Busy-ness: the new low wage

Robert Bernard Reich, American politician, aca...
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The common topic of conversation in my department is time.  We are either talking about how little time we have, or moaning about  how much time is taken up with meetings, committees, and various functions designed to increase student engagement.  No matter how hard we work, it seems like there is more to be done.  Most weekends will find at least half of the department in their offices working.  We can’t quite figure out how this happened.

I had an aha! moment while listening Robert Reich’s commentary on NPR tonight.  Expecting that Friday’s jobs report will be bleak, he predicts that Americans will be advised to work for lower wages in order to get more jobs – but this won’t add more money to the economy, so it won’t lead to recovery.

He described several ways in which people working the same jobs are subtly paid less:

Their co-pays, deductibles and premiums have soared. And their employer no longer matches their 401(k) contributions. …Even wage freezes morph into lower wages as inflation eats into the value of the dollar. For three decades now, America’s median wage has barely budged, adjusted for inflation.

But in academe, it’s a bit more subtle.  Many colleges – mine is one – are increasing enrollments, and hiring adjunct faculty to take up the extra teaching load. It looks like a typical two-tiered hiring structure, with full-time faculty keeping their higher salaries and benefits while the new hires have a different type of contract.

In fact, the increasing use of adjuncts has the impact of lowering wages for the full-time faculty as well. With more students and programs, the outside-the-classroom hours have soared.  Where faculty worked 50 hours weeks, 60 is now more common.  For workers on a salary, that increased work load is, in essence, a decrease in the hourly wage.

Unlike the other mechanisms Reich described, this increase in hours doesn’t “create jobs by becoming poorer” financially – but by impoverishing people’s stress level, family life, leisure, and happiness.  His closing comment is equally applicable:

“Don’t be fooled. It’s no big accomplishment to create jobs by getting poorer. We’re already on the way. The real goal is to create more good jobs.”

There’s a lot of advice given about slowing down one’s life, getting off the treadmill. It is all aimed at the individual, telling us that we can slow down by choosing to buy fewer consumer gadgets and fashionable clothing. Seen through Reich’s eyes, though, the lower-tier worker may need two jobs to put food on the table, while the salaried worker may have to work longer hours to keep the job.

Listen to Reich’s commentary.

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About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota, serving in vocation and oblate ministry. Also a social scientist, reader, lover of nature and travel, and dabbler in many things. +UIOGD
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2 Responses to Busy-ness: the new low wage

  1. Monica Isley says:

    This is so sad–and so true. “Corporations,” whether they be true corporations or simply big versions of anything, are getting more and more high-handed in how they’re treating people. In many instances, their bottom line is profit. I come from a newspaper background, and what I see happening there is criminal. Where I now live, there are two weekly papers, one privately owned, one owned by a newspaper chain. As soon as a small paper is bought by a chain, profit expectations go up, staff is cut, hours are increased, etc., etc. “Just enough” is a foreign concept to most businesses these days–especially if they have investors who are interested in more and more profit. The worker and his needs are at the bottom of consideration list.

    • Sister Edith says:

      I was reading the German sociologist Max Weber with an independent study student – and was struck by a line he wrote. He said that the structures of bureaucracy, once they take hold in our minds, are almost impossible to dispel. I think I’ll be writing more about Weber sometime soon. Thanks for your comment!

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