The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Making the Jobs of the Future Work

The NYT has a long and interesting piece on the rise of part-time work in retail:

While there have always been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more than before as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full-time, reducing their pay and benefits. . . .

No one has collected detailed data on part-time workers at the nation’s major retailers. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut a million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs.

Technology is speeding this transformation. In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But workers’ schedules have become far less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand.

It’s likely that more and more work is going to be shaped this way. The concept of the “full time job” makes less sense for employers today, and a more efficient retail sector is on balance a good thing for the whole economy.

The reality is that in the future part time work is going to be more important, and full time jobs less prevalent than in the past. As the information revolution makes it easier for companies to assess their labor needs more precisely, we may see a shift to part time work in white collar jobs as well as retail. Ultimately companies may put more jobs up for bids from outsiders, cutting their permanent full time staffs to the bone.

Blue age America was built on the foundation of full time jobs, and the gradual transition to part time work and more use of contract rather than permanent workers will require a rethink of many of our established policies. Currently the tax code and a variety of social policies favor the creation of a two-tier labor market: full time workers qualify for a range of benefits, while part timers don’t. We need to develop labor market policies that work better for the armies of part timers and contract workers that the economy will likely create going forward.

This change does not, by the way, have to be bad for workers. Many of the problems described by the Times piece reflect the poor state of the American labor market rather than inherent features of part time work. The real solution to the problems described in this article is more demand for labor across the country. If workers are harder to get, companies will start raising wages and responding to worker needs. Right now, they don’t have to do that to get the workers they want.

Assuming a strong labor market in which part time workers are decently compensated, a world of part time and flexible jobs can make a lot of sense for workers. The daily ritual rush hour commute of tens of millions of people moving in lockstep toward nine to five jobs over gridlocked transit and highways systems is very far from the best possible way to organize our lives. Parents, children caring for elderly parents, handicapped workers, older people looking to supplement fixed incomes, artists and entrepreneurs launching their careers: all of these people can benefit from a more flexible working world.

To make this work, we have a lot of work to do. Schools, which generally focus on preparing students to seek employment, need to do a better job at preparing kids for the world they will actually inhabit—which means encouraging entrepreneurial thinking and behavior. Workers of the future are going to be much more like entrepreneurs, negotiating short term assignments, juggling part time gigs, combining income from self employment and part time work. This implies a very different education than our current big box, stay in line system can provide.

Preparing people for a changing labor market is part of what needs to happen. Creating a strong labor market in which part time workers will be well treated and compensated is also required. This labor demand will not come from manufacturing and it will not come from administration and management. Both of these functions will be shedding labor as automation raises productivity.

Small business and IT-enabled services are the fields to which we must look for the employment opportunities of the coming information society. Helping small businesses start and grow is the key for the new generation and the part-time labor market in which they find themselves. Government can’t start and shouldn’t subsidize small business, but government policy on a range of issues (zoning, regulation, tax policy, purchasing, outsourcing) can create a climate that is favorable to small business formation and development.

Transitioning from a late state manufacturing economy to an early stage information economy is the great business of our time in the United States. The rise of part time work is one element of this transition; we need to learn to make part time work better for all concerned.

Published on October 29, 2012 8:00 pm