Temp. How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary

Hyman, Louis
New York 2018: Penguin Press
Anzahl Seiten
400 p.
€ 16,22
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Elisabeth Engel, German Historical Institute, Washington DC

Temporary workers recently began to complicate public notions of American job insecurity. Figures including adjunct lecturers, Uber drivers, and offshore call center agents increasingly make headlines as participants of an unstable “gig” economy, in which unprotected short-term work produces reliable revenue streams for an ever-broader variety of employers.[1] Louis Hyman, a historian of work and business, joins journalists and intellectuals in the attempt to appreciate the implications of this controversial phenomenon. In Temp, he prompts us to consider how “choices” shape flexible workforces and their potential to realize either American dreams of “liberation from wage labor” or “insecure lives in an unequal society” (p. 14).

While Hyman’s intervention is timely, it is also a noteworthy scholarly ambition. Studying temp work from the perspective of decision-making addresses questions of risk, security and management in the realm of capitalism. These problems have inspired historical research to an increasing extent since the financial crisis of 2008, and will likely remain relevant due to the present coronavirus pandemic. In addition, freelancers, consultants, on-call workers and independent contractors contribute a new group of unorganized workers to the field of labor history and a new theme to the growing body of literature on the history of management and bureaucracy.[2]

Temp traces the emergence of unstable jobs from the postwar era to the present. The analytical scope of the study is defined by businesses that commodified services, starting with the consulting firm McKinsey (1926) and the first temp agency, Manpower Inc. (1948), and continued by the online platforms Uber, Etsy and Upwork in the early 2000s. While this perspective excludes potentially older, murkier antecedents such as indentured servants or sex workers, it serves Hyman’s goal to reconstruct how temp work became a strategy of economic risk management for American corporations. Corporations were traditionally central for guaranteeing security of employment, because their legal privileges, limited liability, and shareholder capitalization reduced their risk of failure and promoted their continuity over the long term. Yet, professional efforts to modernize this longstanding structure in the turbulent 20th century called the need for permanent employees into question. As Hyman notes, the rise of short-term assignments began in the 1920s with management consultants, who offered to temporarily scrutinize company operations. By viewing consultants as a variety of temporary workers, Hyman expands existing research on the development of the consulting industry and its role in reshaping corporations into multidivisional firms, huge conglomerates and eventually “lean” companies. Temp agencies, a second type of temporary business, gained significance for corporations in the wake of consultants. They shaped dispensable workforces for purposes that evolved from emergency helpers to expert assistants for implementing bureaucratic and technological improvements, to leased workers that permanently replaced employees with essential functions. Hyman constructs his narrative of these often intersecting developments in consulting and temping by examining a wide variety of companies from multiple angels. Thus, the consulting agency McKinsey, General Motors, Citibank, the LTV conglomerate, and Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Apple in Silicon Valley – to name the probably best known firms – figure as corporations, investment opportunities, and employers of temp workers in the book.

Temp consists of thirteen empirical chapters that place temp work in two historical contexts: one is “the rise and fall of the postwar economy” and the other is the “second industrious revolution”. The book follows common chronologies according to which the 1970s were a breaking point in US economic history, characterized by recessions, the politics of deregulation, and the onset of the digital economy. The analysis begins with a set of chapters on four relevant groups of workers. Hyman introduces the standard white male employee of companies, female casual workers, male consultants, and auxiliary industrial or agricultural workers – who were usually immigrants or African-Americans – with keen attention to inequalities and discrimination in the postwar working world (pp. 15-112). The following five chapters shift the focus to the world that temps made. Here Hyman discusses the business models of American consulting firms and temp agencies, the development of technology consulting, the failure of conglomerates as a form of corporate risk management, and temp workers’ critique of their insecure working conditions (pp. 113–209). The last four chapters explore how dispensable workforces became the norm. Focusing mostly on examples from Silicon Valley, Hyman reveals that a demand for flexibility in corporations required the permanent presence of consultants, who managed the downsizing of fixed staff and the various types of on-call and on-contract workers, who were hired ad-hoc. This development peaked with “lean” companies in the digital gig economy, in which algorithms, online remote work, and apps finally made temp agencies and consultants superfluous (pp. 210–325).

Temp uncovers a complex and nuanced history of the obscure world of temp work. The book’s greatest strength is its consistent effort to describe what big terms like consulting, corporation, or flexible work meant for those affected – a method that characterizes the new history of capitalism. Hyman, who is known to represent this approach, skillfully creates an image of the American economy from ego-documents, including business publications, zines, speeches and questionnaires for workers. The great charm of the subjective perspective clearly emerges when we read, for example, the quote from a temp worker who had to transcribe “a tedious legal document, dictated by a disembodied individual who sounded as if he made it a habit to speak with pebbles in his mouth” (p. 204). Yet, grounding the study primarily in these sources has two obvious downsides for the clarity of the argument. First, Hyman’s case studies give a vivid idea of temp work in white-collar, industrial and high tech business environments, but neglect other parts of the American economy, such as food services or health care. Second, the anecdotal evidence is presented in short subsections that have no clear connection to the chapters’ unifying theme. For example, the chapter “Restructuring the American Dream” has eleven subtitles on a challenging variety of topics, including “Robots and Migrants” (p. 211), “Japanese Management” (p. 228) and “The IRS Comes to Silicon Valley” (p. 245). Presenting central findings concisely, in tables or chapter summaries, and sporadic comparisons to changing employment conditions outside the temporary labor market (Hyman briefly mentions McDonald’s franchise model and the W-2 tax forms for salaried and insured employees) would have helped to bring Hyman’s claim that “we all became temps” (p. 1) to the fore.

That said, Temp is an insightful reflection on how notions of risk and security shape jobs and thus economic (in-)stability in the US. Only a short time after the book’s publication, the shutdown economy of the coronavirus pandemic underscored the relevance of the topic. Temp workers, whose shadowy existence as food deliverers and shoppers currently proves more risky and indispensable than ever, deserve the voice Hyman gives them with this book.

[1] Kate Conger / Adam Satariano / Mike Isaac, Pandemic Erodes Gig Economy Work, New York Times, March 18, 2020, (18.06.2020).
[2] Michael Zakim, Accounting for Capitalism. The World the Clerk Made, Chicago 2018; Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery. Masters and Management, Cambridge 2018.

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