The recent shift of employers looking towards employing contract, contingent freelance, and temp workers has also brought promises of flexible work hours, higher hourly rates, and independence—but at what cost?
The past decade has brought a swath of change to the Atlanta job landscape. As more outsiders embrace the A as a thriving cultural scene with reasonable real estate prices, more transplants make the pilgrimage to stake their claim in the third coast swamp that sits inside I-285. It seems as though billboards flank the interstate with encouraging statements like “Opportunity lives here,” “It’s better in the South,” and “Thriving downtown communities want you!” For those who have witnessed this change, the reality is quite different.
Good paying jobs are hard to find (unless you are blessed with some amount of nepotism), hard to keep, and—more frequently than not—do not provide workers with a sense of purpose. More and more millennials are finding themselves with two or more “gigs” in order to keep up with the increased costs of living in a growing city. And while the news drums up the fact that employment rates are up in the United States, that trumped-up statistic doesn’t account for the fact that many Americans are working all these part time “gigs,” boosting that rate. A recent figure from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics claims that nationally, 11% of workers have shifted to freelance work for their full-time pay, even more if you count moonlighting, temping, or other side-hustles.
This national trend is clearly present here in Atlanta. As cited in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Atlanta is a hub for temp-supplied labor with “about 4% of metro Atlanta’s workforce” having a temp job, which is twice the national average.
Proponents of working in this gig economy argue that freelance work provides workers with more flexibility, greater independence, and opportunity to expand skills through performing varied jobs. On the flip side, these workers give up benefits, feel isolated, report more stress, and have to deal with keeping up with complicated finances. As an example of this, contractors are responsible for reporting their own earnings, with many encouraged to report income quarterly in order to lessen the burden of having to pay a year’s worth of taxes in a single sitting. This means doing taxes four times a year.
Companies are chomping at the bit to shift their workforce to contingent labor and for obvious reasons: reduced cost in employee benefits (a savings as high as $100,000 per contractor in tech companies), real estate savings from the transition to remote work, and the ability to pivot the team, to name a few.
A striking national example of this tactic can be found at Google. A recent New York Times article reported that as of March 2019, Google reported 121,000 temp and contract workers on their payroll, compared with 102,000 full-time employees.
However, companies themselves struggle with the distinction. Typically, there are no consistent guidelines defining the difference between a full-time employee and a contract worker. Because of the lack of regulation, the current definitions are centered on the differing treatment of each employee type. Contractors are often not able to participate in company gatherings (no Christmas party for you, Sue!), view internal job postings, get paid vacation time, have full benefits, etc.
This is further complicated by the fact that there are national term guidelines for contract and temp labor, maxing out at 1,040 hours per year, with the option of extending the contract for one additional year. Companies like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Google have rules in accordance with these terms, mostly in an effort to protect themselves from contract workers claiming they have the same rights as full-time employees.
Things start to get really sticky when looking at highly skilled contract and freelance employees working on long-term projects. Companies still enforce their work term limits, often eliminating historical knowledge and productivity along with it. Looking back to the example of Google, the company laid off 80% of a 43-person team working on Artificial Intelligence this past April. One hundred percent of these people were contractors.
This is not news. This shift has been happening for several years and millennials are used to hearing these types of figures. Coming of age in the time of the Great Recession set expectations that any job is a good job and you are lucky to have it.
However, as it turns out, that’s not entirely true.
A recent Gallup report on How Millennials Want to Work and Live found that the “majority of millennials (55%) are not engaged [at work], leading all other generations in this category.” The report also found that 21% of millennials have changed jobs in the past year, “more than three times the number of non-millennials who report the same.”
This is further supported by the 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey. According to the report, “economic and social/political optimism is at record lows.” Overall, this generation is “pessimistic about social progress” and “[expresses] a strong lack of faith in traditional societal institutions.”
Millennials know there are not many guarantees in the modern workforce and have adjusted their expectations to match. They anticipate little to no stability in their career, are taking on more work at a lower rate than full-time employees, and care less about the actual job. This results in less productivity, more turnover to fix the productivity problem, and drops in corporate profits—all potentially contributing to a decline in the economy.
The trend toward more contract work is not going away. However, companies are starting to realize that in order to remain profitable, turnover needs to be limited. Moreover, they recognize that the current working generation will align themselves more closely with companies that support their values. These factors can hypothetically shift the power back to the workforce, so long as apathy and Netflix don’t take over.
Not all hope is lost. While many Atlanta-based gig-workers (with the exception of the film industry) are not accustomed to feeling the support from a large organizing body (i.e. labor union), community support is on the rise. According to a recent Gallup poll, public support of labor unions is up to 62%—a 15-year high—and companies are taking notice.
The August strike of 4,000 Georgia AT&T workers is a recent success story where the company amended its negotiation tactics in response to the steadfast position of the picketing workers. Gig workers can take this as inspiration for encouraging change by simply organizing and not backing down.
There is no single solution to fix the pessimistic outlook of an entire generation. If values and experiences have a positive impact on outlooks and general well-being, then a solution for disillusioned millennials could be to shift one (or more) working commitments to a cause or activity that brings them joy (possibly volunteering to write for a local zine?). Even if it doesn’t contribute to the rent or utility bills, the sense of community and control that comes along with it can trickle into the work mentality that fills most of the day.