In 1995 I quit a regular (albeit wildly un-remunerative) job in publishing to come to London and temp for a few months. A year of editing had taught me extreme pedantry and how to type at 70wpm; I thought this enough to get me a choice of well paid jobs, maybe even as much as £8 per hour. That dizzying prospect was as far as my forward planning stretched.

It was miserable. The macro graphs may suggest otherwise but even in London I experienced nothing resembling a boom. The rosy picture painted by my female friends – of long glamorous gigs in the media sector, generally ending in an appreciative review and job offer -failed to materialise. The closest I came was an evening of free curry and PowerPoint at Saatchi’s (I boasted about this). More usually it was a couple of days here and there typing letters for insurance salesmen, on pre-mouse green screen computers. I had to sign up to a dozen agencies, calling them each daily, to have any chance of covering the rent and economy bag of Iceland potato croquettes.

I learned a lot. Above all, that there isn’t a steady demand for 23 year old male Oxford educated temps. My cv met with incredulity, and an intelligent guess that I must be somewhat flawed to be in this position. But I also gained a lasting apprehension towards very flexible work, even though the flexible labour market ultimately paid off for me and gave me a far better return than becoming a lifer at a multinational might have.

I don’t much enjoy remembering 1995-6 and the risks I took, despite the stakes being low; I had no kids, the worst that awaited me was a shameful shuffle back to my parents’ place and months of applications to banks and accountancy firms. This astonishingly good piece on the gritty reality of the Sharing Economy shows how much worse it may be now, despite or even thanks to the wonders of new technology. Please read it – it is fantastic journalism. My experience of needing to call several agencies a day for work is the reality of this new economy – people with one phone for Uber, another screen for TaskRabbit, ads on Craiglist, and so on.  But this time for (clearly inspirational) parents with nowhere else to go.

Please read it.

As a special adviser I occasionally met people evangelical about the sharing economy and the possibilities on offer.  I have nothing against the idea that there are missing markets out there, extra useful work with willing buyers and sellers on each side of the bargain.  But as a model for an entire economy it feels dismal.  Just because technology makes it possible for the world to be run in an atomised way, with millions of odd-job men and women, doesn’t mean that this is the best or fairest institutional design.

You don’t need to read Coase to know that there is a reason for firms to exist.  Seven years after my time as a temp I wrote my MBA dissertation on Loyalty and how vital commitment is within a firm – in the customer relationship, and towards employees.  Finding data to back up this soppy notion was a doddle. Investing in your staff, rather than trading them, is so often the obvious and intelligent thing to do.

I was lucky to be able to move up and away from having to trade myself daily.  It sometimes feels like, as an economy, we have moved too much the other way.

 

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4 thoughts on “Insecurity flashbacks

  1. Isn’t it the inherent nature of this work that makes it difficult? I mean you could imagine a company that provided the kind of services that the article describes, but wouldn’t that firm just experience the same kind of challenges in scraping up consistent long term work from all these small scraps. So wouldn’t the workers be exposed to the same kind of risks and issues? So it is not the existence or not a a firm that is the issue here.

    The reality is that there are (probably) just not enough “big company” jobs to go around, that provide long term steady incomes, with routines and work hours that are friendly, and with interesting work and colleagues. Wishing that there are will not make them appear.

    1. I’m like a hammer and everything is a nail; I think the underlying culprit is low levels of demand and cash spending in the economy. I think doing all this in such an atomised way is probably inefficient, and if there was more cash around, firms could indeed provide such multi services and provide the buffer to help employees ride out the bumps in demand, internalise training spillovers, etc. I suspect it produces a more productive equilibrium for the whole economy. This is another reason I am such an inflation dove. More spending provides the resources for firms to choose more productive ways of operating.

      I don’t think there is an intrinsic fact of what work is “out there” – it’s highly endogenous.

      1. Well we agree on the need to boost demand. But I doubt even 1970’s style inflation would get demand up so far that everybody would be employable in “big company” type jobs. But I guess we can differ on that.

        On a related point I really do believe that these new technologies have made things better not worse for people working in this sector. The lady in the referenced article was actually getting a pretty decent stream of work through these various internet enabled ways. She would have needed a lot of shoe leather and more investment in time in the past to get that work, if she could manage at all. Matching buyers and sellers of such disparate intermittent services is not an easy task. In that regard “more productive” ways of operating are being found. And the firms that supply the work to her are pretty incentivised, one would think, to find ways of keeping work going to her.

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