Collidoscope: Of Employees, Work-Life Balance and Fast Food

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire’s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.

In this week’s Collidoscope, I’m taking a (very) partial look at how the world of work has changed: the jobs people (don’t) get, what a work-life balance means in a digital age and, at the end, whether your job can significantly change your eating habits.


The end of employees

Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

“Where do you work?”

I’m assuming there was a time, not all that long ago, when that was a fairly simple question. A question you only had to ask someone you didn’t know or hadn’t met in a very long time. But compare that with where we are now. Most of the people of my age whom I know are working a variety of short-term jobs or projects in quick succession. So asking someone where they work doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost touch with them, it just means you may not have spoken to them for about a month.

Detailing the extent to which this has happened in corporate US is Lauren Weber’s article in the Wall Street Journal. “We will outsource every job that we can that is not customer-facing,” she quotes Virgin America Inc.’s chief executive David Cush as saying. This outsourcing no longer necessarily refers to a call centre in India or a garment factory in Bangladesh (though of course those are very much still part of the equation). Several companies within the US are now in the business of contracting workers to others.

At Alphabet Inc. for instance, Google’s parent company which has been in the Fortune magazine’s ten best places to work list for seven of the last ten years, there are roughly an equal number of full-time employees on the payroll as contract workers at any given time, Weber writes. “About 70,000 TVCs – an abbreviation for temps, vendors and contractors – test drive Google’s self-driving cars, review legal documents, make products easier and better to use, manage marketing and data projects, and do many other jobs. They wear red badges at work, while regular Alphabet employees wear white ones.”

What does this mean? For companies, it can mean having to pay lower wages for the same work, not having to pay for benefits and a shrinking company size. For workers, it means less (or almost zero) job security, precarious livelihoods and a system where moving up a professional ladder has become all that more difficult.

“No one knows how many Americans work as contractors, because they don’t fit neatly into the job categories tracked by government agencies. Rough estimates by economists range from 3% to 14% of the nation’s workforce, or as many as 20 million people.

One of the narrowest definitions of outsourcing, workers hired through a contracting company to provide on-site labor for a single client, rose to 2% of all U.S. workers in 2015 from 0.6% in 2005, according to an academic study last year.”

This disappearance of employees, Weber writes, is true across the professional spectrum: from janitorial staff to scientific researchers.

There are firms out there, in the meanwhile, out to convince corporations that they “need” even less employees than they have at the moment. Consultant firm Accenture PLC, for instance, “predicted last year that one of the 2,000 largest companies in the world will have ‘no full-time employees outside of the C-suite’ within 10 years.” The company is one of the world’s largest providers of outsourced labour.

It’s not that there is a complete blackout of the fact that many people want to be employees and the security and benefits that come with it. When hiring contractual workers, Weber writes, the possibility of a full-time job is often the carrot that suddenly disappears.

While these workers go from job to job often waiting for something more stable, does anyone (other than the company that managed to cut costs) benefit? Yes. “Outsourced workers at Google parent Alphabet arrive through staffing agencies such as Zenith Talent, Filter LLC and Switzerland’s Adecco Group AG , which alone bills Alphabet about $300 million a year for contractors and temps who work there, according to an Adecco executive. … The trade group Staffing Industry Analysts estimates businesses spend nearly $1 trillion a year world-wide on what it calls “workforce solutions,” or outside services to place and manage workers.”

Most experts and analysts who have studied the phenomenon of contractualisation do not see its end anywhere in the near future, unless some other very drastic societal structural change happens to come our way. If that’s the case (and it certainly looks that way), maybe there’ll come a not-too-distant future when ’employee’ will hardly mean anything, when the question we started out with will come with varying riders: ‘Where do you work now?’ ‘Where will you work tomorrow?’ ‘What’s the kind of work you do?’


Work-life balance in a digital age

Credit: Seth Werkheiser/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: Seth Werkheiser/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

At a time when we can buy movie tickets while at work and reply to work emails while we watch that movie, what defines when we switch from the personal to the professional? And does that psychological boundary effect how we fare in either place?

That’s what Donna Weaver McCloskey is looking at in her article in the Information Resources Management Journal. The more you let those boundaries blur, her literature review suggests, the more conflict you’re likely to see, especially at home – something we’ve all probably experienced at one point or another. McCloskey uses two concepts for her analysis: boundary flexibility (how much control a person has over when and where work is to be completed) and boundary permeability (the extent to which a person integrates the responsibilities from one role into the other role). Of course these roles are more relevant in some occupations. For a doctor or a construction worker, for instance, physical presence is necessary. For them, both flexibility and permeability are likely to be low.

