toxic jobs

Personal stories about toxic jobs and workplace woes.

February 20, 2008

short work contracts suck

Finding a suitable first job is a huge problem for graduates, and when Carla found hers she then started worrying about whether it’s going to last more than six months.

"When you’re working in a volatile economy," says Carla, "you’re likely to worry so much that you soon start feeling 80 years old rather than 20. Living at home with my parents is a wonderful cushion for me right now, but I really want to be able to plan my life and have something to look forward to."

Carla agrees that lack of job security is a problem for all workers, not just young people, but she claims that it hits young people harder because without a glowing future to look forward to it’s easy to fall into depression or numb yourself with alcohol and drugs.

Carla’s parents are happy to provide her with a home for the rest of her life and don’t understand why she is so eager to achieve independence. They advise her not to worry so much, not to moan about the lack of permanent jobs and not to expect permanency to flow on from the job she has now. It is true, they say, that she may not be able to plan an independent life without job security, but nothing these days comes with a guarantee - even a permanent job.

Instead, Carla’s parents tell her to look at the shifting economic sands as providing opportunities for personal growth that people stuck in permanent jobs often sorely lack. Rather than one opportunity at the start of her life, that bogs her down forever, they tell Carla that she has a future full of hundreds of opportunities.

Unfortunately, the only opportunity Carla wants is an opportunity to leave home and strike out on her own. She’s angry that her generation doesn’t have the same job security that her parents had. They are in permanent jobs that they gained fresh from school and will be there until they retire!

"It’s very common," says Carla, "for people over 40 to be in the same job, or working for the same company, all of their working life. Finding someone in their 20s or 30s who can claim this distinction is rare. Permanent jobs either don’t exist any more, or if they do they are not in my field or not the type of job I want. Not even government jobs are guaranteed to be permanent these days."

A work contract of six months, with a renewable option, is a very good deal and this is what Carla has at present in her first job.

"Three months, with a renewable option," says Carla, "seems to be a standard work contract so I suppose I am lucky to have a longer tenure. Most of my friends are on short term contracts. Let’s face it, companies often don’t stay in business that long. Mergers, restructures and liquidations happen with alarming frequency and I accept that companies don’t want to take on the responsibility of offering staff permanent employment when they don’t know what the future holds."

Furthermore, she accepts that there are a lot more people in the employment pool nowadays than there are jobs available for them. Hiring contract staff is easy and cheap. Firing permanent staff is difficult and expensive.

Carla may not be able to plan her life with as much certainty as her parents did, but she is definitely going to have a lot more freedom, variety and opportunity in her working life than they did.

Her parents belong to the last generation, the Baby Boomers born 1946-1955, for which slapping a deposit down on a home and a car and paying them off in monthly installments was an achievable reality at the start of their working life.

Carla has friends who are heavily in debt with student loans, car repayments and credit card debt because they lost jobs they thought would last forever. Some of them were forced to sell at a loss their cars and personal goods such as PCs, telephones and sound systems.

"It’s heart breaking," says Carla, "and eBay is nothing more than a modern version of the old pawnshops of the 1930s depression years where jobless people forfeited their personal belongings for food money."

Although Carla is taking advantage of the job she has now to save up enough to be able to pay cash for personal goods so that she is not going to be burdened by debt when her job contract ends, she is never going to have enough money to buy a decent car and run it on her wages. And, as for an apartment of her own, forget it! Her parents console her with the fact that when they die she will inherit their apartment, but Carla is sickened by the prospect of living with her parents for the next forty years. She wants a place of her own, now!

Carla is trying very hard to buy the argument that trading permanency for freedom in the workplace is a good thing, and that she may as well embrace this fact of 21st century life and profit from it because that is the way things are and will be - unless, of course, a catastrophe wipes out half of the employment pool and she becomes a scarce commodity.

Yes, Carla accepts that without a permanent job she is, in effect, a free agent. She can determine when she wants to work and for how long. She can even register herself as a company and claim many expenses that she would not normally be able to claim in a permanent job. Her opportunities are limited only by her imagination!

Also, when she is older she will have no reason to lament, as her parents do: "I wish I had traveled, got involved in music or sport or (insert appropriate lament here) when I was young but I was too busy working, paying off a house, bringing up kids, etc".

Between the many jobs Carla is going to have over her working life, she will have a chance to indulge herself in all of those wonderful things that she may not be able to do when she is older. Her parents point out that she can use the precious leisure time she will be given over the years to excel at something she enjoys that might eventually earn her a better income than a regular job.

Unfortunately, Carla doesn’t harbor any secret desires to be a model, an athlete, an artist or anything else in particular. And the last thing she wants to do is go back to school.

"I am just an average girl who wants her independence and a place of her own," explains Carla, "and not having a secure job is preventing me from doing what I really want to do."

The other argument - that young people can now trade permanency for variety in the workplace - doesn’t wash with Carla either.

"It’s true," says Carla, "that when I go from job to job - for six months here and three months there - I’ll be learning a variety of skills that someone in a permanent job wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn in a lifetime. And it’s also true that I’ll be meeting a lot of people and making valuable contacts that may be useful one day should I ever wish to start a business of my own. But the fact is that being multi-skilled benefits employers more than it does me, and as for starting my own business - forget it!"

And the final argument - that contract workers escape the many annoyances and downright breaches of rights that permanent workers have to face - doesn’t make sense to Carla at all. She claims that contract workers have more, not less, misery at work than permanent workers.

"I would be willing to put up with anything, even less pay," says Carla, "if my employer offered me a permanent contract enabling me to plan my life!"

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