Permanently Temporary

If you have a job, congratulations. Just don’t bet on keeping it, or on your next one being very durable either.

These days, businesses are relying on temps more than ever, according to The Wall Street Journal. “For some companies, the shift to part-time or temporary help may be a short-term response to an uncertain economic environment,” the Journal reported. “But some companies see a longer-term shift.”

The article cited as an example 3G Studios, a videogame developer in Reno, Nevada, that has replaced the bulk of its workforce with outside contractors. “Engineers were outliving their usefulness from one project to another,” CEO James Kosta told the Journal. “When projects end, it’s better to re-evaluate your entire staff and almost just hire anew.”

What an evolution.  “When the temp industry first started, some 50 years ago, it supplied low-level clerks to take the place of ledger keepers, receptionists, telephone operators, or stenos in the typing pool who were sick or on vacation,” wrote Peter Drucker in Managing in the Next Society. “Today there are temp suppliers for every job, all the way up to temp CEOs.” (For more on this, check out this recent “Drucker on the Dial,” on which Jody Greenstone Miller discusses voluntarily temporary executives.)

Image source: Flickr Creative Commons

Drucker noted that “the reason usually offered for the growth of temp work is that they give employers flexibility,” but Drucker’s own view was different. “The driving force behind both the steady growth of temps and the emergence of the PEOs is the growing burden of rules and regulations for employers,” he wrote. (PEO is for professional employer organization, which helps companies outsource.)

And what of engineers who outlive their usefulness? Might that be another cause? One thing we know is that Drucker felt that workers do indeed grow obsolete—and, what’s worse, the most obsolete of them all is sometimes the person at the top. French statesman Charles de Gaulle was a case in point.  As dangerous as frequent cabinet overthrows can be to a country, Drucker, as he wrote in The Age of Discontinuity, felt that de Gaulle “lived long enough to demonstrate that the inability of an institution to get rid of a top man who has outlived his usefulness is just as serious and dangerous.”

Temporaryness isn’t all bad.

Who gains from the increasing importance of temporary work—and who loses?