Job insecurity in America: a terrified nation of disposable workers

Alternet's new series on "job insecurity" opens with a frightening and infuriating piece from Lynn Parramore, who paints a picture of a nation where the new normal is to be marginally employed, in terror of a coming layoff, haunted by unshakable student debt, and in a continuous, panicked search for work, all at once:

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Our capitalist endeavor was supposed to make us safe from the vagaries of weather conditions and arbitrary events that harassed our ancestors. But somehow we’ve ended up more worried than ever.

Anxiety disorders now plague 18 percent of the U.S. adult population –- a whopping 40 million people. Only half that number are affected by mood disorders. The drug alprazolam — familiar by its brand name, Xanax — was prescribed 46.3 million times in 2010, making it that year’s bestselling psychiatric drug. Prozac, the happiness-and-optimism pill, has been pushed aside by a medication meant to just help you get through the day without collapsing in a puddle of anxiety.

It’s easy to see the appeal of popping a Xanax. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association paints a picture of workers on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

* Sixty-two percent say work has a significant impact on their stress levels.
* Almost 50 percent indicate their stress levels have increased between 2007 and 2008.
* Forty-five percent of workers say job insecurity has a significant impact on stress levels.

...When we fear the hatchet will fall, when the future is a fog, when we’re paralyzed by powerlessness, we start to flip out. We pile on more work than we can handle. We don’t take sick days when we need them. We start fueling up on coffee and cigarettes, and dropping the things that are good for us, like leisure activities and trips to the gym. Under chronic stress, our immune systems start to buckle from “overresponsivity.”

Job Insecurity: It’s the Disease of the 21st Century -- And It’s Killing Us (via Naked Capitalism)


  1. Don’t worry, the 1% is on the line to tell you to “Man the fuck up” because someday you will be rich too and Big Pharma is there to give you the tools to man the fuck up until you finally claw your way to the top of the plateau with everyone else and die.

    Now get the fuck back to your cube.

    1. For the 1% sociopaths the 99% are just peasants, the peasants are good enough for exploiding and extorting, but the 1% just pissing on all of them.

      “My Lady, My Lady….the peasants revolting!”

      “Yes, thats why I don’t let them in the castle”

      1. They must be better and smarter than you otherwise they wouldn’t be in the 1% now would they?  The victors write the history books.

        They create the rules and then pass moral judgements on the outcomes.  Not unlike how people couldn’t go to school and then the upper classes clicked their tongues at how ignorant the lower classes were.

    2. Actually, one of the positives of precarity is that poor people start to realize more realistically that they are poor.  Not only that, but because every job or support network is unstable and unreliable, the prospect of risking it all on an uprising is looking more and more attractive.  I mean, what are they gonna do – fire us?

      1.  Please don’t rock the boat.  I’m waiting for all that wealth to trickle down.  The “job creators” promised.  It will happen!  It will!

        1. Yes, it is a great word, and it’s sad as shit that it’s not in common parlance (at least not in the U.S.). 

          Kinda like how Americans have never heard of one their greatest intellectuals, Noam Chomsky. Who, come to think of it, recognizes that the truths he points out about how the world works are so generally unknown that most people would think it’s like hearing “news from Neptune.”

      1.  If we could only get those damn unions, social pacts, worker protections, etc out of the way then the nation’s wealthy could finally help us like they’ve always wanted to.

    1.  Sure there was. There was also a time when companies offered pensions, and the idea of working in a job for 20 years and retiring with said pension was the norm. And not just for union factory jobs. White collar jobs, too.

      This isn’t ancient history. It was the way things worked up until, roughly, the 80’s.

      1.  I delivered papers as a kid.  I recall in 1987 reading about Black Friday as I folded and bagged in preparation for my route.  I remember thinking that stock market crashes were supposed to have been a thing of the past, then that my dad had been forced out of his company just in the previous year.  It was then that I realized that the concept of “job/economic security” I was learning about in school was complete bollocks for even well-educated, relatively wealthy professionals.  That illusion is tenacious though; it’s a good selling point for convincing people to stay on the slave-wage treadmill.
        Yeah, things started truly going south in the late 80’s.

