Knowledge Workers -- The New Working Poor?
There may be hundreds of thousands of them out there, perhaps millions –- people imbued with the work ethic, employed full time, often holding down multiple jobs, and still not earning enough to live and get ahead.
TAKE THE STRAW POLL:
I’m not talking about displaced factory employees working simultaneously at Wal-Mart and Burger King, yet earning too little to pay the mortgage. I’m talking about the prime workers of the information age, the ones pursuing the "jobs of tomorrow." Robert Reich has dubbed them "symbolic analysts," and Peter Drucker, "knowledge workers."
Many of these darlings of progress -- manipulators of words, numbers, computer bytes, ideas, relationships, and plans -- may be the new working poor (the "knowledge-working poor"). That’s what I’m starting to conclude.
According to a report on the working poor issued in 2002 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college graduates account for only about 1.4% of the 30-plus million Americans below the poverty line. That’s “only” about half a million people. But I suspect the actual number is much higher, because in my experience low-earning college grads don’t readily self-identify.As a consultant and director of think tank EraNova Institute, I talk to a lot of knowledge workers, from executives and entrepreneurs to high-tech developers and creative people such as writers, designers, and marketing professionals. For quite a while, I've been sensing a disconnect between how people say they're doing financially and how they're really doing.
When asked, "How's it going," they almost always answer, "fine," and talk of the great things they're working on, their clients, and so forth. But it's often a front. When they're alone with me, with their hair down, and trust that I won't pass on what I hear, many tell a much different story. The greatest disconnect is with people who have recently left a big company thanks to offshoring or off-peopling. Here are two examples of the type of thing I'm hearing (with details altered to protect privacy):
A woman from the South, who used to work for a federal agency in Washington, lamented the other day, "I've taken in less than $2,000 since the first of the year." She writes articles, part-time, for a magazine, runs seminars, and develops ad copy for service organizations. She's busy more than 60 hours a week, but might as well be working for minimum wage.I could recite many similar stories, but these make the point. Many knowledge workers are not making it financially at the moment.
A West-Coast PhD who used to make big dollars with a network-service provider now earns a little over $12,000 a year as an adjunct professor. To supplement this Spartan income, he applied the other day for a sales job in an electronics store, at $10 an hour. They told him that he would perform janitorial duties at the end of each shift. "I didn't walk out, I don’t mind cleaning up," he says, "but with that money, plus the teaching money, I still couldn't cover my expenses. And they didn't even offer me the job; there were other applicants."
The term "working poor" may no longer apply only to displaced low-skill workers. In knowledge work, many minimal incomes may be hidden behind pride or the need to seem in demand in order to seem desirable. Unlike blue-collar workers who may declare themselves "unemployed," the knowledge workers I know shun that appellation. They're never "unemployed." They're "contractors" seeking gigs, or "business owners" seeking clients. If a job comes their way, great, but in the meantime, they're "working." In a real sense, they are working, because they're trying to provide a service in exchange for money; but they're "working poor" trying to survive, just like displaced factory workers.
How prevalent are the knowledge-working poor, versus the knowledge-working rich or middle? TAKE THIS STRAW POLLI've noticed a story gap also with those employed in “good” traditional jobs versus working independently. For example, a young designer, between situations for several months, just got a job with a major retail organization, for $130,000 a year. Sounds great, and many people envy him, but in private he says he's worried about moving to New York City with its sky-high living expenses. He and his wife will have to give up one of their two cars and take an apartment one-third the size of their present one. With a child on the way, "I'm not sure we can do more than just squeak by," he told me. He can extend his income by earning a performance bonus, but that will take Herculean effort. He expects to put in 70 to 80 hours a week.
Add your comments below. War stories are welcome. Also, email this article to friends and associates by clicking the email image below, right.
How can the knowledge-working poor be helped to make it? We’re aggregating recommendations and approaches.