My mother was a middle manager at a call center when she lost her job during the Great Recession. For the next eight years, I watched her work one odd job after another to make ends meet, but her employment during that time was never as reliable as it was before the country’s economic crash forced her to change course.
More than a decade later, my mother’s story is no longer unique. In fact, short-term employment, especially in the gig economy is fast becoming the norm. Millions of Americans – both blue and white collar – are making a living through platforms such as TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Fiverr, UpWork, GrubHub, and others. According to government data, more than a third of the American workforce is participating in non-standard work arrangements, such as gig jobs, a number that is expected to rise.
This compelling data, combined with my mother’s experiences, inspired me to study the gig economy. Specifically, I wanted to know how independent workers give meaning to their daily tasks and find personal satisfaction in jobs that are highly transactional and lacking in organizational structure. The freedom to work without walls, annoying co-workers, or micromanaging bosses has its highs, but the lows can be hard on the soul.
“They squeeze the spirit and the heart out of everything they touch,” Tracy said. She was referring to mainstream health care. “Not every hospice nurse has that heart, and not every doctor has that heart, but I do.”
Tracy is an end-of-life activist. A former oncology and hospice nurse, she wants to change how we care for people who are dying. Her vision is modeled after the natural birth movement, and she describes herself as a death midwife. She owns a business that teaches and certifies end-of-life doulas.
As a nurse, Tracy was troubled by how many people suffer needlessly at the end of their lives. Palliative care worked wonders, but it was usually too little, too late. “It pained me to see that people could come onto hospice, and within a day or two most of the time, we could get them comfortable,” she said. “They had been suffering for months and years.”
Social networks can be crucial for getting a job. Cue Mark Granovetter’s enduring sociological insight on the strength of weak ties, the crucial role connections beyond our close networks can play in connecting us to opportunity. Platforms and structures that facilitate professional networking—such as LinkedIn—are based on this insight that extended networks can link people to opportunities beyond their immediate circles.
Researchers have extensively conceptualized and described the ties people use to find work and move up in their field, uncovering a number of ties that transcend the strong-weak dichotomy. Other scholars have shown how those facing adversity—poverty, racism, social marginalization–often draw on strong, reciprocal ties to survive. This work, taken together, reveals how people form and draw on social ties in a range of different ways, and how the form those ties take and their capacity to help people get by—and get ahead–is deeply informed by structural constraints.
However, sociologists have paid less attention to how the spatial and temporal dynamics of work processes and industry structures affect how people form and use social networks over space and time. In a recent article, I draw on interviews with Texas-Mexico borderlands-based agricultural workers and Texas-based oil and gas field workers. Both groups describe forming strong ties with peers while working far from home and living in close quarters for weeks at a time.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippine government instituted what may be considered one of their most controversial emigration policies. For an indefinite period, state agencies decided to ban Filipino healthcare workers from leaving the country for jobs overseas.
This “deployment ban” was unprecedented, not only in scope but because the Philippines is also the primary source of migrant nurses worldwide. While the state curtailed the departure of 13 health professions, nurses comprised the largest group, with hundreds unable to leave for jobs waiting in the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.
Philippine government officials argued that the ban would redirect human resources toward national health needs. Yet, instead of consolidating the country’s pool of nurse labor, the ban divided nurses into two distinct groups.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution has significantly changed the world through big data, artificial intelligence, and other forms of automation. Hence, the workplace is increasingly fraught by technological disruptions and consequent loss of long-term employment security for all generations. Even educated Millennials who are popularly considered as digital natives are not spared the anxiety of automation and rapidly changing requirements for new skill sets.
How can Millennials best adapt to a transforming world and prepare themselves for a vastly unsettling future of work? My new book Shaping the Futures of Work: Proactive Governance and Millennials aims to provide answers to these questions. Why Millennials? I study their careers because they are currently in large numbers in the workforce.