for a fantastic company and although we did go through a layoff last year, we paid out generous severance packages to those who were let go. I love my job and the company I work for. I feel very, very blessed to be able to say that - especially since it’s so not the norm these days. Our CEO/owner of the company actually paid a bonus at Christmas which was equivalent to what an annual raise would have been - out of her own pocket!!

    Again, I realize this is so not the norm these days and because of that I am not only grateful to have a job, but have MY job.

    Stacey  |  January 21st, 2010 at 6:06 pm

  • Stacey, thanks for chiming in! It’s good to read the positive side!

    Lylah  |  January 21st, 2010 at 6:12 pm