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Under-the-Table, Off-the-Books Work: The Scary Economic Trend Making Americans More Job-Insecure Than Ever

By Lynn Stuart Parramore
They’re stuck in pieced-together part-time gigs and often getting paid off-the-books. Too discouraged to look for regular jobs, these are the inhabitants of what trendwatchers are calling the “gray economy.” In California alone, their numbers, which include many freelance workers, are 6.2 million, or over 16 percent of residents.

Like a dismal cloud spreading over the sky to blot out the sun, the gray economy is trapping millions of Americans in a dark world of haphazard and insecure jobs, few or no benefits, nonexistent chances for advancement, and little recourse if they get screwed.

As Tiffany Hsu explained in a recent LA Times report, measuring the extent of this economic netherworld is challenging:

“It's hard to track the growth of the gray economy because so many employers hide workers for tax purposes. Experts generally agree, however, that the ranks of the underemployed swelled during the recession — more than in past downturns — and have remained substantial in an unsteady recovery.”

Some experts fear this is more than a cyclical change, it's evidence of a more fundamental shift toward job insecurity. This shift appears to be driven by a myriad of trends and policies, from globalization to outsourcing to shareholder value ideology which focuses corporate attention to short-term profits and stock market manipulation. These factors, plus the decimations of unions and the giant Wall Street-driven economic shocks which create high unemployment, have shifted power away from workers and toward employers who seek their short-term advantage no matter what the social and economic costs. Starting in the '70s, the lifetime career at one company gradually shifted to a less secure full-time job, then work as an independent contractor, and now, finally, to under-the-table work.

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