Workforce trends in the U.S. are transforming work-life among Americans, making people more transitory between jobs, and less settled in any single job.
Over the past five years, the number of Americans working part-time involuntarily, for economic reasons (because their hours have been cut or they can’t find full-time work) has hovered near record highs. The figure has doubled since before the Great Recession, and now totals more than 7.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meanwhile, there’s been an increase in temporary and contract jobs — where you don’t get on the payroll, and before long, the job’s over and you have to go find something else. There are now 2.8 million temps, the highest number since BLS started tracking the category in 1990.
I met Jake Gerke around 12:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning at a 7-Eleven in Portland, Ore. It’s in a lower-middle class neighborhood east of downtown — a vagrant was asleep just outside the front door.
Gerke was working the graveyard shift — at the moment he’s working at 7-Eleven just one night per week.
“I work here,” he said. “I work at a place called MDC Research, I recruit for focus groups, it’s a call-center. I also teach ESL. And I do data entry on the side. So there are four, for those keeping track.”
Gerke was getting off his shift later that morning around 8 a.m. He’d have to be at the call center in a distant suburb by noon, and then expected to work through early evening — though Gerke said the employees on that shift are often let go early if work is slack. He would be napping on the bus to the call center — he said he catches some shut-eye but never misses his stop.
Both the 7-Eleven job and the call-center job pay just above minimum wage ($9.10 per hour in Oregon, the second-highest in the nation). But Gerke said 7-Eleven is more interesting.
“You can’t have a conversation with somebody at 3 o’clock in the morning inside a 7-Eleven and it not be interesting,” he said, “drugs, music, movies, current events.”
His co-worker behind the counter, Mandy Johnson, chimed in as she checked-out two guys buying beer. They’d just recognized some of their friends on the front page of a tabloid that publishes mug shots of alleged perpetrators of local crimes.
“You could put a lot of different things on a resume from this job,” said Johnson, “referee, counselor, babysitter.”
Gerke added some more: “psychologist, bartender.”
Gerke is 26; he left high school before graduating, and eventually finished his high-school equivalency along with earning an associate’s degree from a local community college. He says this is not what he was raised to expect from work. His mother worked full-time as an accountant, for two different companies over nearly 20 years, each of which eventually laid her off.
“I definitely saw that if you go and work somewhere, it’s going to be longer-term,” said Gerke. “Things have changed in the last twenty years. That’s not to say that I don’t make relationships with my coworkers, I definitely do. And while it would be nice to just settle down at one job, I would miss this aspect of seeing a wide variety of people.”
So Jake Gerke sees a social silver lining in his roving, varied, chopped-up work-life.
But Stephanie Coontz, a family historian at the Evergreen State College in Washington, who also serves as research director of the Council on Contemporary Families, says there’s also a high social cost to these work arrangements.
“There’s been a huge increase in involuntary part-time work and temporary work,” she says. “We have a higher proportion of low-wage work and contingent work than most other countries of comparable wealth. It means that you’re constantly insecure, often there’s rotating shifts, you don’t know how long you’re going to be on.”
Coontz says psychological and sociological research demonstrate the toll this takes on families and communities.
“That kind of economic insecurity is a relationship killer, it erodes good parenting,” she says. “People take less notice of the good things that their partner or their child does. They’re much more sensitive to the irritating things, and all of these erode family life.”
At the very least, the multiple-job scramble keeps 35-year-old Layne Yacapin-Montrose busy day-in and day-out. Yacapin-Montrose works at a suburban gym where she’s employed part-time teaching zumba classes — that’s a dance-fitness style using Latin music.
“Wednesdays are my long days,” she told me after teaching a packed class on the gym’s basketball court. “I start at 8:30 a.m.—the dance-fitness class. Then I drive over to the bar, I bartend from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., then I drive back over to the gym and teach another class.”
She teaches at two locations — at the second, she rents space and offers classes independently. At various times in recent years she’s bartended, waited tables, and been a manager at the restaurant — a large national chain with full menu and bar.
Yacapin-Montrose is married, no kids. She says the bartending pays pretty well. But she’s looking for yet another part-time job, even as she continues bartending, teaching zumba, and volunteering at a nonprofit where she teaches Hawaiian culture and arts, such as hula dancing.
The restaurant chain — where she’s worked for fourteen years — has been cutting back on her shifts; lately she’s been working there 20-25 hours per week.
“It’s a corporate restaurant, so even though my managers love me they still have many people above them that they have to answer to,” she says. “Recently like I said my hours have been cut so I just lost all my medical.
Yacapin-Montrose is from a military family, and even though she likes her work — all of it — she feels somehow that she’s underperformed her expectations.
“It’s a little frustrating on my part that I feel like I’m supposed to have a career,” she says. “I’m 35-years old and I don’t have a job that’s feeding into my 401k or any of those things that I’m supposed to be doing to prepare for my adulthood. I was raised to go to school, get a job. And I kind of feel like I’m not living up to what mom and dad said I was supposed to do.”
And yet, like Jake Gerke, Yacapin-Montrose says she wouldn’t trade in her runaround life for a steady 9-to-5 job, either.
“I kind of like the gypsy employment,” she says. “I like that roaming around. I meet so many great people in all the different places that I’ve worked. And I don’t get bored at one place. I’m not working with the same people day in, day out.”
None of the people interviewed for this story have chosen this style of work entirely voluntarily. To some extent, they’re hustling multiple part-time jobs because there aren’t enough full-time jobs out there.
But they’ve also come to think — or perhaps have convinced themselves — that they genuinely like the daily churn: the different workplaces, clients, and co-workers.
Maybe — if you can’t beat the new economy, you might as well join it.
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