Currency, 2018, 416 pp., $30
Journalism professor Ellen Ruppel Shell has many strong views about the way people earn a living. Accordingly, her new book, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, weighs in on the nature of work, its future, its purpose, its meaning, how people prepare for it, government assistance to the poor, unions, income inequality in the United States, and much more. Shell is an engaging writer, and she does a good job weaving together stories of Ivy-educated MBAs working at Whole Foods with references to Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. She writes interesting and detailed profiles of her fellow college professors, and is a keen observer of higher education. She relays creative ideas about the future of workers’ organizations in the United States, as well—all useful and meritorious.
Yet The Job is flawed, propagandistic, and sloppy. Even where it offers well-observed reporting, innovative ideas, and interesting analysis, the book mostly fails to really analyze its own findings. Moreover, Shell fails to confront data that challenges her worldview, so she ends up telling only part of the story. Above all, The Job is fundamentally crippled by a strong confirmation bias that inevitably affirms progressive nostrums and, in so doing, establishes itself most notably as a missed opportunity.
At the core of Shell’s argument are the interrelated ideas that the nature of work has changed radically in the recent past and will change even more in the future. Further, she argues that nearly all of these extreme changes have been for the worse and, combined with globalization, have shrunk the American middle class and enriched a sometimes-undeserving few. As such, she contends a radical reinvention of the American system is in order because markets are fundamentally a problem to be overcome rather than a better-than-the-alternatives tool for ordering the world. Or, as she puts it, “work is far too vital a human need to trust to the vagaries of a fickle global marketplace.”
To right these wrongs, Shell suggests a laundry list of progressive ideas: to end America’s default system of at-will employment (which she calls “human rental”); to replace a social assistance system largely intended to support the working poor with stronger support for those who do not wish to take jobs that, according to her, actually serve to keep them poor; to revive organized labor in new forms; to increase worker ownership and control of businesses; to give business far less input on the content of educational curriculums; to engineer policies intended to create the kinds of jobs she deems desirable; and to redistribute wealth away from the well-off who “don’t always deserve the lion’s share they take.” In short, it’s a laundry list of progressive-leaning policy prescriptions that will seem familiar to many readers. And indeed, it is possible to come up with evidence and even decent arguments in favor of doing nearly all of the things she suggests.
What often goes missing, however, is the data to support her claims—and what Shell does cite is poorly used. For example, at the core of the argument is the contention that the world of work is in trouble because “temporary and contract work and self-employment have grown faster than have permanent, full-time jobs,” while there has been a “rise of contingent ‘gig’ work.” To be fair, many people assume this is true. But nearly all available data flatly contradicts this and many other of her assumptions as well.
In particular, there’s little evidence that work is actually becoming less stable in the United States, that gig work is increasing, or that self-employment is becoming more common. The opposite appears to be the case. The most recent assessment undertaken by the Bureau of Labor Statistics concludes that “self-employment has trended down.” Further, the BLS’s most recent survey of Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements (released in June 2018 and covering 2017) finds that “the last time the survey was conducted” (in 2005), measures of contingent employment like temporary and contract work “were higher.” While the later study may not have been available when Shell was writing (although she does include other recently released pieces of information about things like Amazon’s Prime service), it merely affirmed a wealth of already-available BLS data that my R Street colleague R.J. Lehmann collected as early as 2015.
Moreover, the BLS also finds that the number of people in part-time jobs almost always tracks the economic cycle (rising in bad economies and declining in good ones) and that part-time workers overwhelmingly want to work part time—those economists sometimes refer to as threshold earners.1 Additionally, tenure at the same job—employer loyalty to employees, which Shell continually implies has somehow eroded—rose during the Great Recession, and now seems to have stabilized at levels slightly higher than those of a decade ago.
Furthermore, the health and retirement benefits that Americans have are also, on average, improving. According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans with health coverage is at an all-time high, largely because of the Affordable Care Act. Finally, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs has shown, per capita retirement savings also sit at an all-time high.
