Universities are devoting a smaller share of faculty slots to tenured professors than in the past — and hiring more associate professors who have little chance for promotion. Law firms employ relatively fewer partners and more lawyers who are paid less. And Hollywood is hiring fewer writers to participate in the entire production process, relegating more of them to piecework.
This trend is part of what my colleague Noam Scheiber calls “the breaking of work,” and it’s a central issue in the Hollywood writers’ strike, which is now 11 weeks old. As one historian has explained, there is an increasingly “level workforce of prestige workers and lesser workers.” The arrangement has its roots in production, Noam writes in a story that was recently published:
At the turn of the 20th century, cars were produced mostly in artisanal fashion by small teams of highly skilled “all-around” mechanics who helped assemble a variety of components and systems – powertrain, axles, transmission.
By 1914, Ford Motor had repeatedly split and subdivided these jobs, spreading more than 150 men across a vast assembly line. The workers usually performed a few simple tasks over and over again.
Specialization has great benefits. Companies can complete tasks more efficiently and cheaply. But workers sometimes pay the price in the form of lower wages and less responsibility, especially if they are not unionized and lack bargaining leverage.
Screenwriters – who are unionized – went on strike in an attempt to use their collective leverage to avoid becoming Hollywood’s equivalent of assistant professors. Until the past decade, writers not only wrote scripts but also stayed on set during filming and participated in the process. They offered thoughts on costumes and props and would tweak the script as the cast acted it out.
The producer Michael Schur compared the work to an apprenticeship. Schur was a writer on “The Office,” and the experience helped him learn how to create and run his own shows. Later, he did so, with “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place”.
Today, only one or two writers stay with a show through production, while others produce scripts and are then dropped from the process. “The making of television is very fragmented now,” John Koblin, who covers the television business for The Times, told me. “The writers write. The actors act. The directors direct.” (John went into more detail as a guest on the NPR show “Fresh Air.”)
As a result, writers’ pay has stagnated even as streaming has caused an explosion in the number of television shows. Studio executives say they need to rein in costs in response to declining revenue from cable TV and movie theaters. And those challenges are real, but executives also seem to be using the shift to streaming as an excuse to change the economics of their industry in ways that are less favorable to many employees.
The trend is a microcosm of larger developments. Nationwide, the wages of the bottom 90 percent of earners have lagged far behind economic growth in recent decades (as you can see in these Times charts). Most Americans did not receive their share of the economy’s growing bounty, while a relatively small portion experienced very large gains.
That’s not shocking. As the economist Thomas Piketty has explained, inequality tends to increase in a capitalist economy, in part because the rich have more political power and economic leverage than the middle class and poor do. But history also shows that growing inequality is not inevitable.
There are forces that can push in the other direction. Rising educational attainment can give more people the skills to become specialists. Taxes on top incomes and large fortunes can redistribute wealth. Unions can give workers the bargaining power to prevent wage stagnation.
Hollywood writers – and, since last week, actors too – are now trying to make such a push against inequality.
Here, you can read Noam’s story – which details the accounts of writers of “The Mentalist”, “Billions” and other shows.
THE LATEST NEWS
More than 86 million Americans live with dangerous heat, and El Paso has endured 33 straight days of 100-degree temperatures. See the American heat wave by the numbers.
War in Ukraine
Russia has stepped up its attack on Ukraine’s food exports, attacking port facilities in Odessa and warning other countries that bypassing its Black Sea blockade would be an act of war.
The head of MI6, Britain’s intelligence agency, said Vladimir Putin “cut a deal” with Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin during last month’s uprising to save face.
Ukraine is allowing soldiers displaced by Russia’s invasion to join the fight to liberate their hometowns.
Stanford’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, will resign after an investigation found flaws in his research.
Tessier-Lavigne’s departure and the recent removal of Northwestern’s football coach have something in common: Both were driven by tenacious student newspapers.
Wesleyan University in Connecticut ends admissions preferences for the relatives of alumni.
Other Great Stories
A gunman opened fire at a construction site in Auckland, New Zealand, killing two people. The suspect’s motive appeared to be linked to work at the site, not to the start of the Women’s World Cup in the city.
Hundreds of protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in Iraq and set fire to part of it to protest against a planned burning of the Koran in Stockholm.
A Powerball jackpot of more than $1 billion has a single winning ticket, sold in California.
The New York subway is raising its base fare for the first time in years. A ride will be $2.90, up from $2.75.
Abortion rights advocates arrange free flights to bring patients to states where the procedure is legal.
No Labels’ flirtation with a third-party presidential campaign is a frivolous response to another potential Trump-Biden matchup, Katherine Miller writes
Here is a column from Pamela Paul about the dangers of Biden’s candidacy.
Canine convention: Imagine wrangling 488 golden retrievers for a family portrait.
Beauty and bacteria: An endurance athlete plans to swim all 315 miles of the Hudson River.
Multiply: Rabbits overran a Florida island.
Lives Lived: Kevin Mitnick was once one of the most wanted computer criminals in the U.S. After prison time, he became a security consultant and public speaker. He died at 59 years old.
WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
The United States is favored to win its third consecutive Women’s World Cup, which began today, but other countries have closed on American rule.
New Zealand upset Norway, 1-0, in the opening match – the country’s first ever Women’s World Cup victory.
See the schedule in your time zone, and sign up for The Times’ daily tournament newsletter.
Northwestern’s culture: Players were fogged for years at the football team’s preseason camp, including wearing bare-chested pull-ups and being forced to squeeze past soaped-up teammates to get to the showers.
Cement win: Jonas Vingegaard was on the edge of repeating as the Tour de France champion after opening an almost insurmountable lead in the final days of cycling’s premier race, the BBC reports.
ARTS AND IDEAS
High-breasted hot dog: The most talked about dish in New York this year is the $29 hot dog at Mischa, writes restaurant critic Pete Wells. The dog is about nine inches long, with a natural casing that snaps and a filling of emulsified breast with pork fat. It comes with inventive condiments.
“Considered as a public statement, the $29 hot dog is an obnoxious, obviously expensive lowbrow-highbrow stunt from the Jeff Koons catalog,” Wells writes. “If you can forget all that and just eat it, though, the $29 hot dog is glorious.”
More about culture
“Oppenheimer” shows Christopher Nolan’s virtuosity as a film director, writes Manohla Dargis. Read her review.