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Book Review
April 2022

Economic globalization and the precarity of work

Precarious Lives: Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies. By Arne L. Kalleberg. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018, 248 pp., $24.95 paperback.

Few topics are as complex as those concerning the consequences of economic globalization. Over the years, the positive results of market expansion have included increased trade, lower prices, the creation of new jobs, and global economic growth. However, economic globalization has also meant the integration of labor markets, which multinational companies have leveraged by offshoring jobs to reduce costs and boost shareholder value. With technological advances further disrupting labor markets by increasing productivity with fewer workers, precarity is not limited to certain classes of workers, jobs, or even industries. Additionally, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has caused dramatic upheavals to several sectors of national economies, laying bare the linkages between job insecurity, social safety nets (or lack thereof), and declines in well-being for those most directly affected.

In Precarious Lives: Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies, Arne Kalleberg seeks to answer the following questions: (1) Why has there been a recent rise in precarious work in relatively privileged, rich democracies, and (2) How do country differences in responding to precarious work shape employment relations and affect community, family, and individual well-being? To answer these questions, Kalleberg examines national responses to precarious work in six advanced, postindustrial democracies: Denmark, Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While each country’s response to increasing job insecurity has varied, Kalleberg’s cross-national research illustrates how precarious work has led to precarious lives.

In the book’s opening chapter, the author explains that the rise in precarious work is a departure from the relatively stable “standard employment relationship” that characterized labor during the post-World War II era until roughly the late 1970s, particularly for formerly advantaged, nonminority men. Increased international competition has resulted in declines in full-time employment with benefits, scaled-back worker benefits for existing full-time jobs, a sharp rise in temporary employment (the “gig” economy), weakened legal and social protections for those thrown out of work, decreased bargaining power of labor, and externalization of employment risks to workers.

In subsequent chapters, Kalleberg examines the response of each country to precarious work, identifying cross-country differences in the institutions that mitigate the impacts of such work. Among the institutional features discussed are (1) social welfare benefits and protections, (2) market deregulation and risk, (3) active labor market policies, (4) worker power resources, and (5) the presence of temporary work. While the United States and the United Kingdom responded to the increase of precarious work by deregulating labor markets and social protection institutions, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Denmark responded by implementing dual or collective risk-sharing approaches. Kalleberg’s research finds that countries with more robust active labor market policies, social welfare benefits, and worker protections are more successful in mitigating the effects of precarious work, even in the face of higher national unemployment rates.

Kalleberg then analyzes the impact of job insecurity on young adults. Although the rise in precarious employment has increased uncertainty for all workers, young adults have been more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or working in low-wage jobs. With a dearth of opportunities for self-supporting work, young adults have been delaying their school-to-work transition (a marker of adulthood), often being unable to afford to live on their own. Across all six countries examined, the average age of first marriage has risen by 7 years and the number of children per family has sharply declined. Those who have been unable to find regular work have also been at risk from marginalization and exclusion, depending on the extent to which their community (or country) has stigmatized or blamed them for their own predicament.

Kalleberg notes that subjective well-being is directly affected by the strength of social welfare programs and labor market policies designed to ameliorate the effects of precarious work. Across several datasets, Denmark and Germany show higher levels of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and objective and perceived job and economic security; these levels directly correlate with more worker-friendly labor market policies and greater social welfare protections in both countries. Despite the relatively low levels of social welfare benefits and labor market protections in America, the United States ranked third (out of the six countries) in life satisfaction. Kalleberg attributes this relatively high ranking to the optimistic, hopeful, and upbeat nature of Americans, which affects how Americans respond to life satisfaction surveys in general. Additionally, Japan ranked lower in subjective well-being and life satisfaction, despite having relatively low levels of perceived job and economic insecurity. The data suggest that the relationship between perceived job and economic insecurity and subjective well-being is more complex, with other factors affecting how subjective well-being is reported.

In the final chapter, Kalleberg proposes a new social contract to alleviate the conflicting concerns of workers, governments, and the private sector, advocating for expanded social safety nets, greater worker access to “retooling” education, and stronger labor laws that shield all types of work. Throughout the book, the author masterfully synthesizes and analyzes copious amounts of data to show why and how each of the six countries chosen for comparison has responded to the problem of precarious work. A major contribution to the literature, Precarious Lives can help legislators and policymakers evaluate current national laws, regulations, and economic and social policies to determine how to better support both companies and workers in a constantly shifting global economy that has destabilized domestic labor markets.

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About the Reviewer

Mary Riley

Mary Riley is an attorney licensed in the State of Illinois.

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