This doesn’t mean that no support exists for Shell’s worldview, only that most authoritative sources contradict it. For example, companies offering retirement products produce dozens of white papers pointing to a retirement crisis and many academics agree with them. Using definitions far broader than those of the BLS, some academics—for example, Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton, both of whom Shell cites—argue that contingent employment is actually rising and find some data to support their claims. However, they do so by using a far looser and broader definition than the BLS’s and by outright ignoring the ongoing decline in self-employment. But Shell herself doesn’t even enter the debate here. Given that such contentions about the changing nature of work are absolutely central to her thesis of “radical” change, it’s a major problem that she simply assumes away well-documented authoritative data that directly contradict her thesis.
Even when the data do support Shell’s ideas, she uses them poorly. For example, it’s inarguably correct that the percentage of Americans in the middle of the middle class has shrunk while poverty rates have budged only a little over the past fifty or so years. The latter is a significant problem worthy of serious public policy attention. But she never engages the data showing that the shrinkage of the middle-middle class results mainly from the growth of the upper middle class and wealthy. In other words, most people falling out of the middle class fall up, not down—and that has a lot to do with demography combined with the income and wealth fluctuations of people over typical lives—it being understood, of course, that when one compares middle class cohorts from, say, 1980 and 2010, one is obviously not talking about the same individuals.2 (It’s not clear that Shell understands this.) Yes, that so many people remain poor is a problem (and never mind for now that the definitional goalposts have been moved); that many previously in the middle have grown rich isn’t.
Such oversights are not surprising given the shallowness of Shell’s research. For example, while most studies agree that job satisfaction in the United States has declined somewhat in recent years, Shell shows it declining from near universal to a minority of the population, by using different sources of data that measure satisfaction differently at apparently arbitrary points in history. This type of cherry-picking borders on propaganda.
Likewise, her repeated claims that we’re on the verge of a great disruption in the nature of work that will cause jobs to disappear also don’t stand up to scrutiny. She admits that the manufacturing jobs she sometimes romanticizes have rebounded sharply in the United States since the end of the Great Recession. This actually undermines her idea of “radical change”: many of the jobs coming back are not significantly different from those that vanished during the downturn, since labor productivity growth has been quite slow in the 2000s. (At least if we assume that the industrial-age metrics we use to make such assessments still measure accurately in the current IT-infused age). Also, if jobs are being displaced, then how to explain why gross employment is at an all-time high, job openings exceed the number of unemployed, and unemployment is at its lowest level in decades?
Shell does discuss this topic in passing as she looks at declining workforce participation. But, as might be expected, her treatment of the subject is woefully incomplete. Today’s workforce participation rate is indeed lower than it was between the 1980s and early 2000s and, as she repeatedly stresses, is lower than in other developed countries. But even here, in her desire to show “radical change,” Shell dramatically overstates her case. Today’s workforce participation rate is actually higher than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. So if working now “doesn’t seem worth the trouble,” as Shell says, things must have been much worse in 1955, when about 59 percent of working-age adults held jobs (as opposed to about 63 percent today).
She also seems to have missed the work of the Congressional Budget Office showing that “that the vast majority of the recent decline in the overall rate stems from the aging of the baby-boom generation into retirement.” She does rightly note that the trends for prime-working age men are concerning and worthy of attention, but this is a long-term problem that has evolved over decades: The workforce participation rate for men has never had a sustained uptick since data collection started in 1948. A 70-year trend is a chronic condition; not a radical change. In short, it’s troubling that Shell doesn’t even try to explain how and why such a definitive lack of radical change in the observed data about work necessitates the radical changes in public policy she proposes.
Furthermore, with great frequency, the book’s claims are simply sloppy and misleading. For example, Shell writes that Amazon.com “needs relatively few people,” which is a very odd claim to make about America’s second-largest private employer. It’s even stranger because she has to know that it’s false when she acknowledges Amazon’s own significant workforce expansion in order to talk about pay and working conditions of which she disapproves.
