The Once and Future Temp

What can the history of the temp-work industry teach us about the precarity of modern working life?

In the 1980s, Arlene Kaplan Daniels coined the term “invisible work” to describe unpaid labor, traditionally undertaken by women, in the household.1 Over time, feminist scholars—from anthropologists to economists—adopted and broadened the term to refer to any work that is physically hidden, culturally overlooked, socially marginalized, economically devalued, or legally unprotected. This is to say, invisibility is a rather amorphous characteristic that results when the work, worker, or workplace is obscured, often leading to a combination of economic, cultural, and social devaluation.

In Hilary Leichter’s first novel, Temporary, this invisible work makes the world turn. Following the incredibly odd temp positions of a young woman navigating the workplace, the reader quickly realizes that Temporary is a surreal and speculative novel set outside this universe. In each chapter, the unnamed narrator fills in for a different person or thing, taking on wacky placements as an assassin, a pirate, and a sea barnacle.

In Leichter’s novel, the protagonist is born a temporary, living in the space “between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.” While Leichter’s temporaries were originally created “to fill any gaps the gods had forgotten,” over time they have become a class of people with no choice but to embrace their transient occupational status and its affective demands. In Leichter’s world, the “temp” has grown from a temporary occupation into a permanent fixture of the universe. In one sense, then, Leichter forces readers to ask what it means for temps to be anything but provisional.

Leichter dreams up a colorful and kooky world of work in Temporary, which asks the question, What can fiction, specifically the surreal and bemusing kind, teach us about modern working life? With a matter-of-fact tone and tongue-in-cheek language, Leichter crafts a world in which work-life balance is as elusive as celebrity status. While Temporary’s story world is purposefully impressionistic, its portrayal of temporary work draws very real connections between the history of the “temp” industry in the US and newer forms of contingent labor that demand workers sacrifice not just their time—and now, potentially, their health—but also crucial facets of their identities.

For Leichter’s mythical temps, their purpose is not merely to stand in for other workers (the assassin, the pirate) but also to embody them, to become them. The central journey occurs in this in-between of internal and external selves, for it is through these portraits of exaggerated embodiment that Leichter captures the gendered and affective aspects of work. Leichter places these traditionally invisible and feminized practices in the foreground, constructing a campy story of work and identity that reveals just how closely the two are connected and how this proximity can invite exploitation.

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The protagonist’s temp agency is “an uptown pleasure dome of powder-scented women in sensible shoes.” Farren, her primary contact at the agency, is “fresh and lip glossed, a properly moisturized beacon of confidence and self care.” A well-manicured and well-organized figure of envy, Farren assigns the protagonist to her various temp positions. During a particularly low moment, the protagonist daydreams of fair Farren and her sparkly fingernails, imagining her lighting scented candles, moisturizing her hands, and practicing “the calisthenics required for the distribution of gainful employment.” Farren is a symbol of beauty and diligence: she has a job she loves, plenty of boyfriends, and a dresser full of nail polish organized by color.

Though the novel is not set in a particular time period, the depiction of the ideal female worker as an emblem of beauty, cleanliness, and efficiency is reminiscent of early advertisements for temporary work. By the mid-1950s, photos of smiling, white, waif-like women began to cover the pages of newspapers and magazines across the country, promising talented temporary workers who could do the job better. These early industry leaders—agencies like Manpower Inc., Kelly Girl Service (now known as Kelly Services), and Workman Girls—went to great lengths to cast temp work as women’s work, creating robust advertising campaigns that depicted the temp as a middle-class married woman working for luxury items. This branding tactic extended beyond advertisements: in 1963, the mammoth temp agency Manpower began sending temporaries into the workplace wearing white gloves. In his 1968 book Your Future as a Temporary Office Worker, Manpower founder Elmer Winter wrote, “We chose white gloves as a symbol … because they seem to represent everything that is feminine, neat, and proper. They symbolize quality and efficiency.”2

There was a clear logic to framing temporary work as a job for the middle-class housewife longing for a new fur coat. Industry leaders needed to avoid antagonizing large labor unions, who were at the peak of their power in this post–World War II era. Unions had won significant worker protections, such as worker’s compensation, pensions, and health care, all benefits that would not be extended to this new class of temporary workers.3 As union membership was generally not an option for women, the feminization of temporary work was a strategic move to create a peripheral workforce of secondary wage earners exempt from worker protections (these conditions parallel the precariousness of today’s gig economy). Though temp agencies’ depiction of their workforce was not completely candid—temp agencies also employed men and people of color, though at lower rates, and a 1960s study found that the majority of women who took temporary work did so for basic economic needs—these marketing tactics worked, successfully creating a new class of pink-collar employment.4

Advertisement for Manpower, Inc. (1979). Photograph by rchappo2002 / Flickr

Temporary moves beyond the glossy exterior of its gendered labor, exploring the affective aspects of work that are often overlooked in our society. Each chapter is titled according to a specific domain of work—such as “City Work” or “Paper Work”—which presents readers with a panorama of environments in which temping can occur and suggests that these different domains require similar forms of labor and sacrifice.

In a section titled “Water Work,” Farren sends our protagonist out to sea to fill in for a pirate on “a nautical voyage of an unmarked vessel.” There she will replace a pirate named Darla, a woman she senses was both loved and feared: “I try to adjust my temperament to properly fill her boots. I slap a lot of backs and laugh a lot of laughs, and other times I walk the deck with stern and hollow eyes.” In addition to swabbing the deck, taking inventory of the loot, and filing the daily logs, she must aggressively masquerade in a stranger’s shadow. During one dinner, the crew takes turns voicing what Darla would and wouldn’t do: “Never would Darla steal a lady’s pudding,” exclaims one pirate. “Never would she ask for overtime,” says the pirate captain, and “never would she ask for severance,” he adds. Unenthused by the metamorphosis required of her, the protagonist thinks, “It takes an aggressive empathy to accurately replace a person. A person is a tangle of nerves and veins and relationships, and one must untangle the tangle like repairing a knotted necklace and wrap oneself at the center of the mess.”