    2. Slavery, at least, offered better job security.  Also since slaves are “owned” and costly to replace, there’s more incentive to keep them in reasonable health.

      1.  Actually a number of early free marketeers looked at this issue and decided that it was more profitable to work a slave to death and replace him with one fresh from Africa. If it weren’t for the importation of more slaves, the population of many Caribbean sugar islands would have shrunk from a death rate that exceeded the birth rate because of the harsh work conditions.

  2. And job insecurity wouldn’t be nearly as scary if basic health insurance weren’t inexplicably tied to jobs. Sever the tie between a person’s health insurance rates and the size of their employer’s group plan (or lack thereof), and we’ll see how many people need to live in a constant state of terror about switching careers or starting their own business. The price-gouging of small businesses and independent contractors by the insurance industry is stifling the GDP growth of our nation by snuffing out entrepreneurship and innovation.

    1. I’ve lost count of the number of health insurance plans I’ve gone through. I desperately want to stay in a job longer than a year, but temporary positions are the new normal for my generation.
      Many temp agencies don’t provide health insurance, and the ones that do require you to have a certain number hours worked before you can qualify.

    2. 1. national health services works wonders for getting that entrepreneurial spirit going.

      2. As GDP is basically a measure of the total sum exchanged in transactions, Wall Street could very well take it to infinity+1 by passing the buck back and forth via automated trades.

      1. They already do that (and so does London) but try to keep it from being made illegal – it’s called high frequency trading (check  and )

        It not only brings GDP up, but also makes it easier for speculators to achieve their profit goals (albeit at the expense of people going hungry in some part of the world or destroying the economies of countries).

    3.  For what it is worth, health insurance is not “inexplicably tied to jobs.”

      When health insurance first started there was a conscious decision made to  market it only to workers because people who were holding down full time jobs were generally healthier than people who couldn’t work for various reasons. It probably still holds true to some extent today.

      The system is terrible and should be replaced by single payer. By definition private, for profit insurance companies exist for no reason other than to siphon money from sick people, healthy people and health care providers and feed it to stock holders/business owners.

      1. “for profit insurance companies exist for no reason other than to siphon money”

        right… they don’t provide a service in a voluntary exchange with a customer.

        pray tell, how do all these innocent parties get tricked out of their money by these nefarious devils? since we all know how evil they are?

        it’s marketing right?! maybe it’s the same marketing geniuses that let apple trick us out of all our technology money…

        do stock holders/business owners buy insurance? do they buy it from the secret, members-only, non-profit insurance companies?

        1. how do all these innocent parties get tricked out of their money by these nefarious devils?

          “tricked” … now that’s the most blatant strawman I’ve seen for a while. No-one but you said, or implied, “tricked”.

          But regardless… people deal with “these nefarious devils”, well, because the only alternative is to run the risk of having to choose between either:

          (1) letting yourself die; or
          (2) selling everything you own and going into crushing debt to pay for treatment yourself.

          They’re trying to choose whichever fucking provides the most lube.

          do stock holders/business owners buy insurance? do they buy it from […] non-profit insurance companies?

          Clearly, you intend these questions to be rhetorical, with the answers “yes; no”, but: the sufficiently wealthy can afford to just buy their healthcare directly, and not bother with health insurance at all; and the medium-wealthy can afford to move somewhere with nationalised healthcare, which is pretty much analogous to “non-profit insurance companies”. So you’re basically wrong on both counts.

          Also, you seem to think snark and sarcasm makes you look witty. I’m afraid that only works if you’re vaguely correct. As is, it just makes you look like a condescending, arrogant asshole who’s too far up himself to have any hope of ever realising how wrong he is.

          Me, I’ll keep my European affordable-healthcare-for-all over your extortionate-healthcare-for-the-fortunate, thanks.

