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OPINION

Work isn’t working for a lot of America

Many Americans are looking very closely at the fine print of their contracts and realizing they want something more.

You cannot have radical candor or psychological safety in an environment where you can lose your livelihood and health insurance from one day to the next.Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

Like many other Gen Xers, I had my first job at 14 years old when I got a permit to be legally employed. I earned about $3.35 an hour and the job itself was nontraditional — I was a proofreader at the global investment bank Lazard in midtown Manhattan. As a Puerto Rican girl growing up in public housing in New York, I was convinced that the job would serve as a path to a better future. In the late 1980s the idea of accessing the American middle class if you worked hard was very much alive.

So when I look at this year’s “hot labor summer” and reflect back on my 38 years in the workplace, it would be naive for me to say that the social contract between workers and employers is broken. If anything, it needs to be totally rewritten, beginning with what workers get in exchange for their labor. While I was thrilled to earn $3.35 an hour as a teenager, since I was working class, that money went toward clothes for my corporate job and paying corporate lunch prices. In short, I didn’t get to save much. What came in went out so that I could keep, well, working.

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This is the situation that many Americans find themselves in today. People are working (unemployment is hovering at 3.5 percent), but their pay has only increased 4.6 percent since last year. According to research from CNBC, more than half of Americans surveyed say they live paycheck to paycheck, and more than 70 percent say they are stressed over their finances. Across the country, from Hollywood to Starbucks to UPS, workers are demanding better pay and better overall working conditions. A 2023 Pew survey showed that just 34 percent of workers said they were satisfied with what they are paid. Surprisingly, the same study showed that about two out of three workers were satisfied with their relationships with their coworkers more than anything else in their jobs. Yay?

In addition to almost 40 years in the workplace, I also spent the majority of last year reading research about the so-called future of work. While much of it is well-intentioned and mainly meant for corporate jobs, there is a lot of jargon to get through. Concepts like “psychological safety,” where workers are encouraged to speak up without fear of getting into trouble, and “radical candor,” a similar notion that says workers should be direct, yet compassionate, in their communications, are interesting but feel somewhat out of touch with reality.

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We have just been through a season of intense layoffs in the media and technology industries, where people who probably assumed they would never face a layoff because of their highly coveted skill sets were suddenly being shown the door en masse. Couple that with concerns in Hollywood and beyond that artificial intelligence will eliminate many jobs (while supposedly creating others) and concepts like speaking freely go out the window. You cannot have radical candor or psychological safety in an environment where you can lose your livelihood and health insurance from one day to the next.

That’s one reason why we are seeing more workers seek to form unions that they hope will offer some modicum of protection or the ability to negotiate better pay and working conditions. The bottom line is that all workers, from coders to baristas, need to be able to pay the rent and take care of themselves and their loved ones. Being laid off, on strike, or unemployed for long periods of time can be financially and emotionally devastating to people, especially those who don’t have a second income or a partner’s health insurance.

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Workers are also increasingly wary of corporate leaders raking in high salaries and not sharing the profits, Steven Greenhouse, author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor,” told me. “Many workers still are unhappy because they feel that they’ve fallen behind inflation and they might feel that their employer is very profitable and not sharing enough of their profits with the workers in the form of wage increases,” Greenhouse said. In July, Disney CEO Bob Iger came under fire for calling the demands of striking workers not “realistic.” Iger, whose compensation is estimated to be $27 million, has since said he is committed to finding a solution to the strike.

But what if we reimagined the entire social contract around work instead? What if our health care wasn’t tied to an employer but instead offered to us as a right? Medicaid for All has been floated about for years as a political talking point, but it’s often such a hot-button issue that even the savviest political voices admit it will be a hard sell. Yet having a federal medical program that goes beyond the Obamacare marketplace would ensure that workers can maintain their health even while looking for work and would not be forced to stay in jobs while they are sick or in need of medical care.

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Imagine going a step further and having some kind of universal basic income that would help Americans who lose their jobs not become destitute. Could that lead to greater bargaining power for workers? It’s not so simple. I spoke to William “Sandy” Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University, about the issue, and he advocates for a federal job guarantee rather than a UBI model. Darity said UBI could actually lessen worker bargaining power by potentially giving “employers greater leverage for reducing wages, since everyone would receive an assured income.” Darity and his colleagues say that a federal job guarantee that provides workers with a salary floor of at least $23,000 could help eliminate the working poor.

I never ended up working in finance, despite my exposure to the industry. I chose journalism instead and decided to take my chances on a career that I loved. And while I’ve had much success and have worked for many marquee brands, I still feel the uncertainty of work in this country every day. Like many American workers today, I too know what it feels like to have the rug pulled out from under you when it comes to income and health insurance. As a single mother, I know the importance of having a steady cash flow.

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However destabilizing, the COVID-19 pandemic gave many Americans an opportunity to think about what they want from their lives and from their jobs. Since then they’ve been looking very closely at the fine print of their work contracts and realizing they want something more.

I hope they get it.

Tanzina Vega is a journalist whose work focuses on inequality. She is a contributing Globe Opinion writer.