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RSF: THE RUSSELL SAGE FOUNDATION JOURNAL OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
New Developments in American Job Quality: Understanding the Recent Rise of Low-Wage Jobs and Nonstandard Work Arrangements
David R. Howell, The New School
Arne L. Kalleberg, University of North Carolina
The question of job quality has emerged as a key challenge for researchers and policy-makers in the 21st century. The growing realization that the quality, not just the quantity, of jobs is central to addressing a myriad of social and economic problems—such as economic development, family formation and social integration, poverty and inequality, and individual well-being—has put this age-old topic on the front burner for social scientists.
This issue of RSF will focus on two important dimensions of the quality of jobs created in the past three decades in the United States. First, there has been an expansion of low-wage jobs, a phenomenon that has been documented by numerous studies, many of which have been sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. This proliferation of low-wage work, especially among younger workers, has contributed to the weakening of the middle class, reversing the dramatic improvements experienced by the middle of the income distribution in the three decades following World War II (Sullivan, Warren and Westbrook 2001; Appelbaum, Bernhardt and Murnane 2006).
Second, there has been a dramatic increase in nonstandard jobs such as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers. Many of these jobs are uncertain, unstable and insecure, in which employees bear most of the risks of work (as opposed to businesses or the government) and receive limited social benefits and statutory protections (e.g., Kalleberg 2011). Recent studies document an increased incidence of alternative work arrangements, especially among workers hired through contract firms (Weil 2014; Katz and Krueger 2016). While some nonstandard jobs may be good ones—such as well-paid consultants who have high control over the terms and conditions of work—most such jobs are characterized by low pay, low security, and poor working conditions.
Low-wage and nonstandard jobs are interconnected. In both types, workers typically receive few employment-related benefits. They also often lack statutory protections in the form of labor laws and benefits such as health insurance and pension contributions that some employers provide. Moreover, workers in low-wage and nonstandard jobs often tend to be the most vulnerable members of the labor force such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, immigrants and undocumented workers. While nonstandard jobs often pay low wages, low-wage jobs are also increasingly found in “standard” employment relations. The shifting of risks from employers to workers has reduced protections for standard workers too, leading to declines in their quality.
This journal issue aims to bring together papers that examine three main topics related to job quality in the United States: the causes of the increase in low-wage and nonstandard jobs; their impacts on workers and their families; and policies that are needed to enhance the quality of low-wage and nonstandard jobs.