The Phantom Job: A Symptom of an Economy in Transition

As globalization, mechanization and Reagan/Thatchernomics continue to take their toll on the middle classes of developed world, society has come up with a range of innovative, destructive and sometimes downright silly ways of dealing with the problem. Among the better-known answers have been to inflate asset bubbles to make up for wage stagnation; to lower the price of foreign-produced goods via free trade–even if it causes job and wage losses at home; and to democratize consumer debt through credit cards and other instruments.

Most European social democracies have tried to stave off the worst through strong safety nets and labor protections at the expense of higher unemployment and slower growth. Anglo-American economies have chosen to prioritize overall growth, at the expense of a rapidly shrinking middle class and exploding wealth inequality. But at bottom lies the hard reality: the number of high-paying jobs is simply shrinking with nothing on the horizon to replace them. In that context, long-term unemployment is becoming an increasingly large social problem. And with long-term unemployment comes depression and feelings of worthlessness.

One western European response to the problem is the phantom job:

Ms. de Buyzer did not care that Candelia was a phantom operation. She lost her job as a secretary two years ago and has been unable to find steady work. Since January, though, she had woken up early every weekday, put on makeup and gotten ready to go the office. By 9 a.m. she arrives at the small office in a low-income neighborhood of Lille, where joblessness is among the highest in the country.

While she doesn’t earn a paycheck, Ms. de Buyzer, 41, welcomes the regular routine. She hopes Candelia will lead to a real job, after countless searches and interviews that have gone nowhere.

“It’s been very difficult to find a job,” said Ms. de Buyzer, who like most of the trainees has been collecting unemployment benefits. “When you look for a long time and don’t find anything, it’s so hard. You can get depressed,” she said. “You question your abilities. After a while, you no longer see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

She paused to sign a fake check for a virtual furniture supplier, then instructed Candelia’s marketing department — a group of four unemployed women sitting a few desks away — to update the company’s mock online catalog. “Since I’ve been coming here, I have had a lot more confidence,” Ms. de Buyzer said. “I just want to work.”

I’m sure these phantom jobs are psychologically helpful to those who have them. But ultimately, if the trends of mechanization and globalization mean that decent jobs are increasingly hard to come by, society itself will need to change its expectations of people. And people themselves will need to attempt to redefine what it means to have a worthwhile life.

In the end, people should not be suffering depression because they don’t have the opportunity to serve as a wage slave for a corporate behemoth. Technology and industry should free us to do what we want, not what we have to. If the methods of production are in just a few hands such that an employed middle class can no longer thrive, the best answer is to find a way to redistribute the wealth generated by that production so that people can continue to have dignified lives regardless of whether they hold a “job.” That will necessarily involve some form of Universal Basic Income, supplemented by whatever added value individuals can choose to deliver to one another.

The phantom job is an interesting transitional exercise. But ultimately humanity can do better than this. And we will.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.