        2.  right… they don’t provide a service in a voluntary exchange with a customer.

          “voluntary” lol.

          1. @boingboing-fd0d8d7790b32285f5b9c4535eb022f1:disqus Referring to health insurance as a simple voluntary exchange is ridiculous and simplistic.

            your healthcare provider is from the government.

            You’re confusing Obama/Romneycare with single payer, which would be much better actually.

        3. pray tell, how do all these innocent parties get tricked out of their money by these nefarious devils?

          Since you asked… Here it is in devilish detail:

          Be sure and watch the entire interview if you’d truly like to educate yourself here.  It gets more damning as it goes.

  3. kmoser is correct. However, this situation is not exactly news. French friends have explained patiently to us, over a glass of wine, that the situation in France (and much of Europe) has been this way for a long time. France, specifically, makes it difficult for employers to lay off employees. So the obvious solution is “you don’t HAVE employees” — you have “consultants”. We see increasing numbers of temp, part time, and consulting positions which are without benefits and totally insecure. At what point do under- and un-employed people in the US remember that unions actually did work? We’ve gone from around 1/3 union employment to maybe 10% today. There will be blood in the street one way or the other before the situation improves… either we energize the Occupy movement, jump start a new union movement (call it what you will), or the USA will continue to dissolve into an increasingly unpleasant place. Unions aren’t perfect, but what is? Your choice.

    1. Same pattern seems to be unfolding in Norway as well. One example is pr project hires, like the building of a ship. Between projects, the company maintains a minimal permanent staff.

    2.  They work when there is a large number of pissed off people working for someone who is actually exploiting them.  But sometimes the “new boss” union is as bad as the old boss.  I worked in a factory that organized – I was a DBA, so I got to see it as an external observer.  The guy that owned the place was a nutbag (which is not only fair to say, but even a bit in his benefit – as it completely misses the guy’s malice.), and unionizing really helped them get treated fairly, and helped keep production up.  Everyone, including the nutbag, benefited.

      Now, I also believe that a union should only be in place while there is a need… like a militia or something – but that’s another conversation entirely.  I’m not really one for the “corporate-ized unions” that  – to me – are worse than the initial problem.

    3. France, specifically, makes it difficult for employers to lay off employees. So the obvious solution is “you don’t HAVE employees” — you have “consultants”.

      As a contractor working in France, I have often wondered how beneficial this approach actually is the employer. From the employers perspective I can see that it would be wonderfully efficient if a worker could be fired at will and hired again in 6 months time if necessary.

      In practice though, French employers (at least in the IT sector) pay a large markup in wage bills to achieve this kind of flexibility. For instance I have been working for 3-4 years for my current indirect employer yet I would guess that I have cost them 6 years wages of a regular employee. Times are slightly tough right now and I would guess that the workforce was cut by 20% over a period of 6 months before stabilizing and starting to grow again. But, as far as I can see, had they hired everyone as regular employees and tolerated some waste for a while they would have spent less money.

      I only have anecdotes though so I would be happy for someone to correct me with real data as I am curious to see whether the contracting/consulting philosophy was based purely on fear of losing control or whether there was solid maths to back it up.

      1. I meant to say “contractors”… thank you for reminding me. In the world of skilled employees, people tend to change jobs every few years anyway. In the IT sector, human resources are expensive and more so if a company wants to maintain flexibility with contractors. It all strikes me as an inefficient system, encouraged by government regulations which were meant to help. The original goal, after all, was to stop companies from laying off employees and destabilizing employment. That sounds laudable, but the side effects are not.  Regulations have caused exactly the problem they meant to avoid.  What is really surprising is that — these regulations having been in place for years now and the results being very clear — the regulations have not been changed.  Is the government out of touch? Or is it simply very difficult to devise a regulatory system that would work? Every form of government has its upside and downside. In countries where we get to vote, you take your choice, in theory. But it  isn’t that simple. Sophisticated marketing and psychology are used to guide the gullible into voting against their best interests. In the US we have Grover Norquist. How do you explain the problem in France?

