As conversations about the United States' employment and economic woes continue, a new book by a University of Arizona sociologist explores what he calls a "permanent crisis of work" in America and elsewhere.
In his book "Labor, Economy, and Society," published in February by Polity Press, Jeffrey Sallaz, UA associate professor of sociology, looks beyond the unemployment statistics we hear about on the evening news to more deeply explore how labor operates in a capitalist society.
"What I wanted to do was to take a step back and put the idea of 'work' into a broad historical and comparative perspective and ask, 'What is unique about the way in which modern capitalist societies organize work, and what is it about this dynamic that leads to these recurrent crises of work?'" he said.
Sallaz notes that in the decades before the Great Recession hit in 2008, and before unemployment climbed as high as 10 percent in 2010, the country was facing a different labor crisis.
In the 1990s, the booming American economy was plagued not by a lack of jobs but by a lack of workers. Common sense dictated that an overly generous "welfare state" had destroyed Americans' work ethic, which ultimately led to sweeping welfare reform to force people into the labor market, Sallaz said.
"At the time," Sallaz said, "we had this huge crisis of work, and the problem was that we had all these new jobs, many of them in the service sector and paying the minimum wage, yet not enough workers willing to take them."
Today, the opposite is true.
"In less than 20 years, the entire problem shifted. Now, we have too few jobs and all these people desperate to work," Sallaz said.
"One of the major take-home messages of my book is that, in a capitalist society, these are issues that are not going to disappear – that the dynamism that market society creates also leads to these constant crises in work that more or less mirror these booms and busts that we go through in a market society," he said.
Sallaz said he was prompted to write the book because he was dissatisfied with discourse in the media surrounding the recession.
"We can't keep going through this same cycle every 20 or 30 years, completely rethinking our basic assumptions about work, employment, motivation, firms," he said. "I wanted to lay out, systematically, how we as sociologists would approach this topic of work, going back to the fundamentals of how work is defined, valued and organized in a capitalist society."
"Everyone understands that under capitalism, when you get a job you're engaging in an exchange. You, as an employee, are selling your capacity to work to an employer who in turn gives you wages and benefits," he said. "As a sociologist, I study exchange and try to understand who the parties are that are exchanging and what the logic is that's guiding that exchange. Once you take a step back and look at employment that way, it introduces a whole series of interesting questions, and that ends up being the structure of the book."
The book, available on Amazon, is intended for general audiences in addition to undergraduate and graduate students.
Sallaz said he hopes it can provide a new context for thinking about the recession and employment.
"For readers, it can perhaps help them to put their own lives into a broad historical and global context," he said. "Maybe even feel less confused and more optimistic about the times that we're living in."