We watch the protagonist try to convince others of her Darla-ness, a constant, hyperbolic role-playing that eventually leads to an off-color encounter with a fellow pirate. “Darla does this all the time,” he says. “Really?” she responds. “He isn’t the first man to miscalculate what a woman would or wouldn’t do, and with his hands under my skirt under the sails under the sky, no one hears a thing, least of all Darla.” It is during moments like this that Leichter’s playful imitation game takes a sudden, sobering dip into reality. For Leichter’s temps, the “people pretending at other people,” the effort required to embody another person not only lands them in thorny situations but dilutes their individuality: “I think of my many available selves, coagulated and discrete, compromising themselves for one another.”

Though this identity work is caricatural, it captures the immaterial and emotional labor that is a reality for many workers.5 Emotional labor is the work of inducing or restraining feelings in order to present a specific, external display of emotion for others. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s influential research on the emotional work of pink-collar service employees made it clear that active emotional labor is a specific skill that—because it is traditionally feminized and immaterial—is not valued as labor.

“Temporary” captures the demands and dangers of precarious work in a world where workers are somehow both essential and expendable.

What’s more, this emotional labor often requires not only performing but becoming. For example, if the mood of the worker is part of what is being sold, as it often is in service work, then appearing to love the job becomes a necessity, but “actually trying to love it, and to enjoy the customers, helps the worker in this effort.”6 In other words, not just pretending to be but actually becoming someone who “loves” their job increases that employee’s value in the labor market. This emotional labor, which Leichter pushes toward parody, sometimes “draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.” By exaggerating the identity work in Temporary, Leichter shows readers the strangeness and complexity of the embodied and invisible labor that many workers perform without recognition of its value, or anticipation of its costs.

While capturing the burden of affective labor on the self, Temporary pushes against it, describing the skill as merely an innate characteristic of the temporary worker, something that is intrinsic and, therefore, untrained. The first-ever temp, Leichter writes, was well versed in emotional labor; “she was built to feel the world through active, staggered checks of compassion.” While empathy is supposed to be second nature for the temporary, our protagonist’s efforts to fill in for others are revealed to be far from organic. Reflecting on the time she spent as Darla, she notes, “I thought I had practiced the kind of empathy that would allow me to replace her. But there are new pieces of information every day.”

Historically, framing tasks as instinctual simultaneously paints them as unskilled. This tactic has been applied to many feminized industries, such as care work, where workers are described as inherently caring and warm instead of adept and competent.7 This framing makes it easier for employers to exploit those doing this work.


Temporary is a delightfully absurd, misfit novel that darkly captures how work can construct, confuse, and corrode identity. The section titled “Home Work” captures this most poignantly; the protagonist runs into a young boy behind a bar, who offers to pay her to fill in for his mother. She accepts and is led back to the boy’s house, presented with his mother’s clothing, and instructed to make herself at home. Years pass, and the protagonist devotedly cares for the boy, cooking and cleaning, helping with his homework, and telling him bedtime stories. Over time, the distinction between her waged duties and the actions she voluntarily performs for the boy blurs. Tending to him as if he were her real son, she uses her salary to buy him medicine when he falls ill. When the boy asks why she did this, she responds, “because I care about you, and you’re sick.” “You’re not supposed to care about me. That’s not your responsibility,” he says. “I promised you a job, not a family.”

The boy’s message is clear: work and life are overlapping entities, often in tension with one another, and even the worker forgets that distinction at times. The subjectivities formed at work are not confined to the workplace and can deepen our attachments to the tasks we perform and the people we serve, even as we simultaneously wish for more of a work-life balance. When work requires us to produce different affects, those moods and feelings and relationships color the rest of our life and, once cultivated, can make us vulnerable to further exploitation. This, ultimately, is the most grounded aspect of Temporary: the jobs are insane, but the work is real.

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A global pandemic has revealed—to many, for the first time—that underpaid, precarious workforces are essential. Those with salaried jobs and the ability to work from home must now acknowledge the paradox that these often overlooked, people-facing jobs provide the necessary goods and services that allow them to quarantine safely. It has taken a pandemic, then, for there to be widespread recognition that grocery-store clerks, delivery drivers, and health aides of all stripes are critical to society’s survival. Temporary captures the demands and dangers of precarious work in a world where workers are somehow both essential and expendable. In a moment when we are simultaneously hailing temporary and precarious workers as heroes, yet continuing to endanger and devalue them, stories like these—that render the invisible visible—may be exactly what we need.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames and Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Arlene Kaplan Daniels, “Invisible Work,” Social Problems, vol. 34, no. 5 (1987).
  2. Erin Hatton, The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America (Temple University Press, 2011), p. 37.
  3. Hatton, Temp Economy, p. 21.
  4. Mack Moore, “The Role of Temporary Help Services in the Clerical Labor Market” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1963), pp. 96–98.
  5. David A. Snow and Leon Anderson, “Identity Work among the Homeless: The Verbal Construction and Avowal of Personal Identities,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 92 (1987), pp. 1348–49, refers to the work involved in creating, modifying, and displaying a particular identity in accordance with one’s environment and situation.
  6. Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press, 1983), p. 6.
  7. Erin Hatton, “Mechanisms of Invisibility: Rethinking the Concept of Invisible Work,” Work, Employment, and Society, vol. 31 (2017), pp. 5–6.
Featured image: Brown’s Temporary Personnel Agency ad. Image by 1950sUnlimited / Flickr