…nothing to lose but their chains

Although the title of this piece derives from the antepenultimate sentence of The Communist Manifesto, it is a phrase that has long occupied the back of my mind when thinking about the future of telework. Specifically, what would happen to the growth rate of telework if all workers had portable health care and pension plans?

I suspect that the numbers of teleworkers—particularly telecommuters—would quickly show a major increase. If your are dissatisfied with your job, and you have marketable skills and experience, what is holding you back from changing it? Could the fact that your health insurance and your pension fund are locked in to your staying with your present employer have anything to do with it? If you quit you lose both the health insurance and, if you’re not “vested”, all or most of your pension plan, right? And how many years does it take to become vested in your pension plan for other than your own contributions? Five years, ten years? The chains that bind?
Now, those of a cynical mind might think that the whole purpose of such plans is to insure employee loyalty. Well, they’re right, at least partially. The system, at least in the US, is designed to make worker independence precarious and scary because of the difficulty of finding quality and affordable health insurance and pension investment opportunities. Independent workers have to worry about these matters while employees of large organizations don’t. Throwing down those chains is not a trivial matter for those with families to support, mortgages to pay and little left for saving. An article by Matt Bai in today’s New York Times Magazine puts it succinctly: “In other words, a system devised before the word ‘telecommute’ ever existed helps to keep ordinary workers chained to their modular cubicles, while richer workers get to take advantage of a new, potentially liberating lifestyle”.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels undoubtedly were clueless about the realities of information work in the 21st century (among other things) but they do make a point: many of us are chained to our jobs with the velvet chains of employer-provided health and pension benefits. But now many employers are trying to rid themselves of these responsibilities and transferring them to their employees—or such unions as still exist in the US.
One of the pleasant surprises I received when I made the transition from aerospace industry rocket scientist to university research director was that my pension benefits were immediately vested. From day one. I didn’t have to wait ten years to be assured of collecting on them. If I changed employers in a month or so I would retain whatever benefits I had accumulated, including the part thrown in by the university. What a relief! I was so relieved that I worked there another 16 years.
Now suppose that some system were to be devised so that everyone had an arrangement like mine. What would that do to the dynamics of jobs and employment?

Given the current trend among large employers, you might want to consider these issues sooner rather than later.

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