Contingent Work in the Media

Today I'm reading and grading the final papers of students in my Spring 2006 New Media, Work & Society class. Their writings focus on the changing nature of 'work' in society as a whole, and media industries in particular.

The US Department of Labor reported in 2005 that only about 14% of of the American workforce held contingent or alternative jobs, defining these employees as "persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who reported that their jobs are temporary" (this includes independent contractors and on-call workers). However, in the media these kind of employment arrangements have become the norm.

For example: worldwide, about one quarter of journalists were freelancers, stringers or otherwise loosely employed in 1999, according to the International Federation of Journalists. The International Labour Organization in 2004 released a report extending this work situation to the media sector as a whole. In the new media industry, work automatically means preparing and searching for the next job, according to researchers.

As the vast majority of students in media, (tele-) communications, and related departments and schools want to work in the media after graduation, it is startling that most of them do not know what that means. In our course we explored these issues, including the roles of technology and convergence, globalization and localization, conglomeration and niche markets, and the work-life balance. Interestingly enough, the students reflected in their final papers on the positive outcomes of the changing work environment (in terms of workforce flexibility, decentralization and casualization of labor, job insecurity).

There is a lot to say about workforce exploitation and the managerial embrace of flexible production and new ICTs as means to cut costs. However, we cannot forget that this trend also ties into a wider societal shift towards individualization, anti-hierarchism and self-determination. Not sure whether that is a good or bad thing, but it is a reality - but not one we seem to be preparing our media students for.