Insecure work: The New Normal

by Jim Stanford


Most Australians know in their guts that it’s pretty hard to find a traditional permanent job these days.  And now the statistics confirm it: less than half of employed Australians have one of those “standard” jobs.  And more than half experience one or more dimensions of insecurity: including part-time, irregular, casual, contractor, and marginally self-employed jobs.

In this commentary article published originally by Ten Daily, Our Director Dr. Jim Stanford summarises the findings of the Centre’s recent report on “The Dimensions of Insecure Work.”

If You Have A Stable Full-Time Job You’re An Endangered Species

Ask any young job-seeker about their prospects of finding a permanent full-time job, and they won’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Sure, they might get a few hours of work here, a few hours there: piecing together disparate “gigs” in hopes of paying the rent.

But landing a permanent full-time job with a regular salary and basic benefits (like paid holidays and superannuation)?  Dream on.

It’s no surprise that young workers experience the insecurity of modern work most brutally: they don’t have experience, seniority, or connections to help them in their hunt.  But precarious work now affects Australians of any age, in all sectors of the economy, not just those trying to break in.  What was once considered a “standard” job – the kind where you know where and when you will work, and how much you will earn – now feels like the exception, not the rule.  And in fact, the hard numbers now confirm it: insecure work has indeed become the new normal.

With co-author Dr. Tanya Carney, I recently assembled data on eleven different dimensions of job insecurity, based on official statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other government sources.  We considered many aspects of the problem: including the rise of part-time work, casual jobs, people working very short hours, temporary foreign workers, and workers in nominally “self-employed” positions.

In every case, there has been a marked increase in insecurity in recent years.  A turning point was reached in 2012, as the mining investment boom (that underpinned several years of strong job conditions) turned down.  That boom, and associated macroeconomic expansion, had masked longer-run structural shifts in the nature of employment – but only for a while.  But now, since 2012, the sea-change in employment relationships is starkly visible.

It was when we put all of these different indicators of insecurity together, that a startling conclusion became clear.  The standard “job” has been whittled away on all sides – by part-time work, by casual and temporary jobs, by shifting more tasks to supposedly independent contractors and self-employed gig workers.  And in 2017, for the first time since these statistics have been collected, the proportion of employed Australians filling a standard job fell below 50 percent.  Less than half of employed Australians now work in a permanent full-time paid position with basic entitlements (like sick pay and paid holidays).

In other words, most employed Australians experience one or more dimensions of insecurity in their jobs.  Insecure work, once on the margins of the labour market, is now the norm.  In fact, many workers experience multiple aspects of this insecurity.

For example, part-time marginally self-employed workers are among the most insecure of all.  They have no employees of their own; most aren’t even incorporated.  They get a tax number, and then scrabble from gig to gig – accepting outsourced work from large firms who once hired actual employees to perform these tasks.  Their incomes, low to start with, have declined a shocking 26 percent in real terms since 2012.  They now make, on average, barely one-third as much as a typical paid full-time permanent employee.

Surprisingly, some defenders of the status quo in Australia’s labour market deny any problem with job security.  For example, Craig Laundy, Australia’s Minister for Small Business, claims insecure work is not actually more common, and defends casual work as “a completely appropriate way for many businesses and many employees to conduct their relationship.” Business lobbyists also deny work has become any less secure.

But this flies in the face of both the official statistics, and the lived experience of millions of Australians struggling to find stable employment. And the increasing precarity of modern work in turn produces a spate of economic, social and political consequences.  Households can’t predict their future income; they also can’t make long-run financial commitments (like buying a home, supporting children through higher education, or saving for retirement).  Consumer spending and financial stability suffer, as does growth and job-creation.

Politically, the frustration of millions of Australians about this chronic insecurity will inevitably bubble up at the polling booths.  Job insecurity has reached a tipping point, now that less than half of all employed workers fill standard permanent full-time jobs.  Sooner or later, a political tipping point will also be reached: as Australians react against the erosion of the ideal of a “fair go.”

For this reason, hopeful politicians should be ready to present convincing ideas for restoring job stability and shared prosperity, in the lead-up to the next Commonwealth election.  Denying that there is even a problem, will not likely do the trick.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute. With Tanya Carney he is co-author of The Dimensions of Insecure Work: A Factbook.

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