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Unemployment, Inc.: Six reasons why America can't create jobs

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Of course, traditional steady jobs haven't vanished entirely. And the definition of "steady" has always depended on the employer's own solvency. But the shift toward more flexible workplaces has accelerated in recent years.

A survey of 2,000 employers by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the McKinsey consulting firm, found that two-thirds say they have "made changes to achieve the same output with fewer employees" over the past three years. Of those, 44 percent had increased their use of part-time, temporary, or peak scheduling. A similar number have redesigned processes, and 24 percent have outsourced some activities.

In recession periods in the mid-1970s and early '80s, employers didn't lay off as many workers as declining consumer demand suggested they could. In 2001 and 2008, by contrast, employers felt an imperative to keep their per-worker productivity from falling – and the result was deeper layoffs.

Still, labor-market experts point out that workplace flexibility has its benefits as well as challenges. The upside for employers includes being more nimble and focused. It's typical for a firm now to have a core permanent staff – among its most highly valued assets – surrounded by a flexible workforce.

For workers of both types, the current environment includes greater freedom (the opportunity to work at home, for instance) and often good pay as well.

Some types of workplace adaptability can hold advantages even during downturns. Susan Lund of the McKinsey Global Institute notes that Germany has survived the global downturn better than the US, in part because many of its companies reduced work hours instead of cutting so many jobs.

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