Sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day. And for working people who have to juggle family and work, locked into a rough schedule and the stress of poverty—there really aren’t enough.
The “new economy” of twenty-four-hour online shopping, global markets and just-in-time inventory churning, have created a demand for “flexible” labor—rapid-fire changes in schedules, shift-swapping, on-call staff. In a new book, Unequal Time, sociologists Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel survey how time is distributed across this new economic landscape, and finds that flexibility—and its evil twin, unpredictability—is creating a new social order that brings chaos to the workplace and the home.
Take for example a retail sales worker’s typical day: waiting all morning for the boss to call her about her shift time, learning when she’s due at work an hour before her kid gets off school, a frenzied search for a last-minute babysitter, arriving late and getting demerited by the boss, returning home exhausted only to realize she hasn’t seen her child all day and half the day’s earnings are already spent on the nanny.
This constant shuffling between impossible choices grows into a bleak routine—what the researchers call “normal unpredictability,” which is becoming the status quo in many industries. The “pervasiveness of routine disruptions,” Clawson and Gerstel write, wreaks “havoc in people’s jobs and families” in historically unprecedented ways.
Employers can capitalize on the system by “staffing lean,” hiring fewer workers on the cheap at part-time or just-short-of-full-time hours. Then overtime work practically becomes a de facto mandatory extra shift, even as workers’ schedules remain chaotic. The expanding temp work industry represents an entire labor force founded on this economy of instability and contingent labor: short-term hiring with erratic hours lets employers “outsource” precarity to the most vulnerable and impoverished workers.
Though all workers are exposed to scheduling volatility, how a worker copes with the burden of precarious work—a job specifically structured to be unstable—depends on the workplace power structure. Your ability to achieve a decent “work-life balance” may hinge on whether you’re a single parent, how accommodating your boss is about allowing time off for family or school commitments, or whether your workplace is unionized. The poorer you are, the less control you have over these factors on and off the job.