The nature of work has changed significantly in the past 50 years, and it’s frankly kind of amazing that there’s not rioting in the streets over it. Think about it: At one point in American history, employers were expected to offer full-time jobs with benefits and a retirement program. Fewer and fewer Americans ever enjoy that kind of a relationship, and the rush into piecework only gains speed with the passage of time. Part-time work, gig-economy work, and temp work all have drastically reshaped the roles of employer and employee, and as benefits have disappeared, wages haven’t increased to make up for the lack of health care, pensions, and even vacation, which used to be standard parts of the contract.
In his new memoir Now for the Disappointing Part, Seattle author Steven Barker is churning through the American job market, grabbing hold of temp job after temp job before being swept back into the riptide again. He seems to be on unemployment in every other chapter as he waits for the next (temporary) job offer to float past.
Barker has worked for most of the big Seattle-area tech firms—Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia—and his memoir is built on the strange, almost inhuman culture that has developed in the temp economy. Every job comes with its own language and customs. Every interaction is freighted with expectations and subject to an inscrutable corporate hierarchy that temps are not allowed to understand. Prospective employer and employee eye each other warily in the interview process, trying to determine exactly how much they can strip-mine out of each other before the arrangement turns fallow.
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Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.