Obvious and Oblivious

“You can be a millionaire—and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire—and never pay taxes!”
Some of you might remember this old bit from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live. With his trademark, over-the-top emoting, Martin would repeat the line with an almost incantatory fervor.
“You can be a millionaire—and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire—and never pay taxes!”
And then would come the payoff.
“You say, ‘Steve, how can I be a millionaire—and never pay taxes?’
“First… get a million dollars.”
As devotees of philosophy (or, at least, the philosopher’s stone) will attest, this construction is a tautology—a redundancy of propositional logic. It restates the obvious for rhetorical effect. Channeled through the likes of Steve Martin, it is nothing short of hilarious.
But a technique that is funny in a club setting at a few minutes before midnight can, when articulated during broad daylight by a social critic, come closer to annoying or irritating. In a recent piece for The New York Times, Erin Hatton achieved just that effect. Providing an otherwise enlightening history of the temporary workforce in America, the writer succumbed to a diagnosis that was as obvious as her prescription was oblivious. (Astute readers will note that my colleague Mike Beygelman, recently installed as RPO president of workforce solutions provider Pontoon, also cites Prof. Hatton’s work on page 55, though the overlap is, I assure you, purely coincidental—and not at all tautological.)
In addition to serving as assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, Hatton is the author of The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America.” At the outset, she does a credible job of describing the spike in our country’s use of temporary and contingent labor, citing an observation by the American Staffing Association (ASA) that this category has added more U.S. jobs during the past three years than any other. Hatton also provides a concise history of the phenomenon during the preceding 60 years or so.
To review: First came the Russell Kelly Office Service, which morphed through Kelly Girls Services into what is today Kelly OCG. Next came Manpower Inc. These developments, notes Hatton, occurred at the height of union power, which had largely helped guarantee the existence of worker’s compensation, pensions, health benefits, and other protections in shops both closed and open.
Then, what began as a sexist dodge of such perks—because the reduced dividends only affected “girls”—gradually seeped into the mainstream workforce. The “rent” rather than “buy” argument achieved increasingly influence, especially during the first stage of post-industrial shakeouts of the 1970s and 1980s. “Nor,” Hatton observes “did the numbers slow when good times returned: Even through the economic boom of the ‘90s, temporary employment grew rapidly, from less than one million workers a day to nearly three million by 2000.”
Hatton elides current ASA research showing that the average daily temp numbers have not increased since then. Which is disingenuous, and perhaps even dishonest. But that’s not the point. She is right that temp work has become bigger than ever in the past six or seven decades, and she properly raises questions about the implications for America’s workforce and, indeed, for society at large. But ignoring the reality this phenomenon is at least partly a logical, market-based reaction to globalization and technology is myopic. Pretending otherwise does nobody any good.
Besides, that’s where she stops. “If we want good jobs rather than just any jobs,” she concludes, “we need to figure out how to preserve what is useful and innovative about temporary employment while jettisoning the anti-worker ideology that has come to accompany it.”
Well, sure. Which is why the media platform that you’re consuming right now has spilled a lot of ink and pixels trying to wrestle with precisely those challenges. See the contributions in our pages of Peter Cappelli and Lynda Gratton, and also pay attention to the time spent in this particular space looking at the need for American employers and secondary education to recommit to training and mentoring programs. But concluding a glib critique of temporary work services with a facile plea for “figuring out” one of this country’s most complicated and pressing needs is a disservice to readers.
Hatton has left unanswered the million-dollar question. Oh wait, maybe the answer is simple: First… get a million dollars.
Dirk Olin is Editorial Director of HRO Today.

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