Most people work because they need to provide shelter and sustenance for themselves and their families. These needs are not temporary or fleeting. For these workers, regular paychecks and health insurance are necessary features of their employment. Having stable and reliable employment is therefore of vital importance.
The formula seems simple. If workers have a job, they should feel more secure than those that don’t. Moreover, certain types of jobs are thought to be more secure than others (e.g., professionals versus retail workers). In reality, however, perceived insecurity is not a one-dimensional phenomenon.
Specifically, there are two major types of perceived insecurity: job insecurity and labor market insecurity.
Job insecurity refers to workers’ assessment of their likelihood of losing their job, whereas perceived labor market insecurity refers to workers’ assessment of their ability to find another job similar to their current position.
In a recent study I found that jobs which are widely viewed by society as secure are associated with lower levels of perceived job insecurity by job holders. However, that same type of work is mostly associated with higher levels of perceived labor market insecurity. How can this be? How can secure work precipitate insecurity?
Life is riskier in today’s society
Part of the answer to this question can be found in the slow but inexorable shift of risk from institutions to individuals in recent decades. This shift is evidenced by trends such as the transition from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans and the movement towards shorter job tenures, despite a healthcare system that is largely dependent on continuous employment.
It is no longer realistic for workers to expect to remain with the same employer for several decades.
Since workers are holding more jobs over the course of their careers than in years past, the primacy of job insecurity for individual workers has diminished. The ability to secure another position is critical to maintaining workers’ economic stability, therefore, labor market insecurity is now at least as important for understanding their experiences.
The Great Recession, a dramatic economic crisis that resulted in massive job loss, highlighted this reality for many workers who found themselves in the position of looking for work at a time when fewer jobs were available. As expected, this crisis heightened workers feelings of labor market insecurity.
As the memory of the Great Recession fades, the protections put in place to prevent another catastrophe are being stripped away. Financial deregulation makes it more likely that the economy will be afflicted with more recessions, which will in turn increase the economic risk that workers will experience.
Characteristics of secure work
Within this larger context of risk, workers seek security.
Most workers know what a very secure employer-employee relationship looks like, even if they have not experienced one. The employee does not foresee an end date unless they choose to take another job or their employer experiences an unexpected downturn. This expectation instills in them a sense of safety, a feeling that they can weather the economic tempests and squalls of their lives.
There are four key indicators of security and control that one would expect to alleviate workers’ anxieties over their employment position: being a government employee, being a union member, having longer job tenure, and having greater job autonomy.
It is commonly believed that these characteristics produce good, stable employment situations and offer a high level of economic stability. When it comes to job security, my findings support this belief.
However, when we return to the key question of how secure work can produce insecurity, I posit that workers who possess these characteristics recognize the scarcity of positions that will offer them the privileges and levels of security that they currently enjoy.
Namely, they have observed that the benefits brought about by union activity are eroding, and that fewer and fewer of their coworkers have remained in the same company for long periods of time.
The recognition that their secure job has become a rare commodity leads them to have higher levels of labor market insecurity, even if they enjoy a great deal of job security.
The only exception to this pattern is the characteristic of job autonomy.
Autonomy is a feature of work that is often associated with security. Workers with a lot of control over what work they do, how they do it, and when they do it tend to be clustered in occupations that have many rewards attached to them. Compensation, of course, is one of those rewards, and economic security often stems from that.
This is supported by my findings. In fact, autonomy was the only characteristic that universally decreased both dimensions of insecurity.
Unfortunately, it is not realistic to give everyone autonomy on the job and thereby magically alleviate their insecurity. But the problem of employment insecurity, especially labor market insecurity, remains.
My research suggests that jobs previously considered to be good jobs such as government and union jobs may be more of a liability than an asset in the context of decreased employer-worker attachment.
If we want an economy that promotes economic security for all, we need to work on generating more quality jobs and transferring risk away from individual workers.