Contingent Work

Kalleberg, Arne L. (2013). Contingent Work. In Smith, Vicki (Ed.), Sociology of Work: An Encyclopedia (pp. 120-1). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc..

Kalleberg, Arne L. (2013). Contingent Work. In Smith, Vicki (Ed.), Sociology of Work: An Encyclopedia (pp. 120-1). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc..

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Contingent work refers to employment relations that are conditional on employers' needs for workers. The use of contingent work provides employers with flexibility, while workers are disposable and their employment is uncertain, unstable, insecure, and risky. These work arrangements have become more common in industrial nations in recent decades. Employees in contingent work arrangements do not have a long-term contract with their employers but are hired for only as long as employers need them. Contingent work represents a departure from the standard employment arrangement (SER) that was the employment norm in most industrial nations after World War II. SERs are characterized by the exchange of an employee's work for monetary compensation from an employer, with work done on a fixed schedule—usually full time—at the employer's place of business, under the employer's control, and with the mutual expectation of continued employment. Nonstandard work arrangements differ from the SER in various ways, including temporary, contracted, and part-time work. Workers in most nonstandard arrangements cannot assume that their employment will continue, therefore they are contingent workers.

Employers may hire workers directly on a fixed-term, temporary basis, as when retail stores employ additional staff during busy holiday seasons, when accounting firms add extra tax experts during tax season, or when construction firms recruit day laborers for a short-term project. Employers might also hire workers temporarily on an as-needed or “on-call” basis, as when schools hire substitutes to fill in for sick teachers. Alternatively, employers may hire workers who are employed by temporary help agencies or contract companies to help out during peak demand periods or to provide needed skills that in-house employees do not have. Some part-time jobs might be considered contingent work, especially if employees have no control over the number of hours they work from one week to the next. The number of hours worked does not define a job as contingent, however, as many full-time jobs can also be considered contingent. This is especially true in the United States, with its doctrine of “employment at-will” and lack of employment security protections. Nor does skill level necessarily imply whether or not a job is contingent: Both unskilled day laborers and highly skilled independent contractors (or “free agents”) who work as consultants have contingent work arrangements. The estimated number of contingent workers in the United States varies, depending on definitions and business cycle conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that about 4.9 percent of the labor force was in contingent jobs in 1995, compared to 4.1 percent in 2005. The percentage of U.S. workers who are insecure about their jobs is probably much higher.

Population Movement, Diversity, Inequality


Sociology of Work: An Encyclopedia

Kalleberg, Arne L.

Smith, Vicki




SAGE Publications, Inc.

Thousand Oaks, Calif.


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