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Contingent work, also sometimes known as casual work, is a neologism which describes a type of employment relationship between an employer and employee. There is no universally agreed consensus on what type of working arrangement constitutes contingent work, but it is generally considered to be any one or combination of the following:

Whether a person who does contingent work can be described as 'having a job' is debatable - however, contingent work is usually not considered to be a career, or part of a career. One of the features of contingent work is that it usually offers little or no opportunity for career development.

If a job is full time, permanent, and either pays a regular salary or a fixed wage for regular hours, then it is usually not considered to be contingent work.

Contingent work is not an entirely neutral term, because commentators who use the phrase generally consider it to be a social problem. Employment agencies and classified advertising media are more likely to use the phrase casual work, particularly to attract students who wish to earn money during the summer vacation, but who aren't interested in a long term career. Whilst all casual work is considered to be contingent work, not all contingent work is casual. In particular, part time jobs, or jobs in organizations that have a high staff turnover, may be considered contingent work, but aren't necessarily casual.


Industrial Revolution

The concept of what we now consider to be a job, where one attends work at fixed hours, didn't become widespread until the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the predominant regular work was in agriculture. Textile workers would often work from home, buying raw cotton from a merchant, spinning it and weaving it into cloth at home, before selling it on.

In the 1770s, cotton mills started to appear in Lancashire, England, using Richard Arkwright's spinning jenny and powered by water wheels. Workers would often work in twelve hour shifts, six days a week. However, they would still often be paid on a piece work basis, and fines would be deducted from their pay for damage to machinery. Employers could hire and fire pretty much as they pleased, and if an employee had any grievance about this, there was very little they could do about it.

Trade Union movement

Individual workers were powerless to prevent exploitation by their employers. However, the realisation that all workers generally want the same things, and the benefits of collective bargaining, led to the formation of the first trade unions. As trade unions became larger, their sphere of influence increased, and started to involve political lobbying, resulting in much of the employment law that is now taken for granted.

20th century decline in manufacture

Manufacture has declined during the 20th century in the Western world. Many manufacturing organisations that employ large numbers of people have relocated their operations to developing nations. As a result, whenever they do hire staff in Europe or North America, they often need to be able to fire them quickly and keep costs as low as possible, to remain competitive. As a result, some employers may look for loopholes in employment law, or ways of engaging staff that allows them to circumvent union-negotiated employment law, creating what is now known as contingent work.

Contingent work in culture

Contingent work jobs are widely referred to as McJobs. This term was made popular by Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and stems from the notion that jobs in McDonalds and other fast food and retail businesses are frequently insecure, and that the hiring and firing is as fast as the food.

Critics of the concept

Critics say that it's unfair to tarnish all employment agencies with the brush of contingent work. Some say that temporary work patterns such as self-employment, consultancy and telecommuting can bring benefits of flexibility not just to employers, but employees as well, and can improve work-life balance, and make it easier for workers to manage family responsibilities. However it is argued that such benefits are only realized in middle class jobs, whose entry barriers are too high for workers with below-average earnings.

Further reading

  • Contingent Work: American Employment Relations in Transition, edited by Kathleen Barker and Kathleen Christensen

See also



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