        1. Well I am not a French citizen so I am even further removed from the decision making than my French colleagues.

          I am not sure whether France has a good system or a bad system. What I was trying to say was that the reaction to these regulations does not seem optimal and that, from where I stand, the employers are basing their hiring strategy around gut feelings rather than rationality.

          It also swings both ways. Despite not being a permanent employee of my indirect employers I am a permanent employee of my actual employers and therefore benefit from a lot of state protection. This has been the longest I have lasted in my career without switching jobs and this is almost certainly because it feels like quitting my job is more of a risk now. Aggressively switching jobs may well be the optimal strategy for employees of my experience to maximize their salary but I notice that this happens far less in France than in Ireland, where I moved from.

    1. Thank you so much for going through them, point by point, in support of your assertion.

  4. I actually don’t get bothered that much when people advocate reducing the power of unions or relaxing labor regulations that make it difficult to fire people.  This is mostly because I view mechanisms that improve the lot of the existing workforce as things that also reduce the chance of the unemployed getting a job (because it becomes more expensive and risky for a company to hire new workers).
    On the other hand, what peeves me to no end is how the same people who advocate this relaxation of proletariat power also completely fail to understand the importance of a socialist safety net in this more “dynamic” and “competitive” state of affairs. When you can only get reasonably-priced health insurance by working at a big company, and when workers are expected to nearly entirely foot the bill of their own training (in the form of student loans), the “job creators” are insisting that our economy won’t be competitive unless losing your job means losing everything.

  5. It’s sad to me that “Do more with less” has come to mean “be more productive with less  head count and crappier equipment and tools” instead of a broader cultural less of “being happier with less material crap”.  

    With the 2008 debacle, what if we all embraced playing sports, games, “free” digital culture, arts, music, dancing, sex (what comes after dancing if yr lucky), ideas, books, diy, cooking, etc … the things that can be relatively cheap and free  … and got less interested in sports cars, outrageous travel, megahouses, a heap of suddenly obsolete hardware, out of fashion clothes, the latest exotic food from far away, etc.  Ah, but no.  

    There was no grand exodus of creatives to a cheap place in the midwest.

    Cable entertainment costs more than ever.

    The housing market still has the same nasty stuff behind it.

    Jeans are even more expensive. 

    Even lunch seems more.

    We’re all still nailed down to double-digit growth year over year.

    I like nice stuff too.  

    But it seems less and less shiny every year, or is just me?

  6. Hmm.. I don’t know what to think about the conclusions this author has made about anxiety disorders. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are anxious because of their job/financial situation, and I’m sure many of them are getting medicated. But that’s not the same as an anxiety disorder.

    I have an anxiety disorder, and the reason we call it a “disorder” is because it’s irrational. Most of the time I have no reason to be axious, yet I am. My mood actually has more to do with what I eat than the stress around me.

    1. But extended stress can produce psychological disorders. On a physiological level, prolonged stress alters the structure of the brain in a way that presents as depression. Stress also can make small psychological problems bigger, until they reach a point at which functionality collapses and treatment is necessary.

      1. Ah, yes. I concede, you are correct. I now see that my statement was based more on emotion than fact. I just don’t like being lumped in with a statistic I don’t feel I’m a part of. Happens a lot these days.

    2. Situational stress, depression, and anxiety are all treated and diagnosed as if they were not situational… your insurance won’t even pay for therapy unless you get a diagnosis. Oh, well, maybe you have one of those employee hotlines that you surely can trust.

  7. Nice loop.

    You need the work for the insurance. You need the insurance for the meds. You need the meds for the work. You need the work for the insurance… 

  8. Ha!  Exercise and booze, those keep me going.  I have been under-employed since June of 2008 (finished grad school), had employers tell me they loved my work but would never, ever hire me on as a permanent W-2 at a reasonable salary.  Reasonable salary = 4x rent.
    My bosses’ bosses were anxious about getting axed, and that anxiety certainly trickles down a lot more effectively than income…
    Fear drives people to make stupid, short-term decisions.  There’s a lot of fear going around right now.

