Zero to three times a week, for the past three years, I have been going to the same gym, located a mere three hundred metres from my apartment in Vienna’s 5TH District. I would describe it as the Ryanair version of what a gym would be: it’s cheap, it’s basic, it’s bright, it’s loud, and they try and sell you stuff at every opportunity. It’s cheap and bad enough that you don’t feel you have to go every day in order to get full value out of the subscription you pay every month. It’s a trashy place, and like Ryanair, attracts a broad clientele: on more than one occasion, I have not been able to enter the men’s changing rooms because there are other men taking selfies of themselves in the wall-length mirror that is positioned at the door. These incidents got to me so much that early in my relationship with this gym, I decided I wouldn’t go near the changing room at all, and just come straight from my apartment already changed, and afterwards go straight back and have a shower at home. This worked pretty well, apart from every now and again I would get some hassle from the reception staff for wearing ‘street shoes’ in the gym: apparently this gym required people to keep a special pair of €100 trainers just for use on their hallowed ground and should never touch the dirty ground outside their walls. These exchanges always went the same way: I would say I didn’t know about this rule, they would say I was ok for today but that I should remember next time, then I would apologetically agree, and we would part ways. This would happen every few months, exactly the same way, for over two years.
The reason I just would not abide by the rule was mostly driven by my own comfort, but also because I knew I would get away with it. The thing was, there never was a next time for any of the reception staff. I don’t know what kind of crazy contracts my gym gave to their employees, but every time I went in, there were two different people behind the reception. It was like they had a constant stream of young, smiling, body-obsessed people in the staff area, ready to throw on a uniform and send out to the general public to give advice on what colour Gatorade to drink on leg day. I really could not count how many of these clones I have seen on reception duty during my time at the gym, so if one of them tells me something that relates to something I have to do at a future time, I will always agree, and thank them for the advice, safe in the knowledge that we would never see each other again, and that my blatant rule-breaking could continue indefinitely.
About six months ago, something changed, as three visits to the gym in a row, I noticed the same guy working at reception each time. He was exactly the same as all the other identikit gym receptionists, but differed only in his consistency in the position, and this fact made a big difference. The next time I went to the gym, he was there, and to my horror he told me I had to bring a change of shoes next time. I agreed, apologised, and knew the game was up: from that day on, I have been bringing an extra pair of trainers to the gym, which requires a trip to the locker room, and all the selfie watching that this entails.
So, all it took for me to respect the rules of that gym was the existence of a staff member that was more than just a nameless clone in the correct uniform. Now, I don’t know what kind of contract these receptionist workers were on, but by the ease of their entry and exit to and from the reception counter, I would imagine it is quite similar to other service industries like bars, restaurants and cinemas. These establishments don’t want permanent staff, they want a constant supply of low-paid workers, who can move on just as quickly as they arrive. They are jobs that both employees and employers treat as transient jobs, just something to get money on the side while striving to become something else. When someone says she is a waitress, often the next line is someone (or the person themselves) talking about what it is she really wants to do. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a waitress, and it can be a surprisingly high-paid job. No, the main black mark against these service jobs is that they don’t really fit into the constantly rising career arc narrative that we are sold in this modern, consumerist, self-actualisation-obsessed society. Professional bar tenders, waiters, and even gym receptionists are hard to come by these days, and if there are any out there, they might find themselves having to explain their reasoning behind the career choice every time they meet someone new (unless of course, they own the establishment they work in). It’s one of the reasons why, even in a restaurant or bar you frequent constantly, you will not be surprised to see new faces behind the bar, or taking your order. These service jobs are full of people just passing through, on their way somewhere else, and employers are more-than-happy to abide by this view as it translates to lower wages and the absence of full-time employment contracts and benefits. There is skill and some kind of craft to all these jobs, yet their labour markets have allowed this to be sacrificed in order to create an extremely flexible labour force for the employer and the illusion of freedom for the employee.
This is something I have also seen slowly creep into the labour markets of higher-skilled jobs. On one side, there is the glorification of the freedom of freelance or contract work, but also there are constant articles in the media proclaiming that people nowadays switch jobs more than at any time in history, and this is portrayed as a good thing. The one common thread going through those points is that the value of tenure (staying at one company for a long time) is being undermined, and not only that: companies don’t want to hire you, they just want you to work for them. Freelancing is sold as the personification of freedom, a state of being where a professional chooses his/her projects, and performs them on his/her time. This is being done for a company that would otherwise have to hire someone full-time in a secure job, but now because of freelance aggregation sites such as Upwork they can simply define a project, throw it into the platform, and simply accept the lowest bidder for the project. The freelancer may be free, but is also earning less money, and has none of the security or benefits of a full-time job. The benefits of all of this seem stacked squarely in the favour of the employer.
I’m writing about this now because it does seem to be the future of employment: I wrote about Amazon a few months ago, about how they really just want people to work for them for a year until each employee burns out, and is then replaced. Labour markets are in an interesting place right now, as any employer with a bit of brains will try and outsource certain projects to desperate freelancers hungry for work rather than expanding the workforce. Especially in European countries, where employment protection legislation is strong, no company wants to hire long-term, as they are waiting a few years to see if they can get away with outsourcing/automating/contracting away all of their full-time employment commitments. The value of tenure, of an employee staying with a company for a number of years, has been completely devalued in the modern labour market, as employers simply wish people to come in, do some work for them, and hopefully be replaced by somebody (or something) that is more (cost) efficient.
That’s not to say that companies themselves do not lose something from this devaluation of the value of long-term employment relationships. In fact, a company I worked for had an identity crisis on just this issue. The problem they had was that they were in the business of providing expert opinion and analysis, yet the turnover of staff was so great that not many of these ‘experts’ had been in place for more than a year. What was worse was that the company also exclusively hired employees early in their careers, so as to pay lower wages. In order to hide this, all employees were forbidden from posting on LinkedIn that they even worked for the company, in case any potential clients could do a quick search and find that the expert opinion they paid for would be provided by people in the job for only a few months. My employers at this time actively encouraged a work environment focused on using the company as a platform to launch a career elsewhere, yet they were embarrassed to reveal this to their clients, as it devalued the actual work produced by the company. Just like my gym down the road, lack of trustworthiness emanates from the lack of a consistent workforce. Companies don’t want employees, they just want people to do work for them. Yet these companies themselves probably would not trust or respect a company with a similarly low-tenured workforce. Most people who work in the private sector reading this will be affected by how this contradiction is resolved over the next decade.