The Sad Truth: No Job Is Really Safe Anymore in America
Americans are less worried about their job security than they have been in decades, according to a recent Gallup poll. Just 8% of people surveyed in April 2017 said they were concerned about being laid off in the next year, the smallest share since Gallup started asking the question in the mid-1970s.
Workers who think their job will last forever could be in for a rude awakening though. Although unemployment is at its lowest level in almost 10 years, big shifts in the working world mean some people are going to find their once-secure jobs aren’t as safe as they thought. From rapid technological advancements to changes in the ways employers hire, here are 10 reasons why no job is truly safe anymore.
1. Technology is constantly changing
New technology can be great — you love your iPhone, right? But it can also be disruptive, as those in Silicon Valley like to say. The pace of technological change isn’t slowing down, and that means big changes for American workers.
“In our lifetimes, we will reach a point when we reflect back on the good old days of the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and other tech that is ubiquitous today,” businessman and entrepreneur Mark Cuban wrote. That’s scary for some, but he sees coming change as a good thing. “Of course, this isn’t a problem. It’s a huge opportunity.”
History backs up optimists like Cuban. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology has created more jobs than it killed. The catch is the new jobs are often radically different from the old ones. One hundred years ago, blacksmiths were on their way out, while car mechanics were on their way in. In other cases, machines took over boring, time-consuming tasks, leaving people with time to pursue other work — or invent new jobs.
Next: Which workers need to worry most about technology taking their jobs? Almost everyone is at risk, but some jobs are more likely to be automated than others.
2. Robots are replacing service-sector jobs
By now, it’s old news that robots have replaced human workers in many of America’s factories. Now, it seems clear the rise of the machines is just beginning. Nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being “computerized” in the next 20 years, a University of Oxford study found.
Many of the at-risk jobs are in the service sector, which some assumed was relatively immune from automation. Workers who moved from manufacturing jobs to those in restaurants and retail might find themselves in trouble yet again. Jobs in accommodations and food service are most at risk of automation, a 2016 McKinsey report found, as machines get better at preparing food, washing dishes, and making drinks.
Retail jobs — especially those that involve tasks, such as stocking shelves or packing items for shipment — could also be in jeopardy. However, because these jobs don’t pay much, companies might have less incentive to switch to expensive machines, the report noted.
Next: But low-wage service workers aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about robots.
3. AI is coming for white-collar jobs, too
Artificial intelligence is coming for white-collar jobs, too, experts say. Insurance agents, bookkeepers, and mortgage brokers all spend a significant chunk of their workday performing routine tasks that could be automated, according to the McKinsey report.
Those jobs won’t necessarily disappear, but the nature of the work will change — perhaps even for the better. In the case of mortgage brokers, new technology “would free up mortgage advisers to focus more of their time on advising clients rather than routine processing. Both the customer and the mortgage institution get greater value,” the authors of the McKinsey report argued. Technology is also changing the way lawyers, teachers, journalists, and other professionals work, The Guardian reported.
Next: Unions are losing power.
4. Unions have less power than ever
Rapid changes in technology aren’t the only thing affecting workers’ job security. The number of unionized workers has fallen dramatically over the past 50 years. Today, just 11% of Americans belong to a union, compared to a third in 1964.
One of the arguments for unionization is unionized workers have more job security than non-unionized workers because it’s harder for employers to fire them. In theory, organized labor is also able to use their power to protect jobs. They might have an agreement with your employer that protects workers with seniority from layoffs, for example, or a contract that says laid-off union members must be given priority when the company starts rehiring. Although not everyone is convinced of the value of unions, many see their decline as bad news for workers’ job security.
Next: Government jobs aren’t always as safe as you think.
5. The government is cutting back
Job security is one of the major perks of a government job. A 2011 analysis found workers at certain federal government agencies were more likely to die than to be fired or laid off. People working for state and local government also tended to have more protection from layoffs and random firings than private-sector workers. But that’s changing.
Tight budgets have caused layoffs for public workers across the country. Politicians are trying to make it easier to fire workers on top of freezing salaries, cutting benefits, and eliminating other job protections. As a result, the civil service jobs that once provided a path to the middle class for many are less secure — and harder to find — than ever.
Next: Hiring full-time workers is more of a hassle.
6. Companies don’t want full-time workers
Full-time jobs with benefits and some measure of job security are disappearing because companies don’t want to deal with the hassle of hiring regular employees. As of 2015, more than a third of workers were temps, freelancers, or contractors, one study found. Some of those people are gig workers by choice, but others are forced into ad hoc employment arrangements because they can’t find steady jobs. Some experts predict as much as 50% of the workforce might eventually be contingent.
“Instead of preferring full-time employees, many firms now actively avoid them and look for ways to build their business models and run their firms with as few full-time employees as possible,” Diane Mulcahy, who advises her MBA students to quit looking for jobs and focus on the gig economy, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
Next: Jobs keep getting shipped overseas.
7. Offshoring isn’t going away
Eighty percent of people Pew surveyed in 2016 said outsourcing jobs to other countries hurts American workers, and President Donald Trump might have promised to punish companies who ship jobs overseas. But the movement of jobs out of the U.S. probably isn’t going to come to a screeching halt anytime soon. Thousands of jobs have moved overseas since Trump took office, a CNN Money analysis found. Where are those jobs going? Although people tend to worry about threats from China and Mexico, many jobs also went to India, the Philippines, and Canada.
The good news is offshoring could be on the wane, and some jobs that went abroad are even coming back to the U.S. Unskilled workers probably won’t get rehired though. Companies generally want skilled workers for these new jobs.
Next: We don’t want to learn new skills.
8. Workers can’t — or won’t — retrain
For some people, job security means never having to switch careers. But workers who lose their jobs to robots, outsourcing, or other factors might find themselves permanently out of work if they aren’t willing to learn new skills. Men in particular seem to sometimes resist retraining, especially if it means looking for work in a “feminized” field, such as health care, according to Bloomberg.
Retraining programs themselves might also be part of the problem. These programs can work well if designed correctly, the New York Times reported. But those that are hard to access and don’t match up with employer needs aren’t as effective.
Next: Employers are changing the rules.
9. Employers are changing the rules
For most people, job security means not having to worry too much about being fired or laid off. But other changes can also affect your job security. In recent years, many companies have cut pay, reduced hours, delayed or eliminated raises, or slashed benefits. Plus, if your company lays off other workers but you keep your job, your sense of job insecurity might increase. All of those changes together can create a general feeling that your job is not as safe or stable as it once was.
Next: How safe was any job in the first place?
10. No job was ever really safe
No job — whether you’re a widget-maker, welder, waitress, or web designer — is every 100% secure. Industries change, and companies fail, taking employees down with them. An on-the-job mistake or conflict with your boss could lead to a pink slip. Even in the days when a “job for life” was more common, people still sometimes found themselves without a steady paycheck.
Rather than wringing their hands about the lack of job security, employees can learn to adapt to a new reality where a 30-year career with the same employer is now the exception, not the rule. Meanwhile, some people have begun to seriously look at ways to combat increasing job insecurity, perhaps by creating a universal basic income, which provides all people with a measure of economic stability even when jobs are scarce.