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Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s By Arne L. Kalleberg Russell Sage Foundation. 2011. 292 pages. $37.50 cloth.
Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone By Paul Osterman and Beth Shulman Russell Sage Foundation. 2011. 181 pages. $24.95 paper.

As the United States tries to maneuver its way out of the Great Recession, some injurious trends in the organization of employment and employment institutions seem starker than ever. Job quality increasingly is polarized, between a substantial sector of “good” jobs providing anywhere from living to astronomically high wages, benefits, opportunities for advancement and training, and a substantial sector of “bad,” dead-end jobs (about 25% of all jobs, according to Osterman and Shulman) paying minimum or near-minimum wages (creating an unacceptably large population of working poor). Employment precariousness has spread across the occupational and professional spectrum: few employees, even those with good jobs, are exempt from labor market volatility and possible job loss due to layoffs, restructuring, and outsourcing. Unprecedentedly high long-term unemployment rates exacerbate the deleterious effects of both polarization and precariousness. Combined, these trends have put virtually everyone at risk. They threaten the quality of individual, family and community life, and, some would argue, democracy itself. Understanding how to moderate or reverse them is a major challenge for policy makers and policy-oriented researchers.

Good Jobs, Bad Jobs and Good Jobs America add to a growing and impressive body of literature about these trends, much of it published by the Russell Sage Foundation (as these two books are) and Cornell University/ILR Press (e.g., Appelbaum, Bernhardt and Murnane 2006; Bivens 2011; Blank, Danziger and Schoeni 2008; Doellgast 2012; Finegold et al. 2010; Holzer et al. 2011). They [End Page 1105] paint a comprehensive picture of the interrelated dimensions of economic/occupational change in the last 20 years. Certain core themes weave throughout this literature, such as analysis of the structural forces that have reconfigured work and employment (global competition, financialization of the economy, rise of the service sector, deregulation, technology), changing skill and education requirements, demographic trends that intersect with and create new labor market trends, earnings trends (earnings losses for displaced workers, the increase of poverty level wages, earnings and wealth inequality more generally), the degree to which employment relations have become mediated by the market (outsourcing, greater use of contingent and contracted workers), and the erosion of workers’ power (declining unionization). They also concur about the policies that might ameliorate the tenuousness and insecurity faced by American workers located at the epicenter of these changes (job training programs, job creation programs, tax incentives to employers who train their workers and create good jobs, better unemployment and health insurance policies).

Kalleberg (a sociologist), Osterman (a labor economist), and Shulman (a labor lawyer and activist prior to her death in 2010) add immeasurably to this discussion about what’s wrong with our economy, viz., jobs and employment, and what might be done to correct it. Their books complement each other beautifully, placing the issue of job quality (measured by earnings, benefits, opportunity and autonomy) at the forefront of an agenda for change. Although their focus differs (Kalleberg defines and measures job quality, using economic and noneconomic indicators, to illuminate good and bad jobs, while Osterman and Shulman focus on bad, below-standard jobs), there is considerable overlap in their agendas. Both books outline the dynamics of jobs and labor markets today and identify unequal outcomes for diverse groups of workers. Both are concerned to expand the number of good jobs, whether through job creation programs that establish high-wage and benefits standards (for example, Kalleberg discusses new public sector jobs that could put people to work rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure of roads, schools and parks), or by encouraging employers to change the compensation and work conditions of already existing bad jobs (for example, Osterman and Shulman discuss how low-wage, low-opportunity jobs in health care, manufacturing, construction or retail might be reorganized).

Although the two books diverge in their assessment of polarization and of whether jobs in the middle are disappearing (with Kalleberg...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-7605
Print ISSN
0037-7732
Pages
pp. 1105-1109
Launched on MUSE
2013-02-28
Open Access
No
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