Why many employees feel devalued even in booming job market
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For more than two decades, Ken White worked at a credit card processor. It was a good job, but it fell victim to the Great Recession.
Today, at 56, White does similar work managing technology projects for a regional bank. And yet everything feels different. He is a contractor for a technology services firm that assigns him to the bank. He is paid less, and the bonuses and stock awards he once earned as a full-fledged employee are long gone.
For all the U.S. economy's robust job growth, White and many people like him don't feel much like beneficiaries of what is now the longest expansion on record. The kinds of jobs they once enjoyed — permanent positions, with stability, bonuses, pensions, benefits and opportunities to move up — are now rarer.
"It's not as easy as it was," White says.
White's evolution from employee to contractor is emblematic of a trend in the American workplace a full decade after the recession ended: The economy keeps growing. Unemployment is at a half-century low. Yet many people feel their jobs have been devalued by employers that increasingly assign a higher priority to shareholders and customers.
Economic research, government data and interviews with workers sketch a picture of lagging wages, eroding benefits and demands for employees to do more without more pay. The loyalty and security that many say they once felt from their employers have diminished, and with it some measure of their satisfaction.
Experts point to a sea change in the American job experience that began decades ago but has grown more visible across a wider spectrum of jobs. They see a confluence of forces squeezing workers — from globalization and workplace automation to a decline of labor unions, fiercer price competition and a growing use of outside firms and contractors.
At the same time, the gulf between CEO pay and median worker pay has widened . Publicly traded companies are increasingly plowing cash into stock buybacks and shareholder dividends.
"We've made decisions and baked into the structure this extreme inequality at this point," said Barbara Dyer of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT's Sloan School of Management, a project to improve management practices. "It's a function of a lot of choices that we may not have even been conscious of."
A collaborative analysis of the 2018 General Social Survey by The AP-NORC Center and GSS staff found a rise in people saying their workplace has grown more demanding.
Around one in three workers said they now face too much work to do everything well. About one in five said they held a job other than their main one. About three-quarters said they had to work extra hours beyond their usual schedule at least one day a month. All those numbers are up from 2006.
Half of working Americans in 2018 said they believe workers need strong unions, up from 40% in 2006. Among workers under 35, 60% favor strong unions at a time when union participation has been steadily dwindling.
Many measures of inequality still have not returned to where they were before the recession: The wealthiest Americans now hold a greater share of the nation's wealth. Middle-income households have less home equity. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, has barely budged in two decades.
And an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that corporate profits have far outpaced employee compensation since the early 2000s.