    1. 4x rent? Wow, that would be great! I wonder if that’s what most people consider reasonable…

  9. Somehow I blame it on the fall of USSR. There was a time when the US had to compete for the workers’ souls, and make sure the suburban dreams of picket fences and 9-5 jobs were better than the black and white iron curtain nightmares.

    It is all over now and the only benchmark seems to be sharia-ruled countries, and the focus moved from economy to freedom. Or economy or freedom. Where will you run to? What are your union workers fight for?

  10. Job insecurity and debt are mostly about control and obedience. People are easier to control when under them, and both are very effective instruments. You’ll get charlatans and authoritarians claiming they are necessary to a functioning “economy”, but they aren’t, of course. It’s all about keeping people in line.

    1. Yep, it’s about having an easily exploitable, desperate, and fearful labor force.  Neofeudalism and neoliberalism.

      1.  christ on a cracker!

        what do you people do for a living?! get out of there! there are actually some businesses in existence where the boss is not carrying a whip or cattle prod, beating the slaves into submission!

        the article posted just before this one about the volcano tours is about some people who took a chance and started their own business. are they desperate and fearful?

        the article after, is by an independent cartoonist. who’s beating him down, keeping him in line?

        cory got out. all the other happy mutants got out. if it’s so bad, maybe just maybe, with an idea, a little work, some luck, you can too!                 

        in the words of Henry Ford (one of those evil capitalists):

        “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.”

        1. Summarized –

          People who face ill treatment deserve it because they allow it. Look at my examples of people who refused to allow it.

          Followed by a quote from Henry Ford –

          “History is more or less bunk.” Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916.

        2. “if it’s so bad, maybe just maybe, with an idea, a little work, some luck, you can too!”

          With such positive assurance, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t throw away a dependable, if uncertain, source of income in pursuit of that entrepreneurial dream that is all but likely to fail within the first five to ten years.  Feeding kids and paying rent is no excuse for not following your dreams, right?

        3. A more progressive and equitable society helps increase entrepreneurship.  That’s one of the reasons countries like Norway have better rates of start ups than we do.  If you fail and lose your life savings, you will still have a strong safety net to fall back on, unlike the U.S. where you could end up homeless, or in the hospital owing hundreds of thousands in bills.

  11.  “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

  12. Can I suggest a totally unscientific theory?

    I noticed I feel a lot more anxious when I drink coffee. I was on a cycle of several cups a day. I stopped and in a few days anxiety was gonne. I’ve seen articles talking about that.

    Could anybody plot the anxiety trend against the growth of Starbucks?

    [not saying there is no such thing as job insecurity, but maybe things are potentialized]

    1.  I don’t know if you’re taking the piss, but being poor/struggling in work in general has been shown to be incredibly stressful and have adverse effects on health.  Anybody, who’s constantly worried about paying the bills and whether or not they may be fired at any time can attest to that.

      1. And I don’t deny that. But is this something new? People only worry about their jobs today? I am sure it has increased, of course. But maybe there are environmental factors to help. It is just at par with big pharma’s modus operandi: you could help a patient by changing some habits, or you could just prescribe a new pill…

        1. Depends what you mean by “new”.  Increasing income inequality, loss of wealth, stagnating wages, these things have been on the rise for some time now. I don’t know what to say, you don’t follow the news? Sorry if that sounds flip, but seriously….

          1. New to the US – but not to many, many other countries. Would be interesting to see some comparables.

  13. Well, one notable characteristic of sociopaths is that they tend to be very good liars.

    1.  we’re foolish, frivolous and gullible as a whole. i always say wolves eat sheep because they’re delicious and easy to eat.

Comments are closed.