Elsewhere, she claims that unspecified “neoliberal policies of the Ronald Reagan Administration” somehow “buried” a trend toward worker ownership of business in the 1970s—but then goes on immediately to quote Reagan himself praising the idea of worker ownership. In another place, she says that the World Wide Web “went public” in 1991. In fact, 1991 is the date that a few computer scientists in labs began work on what later became the web we know today. It was late 1992 before there was a practical web browser and several more years before the Internet came into wide use.
She also claims that “hundreds of thousands” of call-center jobs have vanished while the BLS actually says that they’ve grown, and predicts that roughly 100,000 new ones are on the way. She’s dismissive of Enterprise Rent-A-Car mandates for a college degree for most hires but appears unaware of its purposefully unusual business model that demands huge numbers of small-scale location managers, and thereby helps people advance into management ranks with real profit/loss responsibility more quickly than almost any other, large, nationally known company. Indeed, this practice has landed Enterprise on “best places to work” lists.
At other times, Shell just takes cheap shots. For example, she identifies long-time IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, who headed RJR Nabisco before joining IBM, as notable for popularizing former cigarette mascot Joe Camel. In fact, Gerstner is known and remembered almost entirely for his work at IBM and worked for IBM at the time he chaired an educational effort of which Shell disapproves. As I read further, far from being convinced by Shell’s argument, I simply found myself beginning to wonder whether I could trust any of her claims as complete, correct, or faithfully represented.
When it comes to Shell’s relationship with data, the most unintentionally revealing part of the book may be a portrait of Princeton University’s Kathryn Edin, who is treated as a be-all-end-all source of information about the nature of America’s welfare system. Tellingly, Shell finds Edin admirable because the professor “turned her attention beyond data” to hear “stories” about the poor in America. Relying on Edin, Shell blithely assures readers that the poor don’t actually work less than everyone else, a claim flatly contradicted by actual data that show (unsurprisingly) that higher-income households spend much more time at work than those with lower incomes. This difference may well not be entirely a result of deliberate behavioral choices or moral failings, but it is also hard to contend that the data support Shell’s suggestions that systemic factors rather than individual behavior are the main cause of poverty or lower incomes. The “progressive” search for victims whose circumstances have nothing to do with their own choices truly never ends.
Further, on the basis of an interview with Edin, Shell argues that programs intended to support the working poor (like the earned income tax credit) are bad ideas because they encourage jobless people to take the first available position. So, while work is important, in other words, it has to be work of a sort that Shell defines as “good.” There are reasonable criticisms of the EITC and other programs intended to support the working poor, but Shell doesn’t engage them in any serious way, let alone give credit to the enormous benefits they provide, including the simple fact that they encourage otherwise idle people to work.
This similar lack of willingness to intellectually engage sometimes obvious objections is made further apparent in a passage where Shell calls for an end to the system of at-will employment in the United States and for its replacement with something else. She concedes that at-will employment “leads to more jobs being created more quickly” in the United States than in other developed countries but nevertheless dismisses it because, according to her, the very instance of at-will employment weakens employees’ bargaining power and somehow makes them take jobs that are not good or satisfying enough. This simply doesn’t jive. If work is as hugely important to people as her central project claims it is—and it is—then isn’t a system that creates more jobs better than one that doesn’t? And how does a system with higher mobility between jobs—and more jobs overall—necessarily make workers weaker? Isn’t the easy ability to switch jobs the best and strongest bargaining chip any employee has? And isn’t that asset much stronger in a system that has more open jobs? Maybe not; life is often trickier than it first appears. But it’s at least worth considering such obvious contradictions, which Shell so often fails to do.
Despite such flaws, Shell’s role as a respected journalism professor and prolific writer makes the reader expect excellent reporting—and she sometimes delivers. An obvious example comes in her description of a visit to Berea, Kentucky and its famous work college, which offers a genuinely interesting and sometimes even heartwarming portrait of an Appalachian community that is doing well in many respects, despite difficult circumstances. And although it is overly romantic and sometimes shallow, a similar anecdote about Finland (which she sees as a model for America’s labor market and the nation in general) is also an alluring piece of reporting.
