This is not just a recession-induced thing, he says. It reflects a long-term change in the economy. Since the 1980s, management’s philosophy has evolved to “look at work as projects.” Instead of keeping workers on staff to perform all tasks needed, they outsource them or hire consultants.
“This gives companies tremendous flexibility without any risk,” Greenwald says. “Flexibility” means they don’t have to keep people on the payroll during slack periods, pay them when they’re sick, pay for their health insurance, or obey workplace regulations. This, he says, has “shifted all the risks that large institutions used to have onto the backs of individuals.”
“It’s a great business model, but as a social model, it doesn’t work,” he explains. Essentially, it means that the world of work is becoming more like the music business, in which a handful of superstars get rich and a minority of professionals have steady work with benefits, but most workers have to scuffle for intermittent, low-paying gigs, and hard work and talent are worthless without marketing skills, clout, and charisma. “The bar to get in is low, but the ability to make a living is harder and harder,” he says.
The overall social change “might be as big as the shift from farm to factory,” Greenwald says. “I don’t think that many freelancers have thought of this as a permanent way of life. It seems to be a shift back to 19th-century artisanal culture.”
…still, trying to improve conditions for freelancers and contingent workers is difficult in an economic system that has been vampirizing workers’ rights and incomes for a generation.
“The social contract that was part of American society for many years is dead,” says Greenwald. “We need to have a serious conversation about who’s winning and who’s not winning.”
The cutthroats can survive in this new world, he says, but “the rest of society is suffering.”