Re-visiting 9 to 5 in a gig economy

My daughter and I celebrated her birthday last week by heading out to a little theater in our town to watch the company’s production of 9 to 5. The movie is one of her favorites, starring two of her favorite entertainers (Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton). Having read some reviews of the Broadway production that focused on how children would respond to it, I went into it thinking about how the sexism and workplace discrimination issues would make sense to a just-turned 11-year-old. The director helped us out by encouraging us, in her opening talk, to boo when Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman’s character in the film) acted like “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” And rather than seeming outdated, the script spoke to the #metoo moment, making it perhaps more relevant than it was in 2008, when the musical premiered.

Above, scenes from 9 to 5.

All of that aside, I wasn’t thinking so much about workplace sexual harassment as I watched it as I was about labor. For example,

  • Maria, one of the secretaries, gets fired when the boss finds that she’s learned that the men with the same job duties earn more than her. She earns $12,000 per year, she says, while a male colleague earns $14,000. That would be about $34,500 in today’s earnings, if we classify her as unskilled. At the state university where I teach, administrative assistants frequently earn under $25,000 today.
  • Judy, played by Jane Fonda in the film, gets a job at Consolidated with no work experience. She’s been a housewife her whole adult life–right until her husband Dick dumps her for his own 19-year-old secretary, Mindi. In today’s world, no one gets a job as a secretary at 19 unless they are related to the company’s owner. And, second, no middle-aged lady with zero skills or training gets such a job. My department just hired a new administrative assistant. We pay her $22,045 (a number I feel fine sharing since it’s published in our publicly available budget) and our job ad specified that the new hire had to have a bachelor’s degree. So, four years of schooling, tuition and fees and probably debt, and four years of lost earnings… for a job that requires more skills than ever but pays less than ever.
  • Violet ends up being the first female CEO. Today, just 32 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to Forbes-which hails the number as our highest ever.  In the 38 years between when the story is set and today, we haven’t made much progress.
  • 9 to 5 sounds like a dream some days. Most young people I know work far more than 8 hours per day, or they have to endure a ridiculous commute to get to work, or they string together multiple jobs, or they have a job that doesn’t provide them with stable hours, or if it does, it’s temporary.

Image result for old economy steve


Above, some examples of the Old Economy Steve meme. They might not all be fair, but they capture a lot of younger workers’ resentment about a changing economy. 

For all that has changed in terms of sexual harassment (and for all that hasn’t, too), we’ve lost a lot of ground on the issue of wages and work.


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