But even here, there’s a huge oversight: While Shell devotes some space to acknowledging problems in Finland and differences between the small Nordic nation and the United States, she fails to mention that it’s not particularly good at providing the higher-wage jobs she says she would like to see. While it does have a somewhat lower poverty rate than the United States Finland also has a significantly lower median income; slightly below the OECD average. Its median household brings in less money each year than the median one in Alabama, Madison County, Kentucky (where Berea is) or for that matter, Appalachia as a whole. The OECD also reports worse housing and other conditions in Finland relative to the United States and the country does worse on many other measures as well. So if we want a strong, economically prosperous middle class in the United States—as Shell claims to—then the income of those in the middle is the best measure of this. Perhaps the greater leisure time, self-reported life satisfaction, and government-provided benefits enjoyed by Finns could be judged a worthwhile trade-off, but it’s problematic to say that “the standard of living in Finland is among the highest in the world” without pointing out that the median household there would be considered, at best, lower-middle class and probably “working poor” in the United States.
Shell’s reporting is lacking in some other ways. One of the major flaws in this regard is the absence of a diversity of voices and perspectives that would be key in a study like the one attempted in The Job. The bulk of Shell’s interview subjects are her fellow college professors, qualified only to comment on their specific areas of interest. (Several people identified by skills or backgrounds—a “roboticist” for example—actually appear to earn their incomes from university faculty appointments).
Further, she rarely cites scholarly work by these people, preferring mostly to quote from interviews. Even Kathryn Edin, a prolific scholar, is mentioned in the text for her doctoral dissertation rather than one of her books or academic papers. Further, Shell usually provides far more background on a variety of her academic peers than she does the relative handful of ordinary workers with whom she spoke directly. Some of these people are identified by characteristics like a hairnet or an offer of brownies rather than names. And although this may be to protect their anonymity, for someone who seems to want to champion the interests of the American working class, Shell does much less than might be expected to let them speak for themselves. Alas, class bias bubbles up even when it’s unwelcome.
For all of its sloppiness of method, poorly thought-out conclusions, and dubious analysis, The Job partly redeems itself with some good ideas. A chapter on education, job training, and colleges is particularly noticeable in this respect.
Shell describes ways that well-intentioned and well-designed efforts to align education with the predicted future needs of industry don’t always meet the needs of the people involved. Accordingly, she suggests that education should aim for broader and sometimes more humanistic goals. She’s right that businesses are almost always self-interested and, in many cases, don’t necessarily even know what they themselves might need in the future. Business-directed central planning, in other words, doesn’t work any better than central planning directed by a government and, since it lacks democratic input, may even be worse.
Her treatment of unions and other worker organizations also deserves praise. Drawing on the ideas of highly successful labor organizer David Rolf (whom she interviewed but whose written work she neglects to cite in the text) and Freelancers Union President Sara Horowitz, Shell suggests that firm-based collective bargaining is not the wave of the future and instead calls for the creation of more flexible and innovative worker organizations that operate over the range of an industry or profession. Also to her credit, she looks at a variety of ways this might happen. Her exploration of some Hollywood guilds, though brief, is particularly enlightening.
More than anything else, however, Shell’s book is a 416-page exercise in confirmation bias: She dislikes American capitalism, the American education system, and American culture more broadly. Worse, however, though she likes to talk about the working class, it’s the educated elite she allows to take center stage. She would like the United States to be more like Europe where, she claims (without evidence) that school children are “taught to revere poets and philosophers” rather than people involved in the sordid business of inventing things and making money. And in making these evaluations, she has sought out anecdotes that confirm her prior beliefs, even as she ignores copious data that undermine them.
To be sure, she diagnoses some problems correctly like declining job satisfaction in the United States, businesses with excessive influence over the education system, the decline of worker organizations (particularly for the less skilled), and the persistence of a sizable group of poor people in a wealthy country. But she also assumes, implies, or asserts a number of things that simply aren’t supported by the data and, throughout, seems to exalt her casual observations above empirical reality. While there is some good to be found in Shell’s book, it is a deeply flawed project, and a misleading one for those who would depend upon it.
[This article has been updated since initial publication.]