In the United States it’s called “the 9-to-5”; in France it’s métro, boulot, dodo –“subway, work, sleep”; in Japan it’s personified as the “salaryman” and his female equivalent, the “office lady”. Whatever it’s called, the traditional job seems to be something we all identify with.
So it was a surprising to read earlier this year that most jobs are anything but permanent, routine and predictable. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), only around one in four workers worldwide have what most of us think of as a traditional job – stable and full-time with predictable earnings and working for a single employer. The rest? They’re all “employed on temporary or short-term contracts, working informally often without any contract, are self-employed or are in unpaid family jobs,” as The Guardian reported.
To be sure, there are major variations. For example, even though there are signs of a slight shift towards higher rates of formal employment, very few people in poor and developing countries have formal jobs. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, fewer than one in five workers are working 9-to-5, says the ILO.
By contrast, traditional jobs are much more widespread in the wealthy OECD countries. But that, too, is showing signs of change. While part-time and temporary work and self-employment still only accounts for about one in three jobs in OECD countries, it makes up a much bigger share of new jobs. Between 1990 and the crisis, around half of all new employment in OECD countries involved these sorts of jobs.
Part-time and temporary work doesn’t always have a very good reputation – often for good reasons – but it undoubtedly meets the needs of some workers. Women, who still bear the brunt of household chores and parenting duties, are much more likely to work part-time than men. Among women who work, about 40% are part-timers against 28% for working men. Young people, too, are a big presence in non-traditional jobs. Among temporary workers, close to half are aged under 30. Some may be tempted by the gig economy; others are probably finding it impossible to break into the permanent workforce.
The growth of non-traditional jobs is affecting not just workers and their families. Its impact can also be seen in society and the economy, and not least in income inequality. The main reason for this is that part-time and temporary jobs are helping to drive a trend towards job “polarisation” or a hollowing-out of the workforce. In other words, old-style jobs are vanishing in the solid middle of the workforce – middle incomes, mid-level skills – while non-traditional jobs are increasingly prevalent among both low and high-skill workers. So, goodbye full-time accountants, hello part-time cleaners and freelance designers.
This squeeze on the middle would tend to widen the income gap in any case. But its impact is exacerbated by the fact that, for low-paid workers, non-traditional jobs tend to pay less – hour for hour – than traditional jobs. Indeed, about 60% of so-called “working poor” households rely mainly on income from non-standard workers.
And lower pay isn’t the only problem facing low-skill temps and part-timers. As the OECD’s recent report on inequality, In It Together, notes, non-traditional workers “tend to receive less training and, in addition, those on temporary contracts have more job strain and have less job security than workers in standard jobs.” Non-traditional work is also rather less of a “stepping stone” to a traditional job than many people think, especially for part-timers and the self-employed.
And there’s a cost for businesses, too, from the decline of traditional jobs: As the OECD’s Stefano Scarpetta told the FT recently, the rise of temping “is not even good for the firms themselves nor for the economy, because this reduces the build-up of human capital on the job.”
Still, despite the drawbacks, it seems clear that growing numbers of people are going to be temping, working part-time or self-employed in the future. In response, countries will need to find ways of better supporting such workers to ensure they don’t slip beneath the poverty line. That may mean changes to taxes and benefits and more support in areas like training and job search to ensure that non-traditional workers can maximise their earnings and job prospects.
OECD Policy Brief: Adapting to the changing face of work
In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All (OECD, 2015)
“How good is your job? Measuring and assessing job quality” – OECD Employment Outlook 2014
Where do you stand on the income scale? Find out with the OECD’s Compare Your Income web tool.