Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Task Rabbit Economy

A new public poll by Hart Research shows a seething dissatisfaction by Americans over an economy a majority see as still in recession.

PRECARITY-webIn macro terms, the economy is expanding. We aren’t in recession. But the “we” in this case doesn’t include people with precarious work – the people stuck in what some critics call the Task Rabbit Economy.

Task rabbits don’t have a 9-to-5 life. They may have two or more jobs. None are dependable or offer employee benefits. Most don’t pay much more than the applicable minimum wage. For them, the career path looks like a rabbit hole.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, is a first-person account of people trying to make ends meet on precarious work. Read it and you will understand how the world looks from the rabbit hole.

When politicians, business leaders and economists talk about jobs, they usually are pointing to collective metrics that combine the gains by people at the upper end of the economic spectrum with the losses or stand-stills for those in the middle and lower ends of that spectrum. Overall we feel good that  businesses are hiring and unemployment is down.

Yet most of us know that many new jobs are not so great. They yield a paycheck, but don’t provide a living. This isn’t socialist propaganda. It is the view of a majority of Americans. In the Hart poll, 71 percent of respondents are somewhat or very dissatisfied with the state of the economy.Seventy-six percent lack faith that things will get better economically for the next generation. More than 50 percent cite widening income disparity as the reason and 71 percent blame ineffective political leadership.

Regardless of what or who you blame, this is a huge indictment of the Land of Opportunity. If you spend any time in a serious conversation with people who may be in precarious jobs, you can feel a palpable sense of apprehension or even the edges of anger.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a column reflecting on the Hart poll and other survey data with similar findings:

“Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the President, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope, but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.”

If there ever was a moment for political, business, religious and civic leaders to drop their talking points and confront the mounting reality of an economy gone wrong, it is now. Robert Kuttner, writing in “The American Prospect,” says the mass frustration is there for a mainstream politician to harvest into votes. He suggests some intriguing policies such as a higher minimum wage for on-call workers and stiff penalties for employers who dodge employee expenses by hiring “contractors.”

Chore BusinessBut instead of just seeing the Task Rabbit Economy as a political issue, why not view it as the business of America to fix. Instead of sloughing off costs that others, often through taxes, have to pick up, businesses should look for market solutions that restore equity to our economy, while preserving the flexibility to meet fast-changing demands. It would be a more robust version of the sharing economy, where what’s shared is more than a room or a car ride.

While answers may be hard to pound out, it would be well worth the time because we are marching toward a moment when the Task Rabbits become less submissive animals and full-time advocates for a promising future, if not for them, then for their children.

America has stood on a similar brink before. We know how to get off the ledge. Now is a good time to take the first steps.

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