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Why work has failed us: The broken promise of a “decent job”

Our new series looks at how jobs are failing to support their workers in terms of salary, healthcare, childcare, housing, and retirement.

Why work has failed us: The broken promise of a “decent job”
[Source Photo: portishead1/Getty Images]

Full-time employment in this country rests, at least theoretically, on an unspoken but well-understood deal. You work for 40 or more hours a week to help a company make more money. In exchange, the company will pay you enough so that you can afford a roof over your head (perhaps even on land that you own), will help subsidize the cost of caring for your health, give you enough to make a good life for your children, and–once you’ve given the good part of your life to your work–make sure you have enough money to live out the rest of your non-working days in relative comfort.

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After World War II, it’s this idea that helped undergird the post-war economic boom, and created our modern idea of what the American Dream really is: Put in your time for a company, and the company gives you the foundation to build a comfortable life. Today, the economy is–by most simple statistical measures–booming. The stock market is soaring. Unemployment is incredibly low. So why does it seem like everyone is having a hard time getting by?


Read the whole series, each on a different part of life a job used to provide for:


A recent survey found that nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 for an emergency. Housing costs in many cities have soared out of reach of all but the extremely wealthy. Childcare has become so expensive that women are choosing to delay or entirely forgo having families, because they simply can’t afford it. People are forced to take to crowdfunding sites, hat in hand, to beg for enough money to pay for their insulin–and die when they don’t win a life-or-death contest of internet virality. The economic boom, it seems, isn’t being shared.

There is a simple explanation: As company profits have soared, salaries have remained stagnant. Since the end of the last recession, corporate profits as a share of national income have hit their highest points in the last half-century; employee pay as a share of national income has been at its lowest ebb.  CEO pay is rising, stockholders (the richest 10% of Americans own 84% of the stock) are seeing billions in returns in the form of stock buybacks, but the average worker is reaping very little of the reward. Technology has made each worker vastly more productive, but the wealth that extra productivity creates isn’t being shared in the form of increased wages or less time at work.

So in honor of Labor Day, every day this week we’ll be publishing essays examining just where the deal went south between workers and companies in key areas–compensation, childcare, housing, healthcare, and retirement–and what policies, both corporate and governmental, might be able to tip the scales back in the other direction.

If you’re working hard every day, but feel like you’re treading water financially, you’re not alone. It’s almost certainly not your fault–and there are ways we can fix it.

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About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly FastCoExist.com. Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at] fastcompany.com

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