"Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary," Louis Hyman, Viking, 388 pages, $28.
A number of books have been published in recent years about the brave new gig economy, but “Temp” examines the underlying cultural shift that made it all possible.
An astounding 94 percent of American jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were for “alternative work.” Slow and steady growth used to be a cardinal virtue for the big American corporation — but much of the population was excluded from that norm. Now leanness and flexibility are prized, and nobody is spared.
Hyman, a labor historian at Cornell, argues that the common explanation for what happened — mainly, that our current dispensation was foisted on us by technological and economic change — is self-serving and inadequate.
Hyman homes in on two businesses in particular: Manpower, the temporary staffing agency, and McKinsey, the management consulting company. In his telling, they acted like a vise, with one supplying the labor and the other supplying the ideology. Those permanent, full-time employees were expensive, and temps were comparatively cheap. You didn’t have to pay them benefits or overtime, and their numbers could be quietly shed in a downturn.
His ending, about the gig economy, is weirdly upbeat. He believes that it’s still possible for work to be rewarding. Here, finally, is a book that encourages us to imagine a future that is inclusive and humane rather than sentimentalize a past that never truly was.
NEW YORK TIMES