The interesting thing about McCloskey’s analysis is her explicit understanding that these roles don’t just involve physical spaces or activities but also psychological ones: thinking about your house that needs cleaning while you’re supposed to be preparing for a presentation, or vice-versa. And of course it doesn’t help that your cellphone is likely to ping at any second to remind you about whichever of the two you’re not currently doing.

Based on a survey conducted with 103 respondents (of which 65 were finally used), McCloskey has tried to analyse what combination of these conceptions leads to a less stressful and more conflict-free life. She finds no support for the idea that flexible hours may reduce work-family conflict, by making it easier to be available for one or the other whenever needed. Flexibility was, however, correlated with higher job satisfaction. Permeable home boundaries, she found, can lead to increased work-family conflicts.

McCloskey’s survey does not yield any definitive or clear answers, but I can see numerous interesting questions coming out of it. Given flexible work hours and the possibilities provided by remote working, what does a work-home balance mean? Will broadening our conceptualisation of what is work (to include care work, for instance) lead us to a better understanding of why conflicts arise? Is this ‘balance’ that people talk about at all possible anymore?

There is an inherent assumption in McCloskey’s article that in the event of a time conflict between work and personal responsibilities, work – paid, professional work – wins out in almost every case (her language seems to suggest this is the right thing to happen), leading to conflct at home. I’m not saying her assumption is wrong; to the contrary that’s what I see happening in most cases. My question, though, is why our immediate conclusion in these scenarios is to choose work, why we think that is a more legitimate responsibility that needs to be immediately fulfilled while other things can wait.


A fast food worker’s diet

Credit: Jon Bunting/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Credit: Jon Bunting/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a colleague on whether we’d end up eating less unhealthy food if it was less easily available. But what happens if you’re surrounded by fast food at all times? If your work is to fulfil other people’s unhealthy food habits?

That’s what Julia Woodhall-Melnik and Flora I. Matheson are studying in their article in Work, Employment and Society: What do fast food workers eat? And what determines that?

Their research was conducted among 40 employees at fast-food joints in southwest Ontario, Canada, between the ages of 18 and 25. A majority (75%) of their respondents were female – which they say is reflective of the fast food workforce. Most of them were also enrolled at an educational institution while they worked.

If I were to imagine a college student in their early 20s who also worked a job, particularly one at a fast-food restaurant, I’d say they were likely to eat unhealthy for a variety of reasons: lack of time to cook on a regular basis, economic constraints, easy and cheap access to unhealthy food. The workers the authors spoke to said pretty much that. All of them received either discounts or free food when eating at their place of work. As one of the respondents put it:

“It’s […] not that I eat it because I like it. I just eat [it] because I’m so busy. I don’t know if you would call it, like, easy […] I eat a lot of McDonald’s, but I don’t like it. But it’s so easy and I have a little bit of money, and it’s so cheap and I get 50% off.”

But that’s not all that was going into the choices of this heterogenous group of respondents, according to the authors. Childhood food habits, as well as whether or not they were dependent on their income from their work to support themselves, also played a role.

And even when eating at work, these workers did make conscious choices to avoid certain things. One of them, for instance, said she would only eat the vegetarian options because she did not trust the quality of the meat. Others chose less processed items from the menu. Some of them also reported that while they ate a lot of the fast food when they first joined work, soon they were less drawn to it and made more of an effort to eat at home or elsewhere. As one of the respondents whose family migrated from Bangladesh put it:

“I ate a lot of rice and curry at home. As a child I never had fast food, so just rice and curry were my favorite. My parents wouldn’t take me [to fast food restaurants] I am from Bangladesh […] Everyone ate meals together at the kitchen table […] twice a day. My mom prepared it […] I live with my parents now […] It is a really busy house […] I eat with whoever is home and whoever’s schedules fit, but we prefer to eat together. I still eat pretty much the same foods: curry, rice and vegetables […] I don’t eat any of the meat [at McDonald’s] so usually a salad, juice and sometimes fries, I go on and off the fries, I am trying not to have fries and pop.”

The authors conclude from all of this that while the easy access and cheap prices of fast food make it the first option for several workers, this pattern often does not last and other eating habits, based on family background or health issues, start playing a larger role in deciding what to eat. Surprsing? Not really, but still an interesting look at why we eat what we do and whether proximity really does change everything.

That’s it for this week! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at