Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary

Louis Hyman. Viking, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2407-0

This disquieting history of worker dispensability from Hyman (American Capitalism: A Reader), a Cornell economic history professor, tries to find cause for optimism in the emergence of the “gig economy,” but will still leave salaried employees looking nervously over their shoulders. He carefully traces the growth of the temporary labor movement, from the temp secretaries of the post-WWII firms Manpower Inc. and Kelly Girl to today’s freelancers hired through online services like Craigslist and Upwork. Hyman notes that, by the late 1960s, Manpower’s CEO, Elmer Winter, was already envisaging a wholly temporary workforce. However, it took the corporate trimming, restructuring, and downsizing of the 1980s to make “leanness” a business ideal, in which companies shed workers like unwanted pounds. Hyman’s examination of the evolution of work is thorough, thoughtful, and sympathetic, importantly not excluding the people—immigrants, minorities, women, and youth—largely ignored in the “American Dream” model for employment once all but guaranteed to white men. In the last chapter, Hyman lays out ambitious suggestions for how society can make “the flexible workforce and the flexible firm... work for us,” such as through increased incentives for small business ownership, yet leaves it very uncertain whether this brave new world will usher in greater worker freedom or even greater instability. Agent: Eric Lupfer, Fletcher & Co. (Aug.)