Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Temp Economy

The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America

Erin Hatton
Foreword by Nelson Lichtenstein
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 212
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Temp Economy
    Book Description:

    Everyone knows that work in America is not what it used to be. Layoffs, outsourcing, contingent work, disappearing career ladders-these are the new workplace realities for an increasing number of people. But why? InThe Temp Economy, Erin Hatton takes one of the best-known icons of the new economy-the temp industry-and finds that it is more than just a symbol of this degradation of work. The temp industry itself played an active role in this decline-and not just for temps. Industry leaders started by inventing the "Kelly Girl," exploiting 1950s gender stereotypes to justify low wages, minimal benefits, and chronic job insecurity. But they did not stop with Kelly Girls. From selling human"business machines" in the 1970s to "permatemps" in the 1990s, the temp industry relentlessly portrayed workers as profit-busting liabilities that hurt companies' bottom lines even in boom times. These campaigns not only legitimized the widespread use of temps, they also laid the cultural groundwork for a new corporate ethos of ruthless cost cutting and mass layoffs.

    Succinct, highly readable, and drawn from a vast historical record of industry documents,The Temp Economyis a one-stop resource for anyone interested in the temp industry or the degradation of work in postwar America.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0082-6
    Subjects: History, Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)
    Nelson Lichtenstein

    Erin Hatton’s exploration of the temp industry is a most revealing probe into the transformation of work and obligation in modern America. Her book is important because it uncovers the shifting ideological and cultural tropes deployed to degrade New Deal–era labor standards and also because it explores, in a wide variety of firms and industries, how this new category of worker became highly functional to capital in an era of economic instability and globalization. But the rise of temping was hardly a naturalistic process, a product of some abstract “demand” for contingent labor. Rather, it was advanced, constructed, and...

    (pp. XIII-XIV)
    (pp. XV-XVIII)
  6. INTRODUCTION: The Temp Economy
    (pp. 1-18)

    It is almost a cliché to talk about the decline in Americans’ work lives over the last decades of the twentieth century. Time and again, newspaper headlines have lamented what the NNew York Timescalled the “downsizing of America”:¹ wage freezes and massive layoffs; closed factories and jobs moved abroad; permanent employees replaced by contingent workers. Wages stagnated and access to benefits declined. The possibility of lifetime employment was replaced with the likelihood of chronic job insecurity and episodes of unemployment. Career ladders collapsed, with more and more workers finding themselves stuck at the bottom.

    Th e temp industry has...

    (pp. 19-48)

    A group of suburban, white, middle-class housewives gathered in a local hotel, not to exchange pie recipes or tips for home furnishings, but to talk about the drudgery of house work and the benefits of working for wages. They watched a film that praised working outside the home as a way for housewives such as themselves to experience exciting opportunities and a new sense of self-fulfillment. A “consciousnessraising” group during feminism’s “second wave”? No. The year was 1961, two years before the publication ofThe Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s best-selling book that is often credited with reviving middle-class feminism. Rather,...

    (pp. 49-80)

    In an early 1970s advertisement, Olsten Temporary Help Services announced a new invention: “the semi-permanent employee.” Guglielmo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph, the ad said; Thomas Edison invented the phonograph; and Alexander Bell invented the telephone. “Now,” company leaders proclaimed, “Olsten invents The Semi-Permanent Employee. TheSemi-Permanent, a new kind of temporary employee … not for days or even weeks, but for two-and three-month periods to help your business grow more profitably.”¹

    This new “invention,” Olsten told readers of thePersonnel Journal, would boost profits by shrinking the payroll (to “a slim, trim personnel budget, not one which chokes profitability”),...

    (pp. 81-104)

    In 1981, Jack Welch took over as CEO of General Electric (GE) and became an instant icon—the ringleader of a new generation of “leaner and meaner” corporate executives. Within just five years, Welch cut 120,000 employees, one-quarter of GE’s workforce. “What made Welch’s reductions notable,” observed biographer Thomas O’Boyle, “was that his actions had been taken not to curtail losses but to enhance profitability.”¹ The business world responded to Welch with awe and perhaps a little fear. In 1982,Newsweekdubbed him “Neutron Jack” (he destroyed people but left buildings standing), and in 1984Fortunemagazine named him the...

    (pp. 105-142)

    In the early 1990s, Manpower replaced General Motors as the largest employer in the United States, and the temp industry was one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy.¹ By all accounts, the temp industry’s liability model of work was poised to become the new norm. “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap and his aggressive management style—captured perfectly in the title of his best-selling bookMean Business—were widely acclaimed. Reports in the popular media announced the “temping of America” and the rise of the “disposable workforce.”² Books such asThe Temp Track: Make One of the Hottest Job Trends of the...

  11. CONCLUSION: A Model of Work for the Twenty-First Century
    (pp. 143-152)

    Despite the emergence of organized opposition to the temp industry, the history of the industry has been, by and large, a tremendous success story. At the start of the twenty-first century, the temp industry’s triumph seemed nearly complete: The industry employed some three million workers a day, and 90 percent of employers used temp industry services. Moreover, the liability model of work had not experienced so much power since before World War II. Given the scope and scale of this victory, the success of the temp industry’s model of work might seem inevitable—almost a force of nature. But a...

  12. APPENDIX: A Note on Sources
    (pp. 153-156)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 157-206)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 207-212)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 213-213)