Friday Chatting About Perks Vs Benefits In Our Brave New World

Nicole: Happy Friday! I am so excited that it is finally Friday.

Ester: Yes! Your first Friday in your new place. What are your plans? Recaulking?

Nicole: Not in a billion years. I would be the worst at recaulking. I would much rather pay someone else to do it. Or get my landlord to pay someone else to do it! No, this weekend is all about unpacking and maybe finding a cheap used sofa. What about you? Do you have exciting plans for this weekend?

Ester: My weekend plans start with getting to see Hamilton tonight! Which is very exciting. (Ben and I had one ticket between us and it took us forever to figure out which of us should get to go.) I also hope not to get eaten up by any passing hurricanes and to maybe see a friend in concert. Should be fun.

Nicole: History is happening in Manhattan and you just happen to be in the greatest city in the world, Ester. So jelly that you get to see Hamilton!

Ester: Yeah, I told Mike, and he was like, “You’re not going to miss your shot!” All I’m going to be able to think about is the parallels with Thomas Cromwell, which I keep dwelling on after finishing the fantastic TV adaptation of “Wolf Hall.”

Both he and Hamilton were ambitious, brilliant men who came from nothing, trained in the law, and ended up advising heads of state. Both were distrusted in their day, having not been born into respectability. Both were accused of assuming they were the smartest in the room. (They did, but usually because they were.) Both have more or less been forgotten until now.

Nicole: And of course I know much more about Cromwell than I knew about Hamilton (until last week), because um HE CUT OFF ANNE BOLEYN’S HEAD. Not literally.

Ester: Yeah not personally! And he had a pretty good reason. When the king says, Get me a new queen, you get him a new queen.

Nicole: King Henry VIII’s sperm issues were NOT A GOOD REASON.

Ester: Tudor history always strikes me as hilarious, with the benefit of hindsight, because the truth is, once Elizabeth arrived, they were done! Of course they didn’t know that, and there was all that blah-di-blah bullshit about how women couldn’t rule, but Elizabeth would go on to preside over one of England’s most prosperous, peaceful, and culturally productive eras. Henry could have had as much out-of-wedlock sex as he wanted without any pressure to produce a male heir! He was totally set! He just had no idea.

Stupid patriarchy.

On the other hand, if he hadn’t proceeded with divorcing / beheading his way through several wives, England wouldn’t necessarily have Protestantism, so there’s … that?

Nicole: And then America would have never picked up its Protestant Work Ethic. We might have more vacation time! A 32-hour work week!

Ester: Excellent segue, ND. Except The Economist, with its five-week mandatory vacation plan, is English. How come we inherited an even more extreme version of the country’s work ethic? That’s not fair. The kids are supposed to be more liberal than the parents.

Nicole: I’m going to misquote Jon Stewart here, but I believe he said “The Puritans came to America for religious freedom … to practice the most stultifying form of Christianity known to man.” Although I don’t really know how we got from that to “no sick leave and only 14 days of vacation if you’re lucky.”

Ester: Yes, and that’s if your employer can even afford to give you benefits, which it can’t if its customer base has shifted to supporting the 1099, “gig” economy.

It is depressing how the most basic stuff has started to seem like “perks.” But the truth is, we shouldn’t have to rely on our employers to choose to give us “perks.” The profit motive is too strong to expect them to do the right thing just for the sake of doing it.

Nicole: Well, they weren’t perks, they were like “stay alive stuff.” Or maybe “stay alive and have some time for rest when you need it.” Unemployment benefits, health insurance, sick leave, vacation leave, parental leave, pensions, all of it. Perks are getting a foosball table in the break room.

Ester: Oh, I agree. Except increasingly those “stay alive things” are looking like, and being treated like, perks. I met a man with a pension yesterday and I looked at him like he was a unicorn! He smiled bashfully.

Nicole: Which means it makes sense why some people like working for the gig economy. Maybe your employer won’t give you sick leave, but Uber or TaskRabbit doesn’t care if you don’t work when you’re sick — the gig economy suddenly looks like it’s providing you a benefit.

When you work your own schedule you can take time for those middle-of-the-day appointments, caretaking responsibilities, etc. But sure, you don’t get paid for that time, and you might if you were on salary.

Ester: It’s true that flexibility, and being able to set your own schedule, is a great benefit. An Uber and Lyft driver I spoke to recently said she loves working when she wants to and stopping when she wants to. To her, maybe that matters more than having an employer to contribute to her 401(K), and I’m glad she has the option. Likewise, the Uber driver I met outside of Boston who’s a retired cop — with a pension — who does a couple days a week of work to stay busy and pick up some extra cash. Why not?

It only really becomes a problem when the more “legit” jobs disappear.

Nicole: Right, and I’m still kinda stuck on what I was thinking of the other day, comparing my freelancing work to gig economy work: there’s no path for advancement. There’s no bigger and better Uber, and there’s no job above the rung you’re on. Right?

Ester: Which is why it works great for pensioners and teenagers! And less well for people who could do it for a bit, maybe, but then get stymied. It has the potential to create a permanent underclass and that is not what we need.

Nicole: And yet there’s this bit of glossing over that fact because many people who might otherwise be making zero money are now making some money. It’s like “we’re helping people out of the underclass!” but … only a tiny step.

Ester: Right, and to what end? It’s like that debate from “The West Wing” when Bartlet says, “Give me the next ten words.” Uber and TaskRabbit and so on are great for blurbs, for quick talking points. But what’s their model for the future? What do they envision, five years from now (besides ideally making as much money as possible)?

Nicole: Uber will disrupt the public bus system and help Google bring in the first wave of driverless cars. TaskRabbit will merge with Amazon.

Ester: Sure, why not. Half of us will move to Canada and the other half will move to Mexico.

Nicole: They have Amazon too! I saw it on Scott Pilgrim.

Ester: Seriously, though, if people can’t rely on their jobs, they will have to rely increasingly on their government. Will we have the kind of functional government that can handle that?

Nicole: What would Alexander Hamilton do? Basic income for everybody?

Ester: I don’t know if espoused that, but he was certainly in favor of a strong, central federal government. Of course, his America was a lot smaller than ours. Still suffered from plenty of gun violence, though.

Nicole: It is funny how that seems like an even harder problem to solve. I can joke about TaskRabbit but when I think about gun violence my mind just throws up a blank wall.

Ester: I know. I feel hopeless too. We can’t even make basic changes like treating guns in ads the same way we treat cigarettes. I am 110% anti-smoking, but how did we decide, as a society, that cigarettes were more dangerous than firearms?? Anyway. Maybe Hamilton will help inspire me. Make me feel hopeful again somehow. And your new apartment can fill the same role for you! Especially if you kept that amazing fiesta light bulb.

Nicole: It is sitting in a box, waiting for its moment in the shade.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.