Cause for concern, cause for action

Last week, Matthew Mendelsohn, director of The Mowat Centre, spoke for an audience of United Way donors and partners about the fast-growing problem of precarious employment.

“Precarious” probably isn’t a word you want to associate with your paycheque. But 40% of workers in the GTA and Hamilton are working in jobs that exhibit some degree of precariousness: stringing together short-term contracts, working several part-time jobs instead of a full-time position, or working freelance, among other non-traditional work arrangements. (Traditional employment being full-time, on-going, and usually with benefits.) Some are more vulnerable than others, of course—many freelancers and consultants choose that flexibility. But employment precarity has increased nearly 50% in the past 20 years, and while it’s most prevalent among low-income earners, it’s fast becoming a middle-class issue as well.

As Mendelsohn describes the issue, it’s all about risk: Who bears it, and who takes responsibility for it.

Traditionally, the burden of risk—of an employee falling sick, having an accident, getting laid off—was borne by the employee, the employer and the government. But with the rise of precarious employment and the erosion in the “social contract” between employers and employees, that burden is shifting, in a big way, to individuals. What does all this mean? Essentially, people facing uncertainty are likelier to postpone fundamental life decisions: starting a family, buying a home, etc. More troubling, says Mendelsohn, rates of intergenerational mobility—the assumption that young people will be at least as well off as their parents—has been eroding, throwing into doubt the “Canadian promise” that has been so attractive to newcomers.

Of course, some people prefer non-standard working arrangements—they appreciate the added flexibility in a dynamic economy. The challenge is to implement public policy to make non-traditional working arrangements, well, work better. This means investing in social infrastructure – housing, transit, childcare, recreation, early childhood education—to ensure the burden of risk is once again more evenly shared between government, employers and individuals. Below, Mendelsohn addresses just a few of the realistic public policy responses to the rise of precarious work.

For a really in-depth look at the issue, check out It’s More Than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being, a report prepared earlier this year by United Way and Hamilton’s McMaster University. And be sure to share your thoughts or experiences about this emerging economic reality.