torsdagen den 10:e april 2014

The future of work

At the end of last week I handed in a draft report about "The future of work". The report is part of the research project Scenarios & Impacts of the Information Society (some official info) at CESC. I've written about the project before, but last time I did so was nine months ago. Well, I also wrote a blog post that is related to this project, "Science Fiction research workshop" (only) five months ago. Still, time flies.

So, what's new? Well, I'm one of a dozen persons who each has been tasked with taking responsibility for a "building block" and my building block was "work", or perhaps "work patterns". This building block is part of the "Household" package and two of my colleagues are responsible for writing about (households') "Consumption of goods and services" and for "Time use and activity patterns". Do note that these two colleagues of mine are not colleagues of mine at my department (Media Technology and Interaction Design) but rather come from the Division of Environmental Strategies Research. I believe that we plan on writing a book based on the research project and that each "building block" (including my report about the future of work) later will be (re-)shaped into a book chapter.

I have prepared for writing the report rigorously - primarily by researching, buying and reading more than a dozen books about work during the autumn. I have literally read thousands of pages since last summer about the history and genesis of (modern) work and about work-this and work-that. Since I regularly publish blog posts about the books I've read here on the blog, and, since I'm almost half a year behind in writing them up, several blog posts as of late have treated these work-related books (see this, this and this blog post). My intention was originally to finish the report back in December, but that didn't happen and so I had to bring (send) all these books with me to the US. The report isn't finished either, what I just handed in is the first 20-page instalment...

The brunt of my report consists of 11 different trends that I have identified and that I write about. The 11 trends I have chosen to emphasise are:

1) Rationalization
2) Outsourcing
3) Qualified niche high-paid jobs
4) Service jobs
Analytical intermission - on globalization and the reverse lottery economy
5) Migration
6) Precarious jobs
7) "Astronomic" youth unemployment
8) Workfare
9) Empty labour
10) Implications for (higher) education
11) Inner change
Analytical intermission - on the middle class funnel

I've chosen to publish the two analytical intermissions below. Do get in touch with me if you want to read the whole draft report. If you want to read it, you have to promise to get back to me with comments and feedback though!

Intermission - on globalization and the reverse lottery economy

It is fair to say that during the course of no more than a decade, from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s, processes of globalization increased in both speed and scope. The situation on the labor market in affluent, industrialized countries since then can basically be compared to a “reverse lottery economy”. Affluent Western consumers have on the one hand benefited from globalization to the extent that the fruits of global capitalism have been increasingly within the reach of a consumer culture shifting gears into “overdrive”. Never before has it been so easy to buy so much for so little (in terms of exchanging your working hours against material objects). On the other hand, that has only been true until the very moment when your unlucky number comes up and your occupational job niche is outsourced to elsewhere. For each iteration in this process, an overwhelming majority of workers benefits from the ongoing changes, while a small minority of workers are laid off and suffer an oftentimes permanent erosion of living standards, job security and future prospects:

“In short, we have entered what might be called a "reverse-lottery economy." The broad majority of American workers continue to do well; yet in any given year—even in boom times—a few workers hit the negative jackpot and must accept lengthy or even permanent reductions in living standards. Increasingly, these unfortunates hail from a variety of educational backgrounds and occupations. (One recent study found that U.S. financial-service firms are planning to move more than 500,000 jobs—or eight percent of the total work force in that sector—offshore within the next five years. These relocations will include higher-status, higher-income jobs than such transfers have typically included in the past; jobs in financial analysis, research, accounting, and graphic design are among those expected to be moved offshore.) In a society where many people buy on credit, counting on ever expanding good fortune, the decline in income from job displacement is especially hard to bear financially. It is hard to bear psychologically as well.
The Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004

Due to a steady pace of technological developments as well as progressively lowered barriers towards moving capital and production facilities, there has been a steady attrition as “traditional” occupational niches have been “ejected” from the labor markets of wealthy countries. Until recently, not only have most workers (those who have been able to keep their jobs) benefitted, most of the middle class have been protected against these changes. That is however not true any longer due to a pincer movement; also middle-class, qualified, white-collar jobs have been and are being automated or outsourced (see above) and while many middle-aged, middle-class whilte collar workers are (relatively) safe from ongoing changes, their (university-educated) children have a much harder time to find jobs that will allow them to retain the same living standards as their parents (generation).

At the same time as many jobs and occupational niches have disappeared over the last 20 to 30 years, new jobs have been created, but, these have bifurcated in two directions; hyper-qualified jobs bringing ample economic rewards to job-holders, and, less-qualified (service) jobs that have brought decreased economic rewards and decreased occupational security (compared to earlier conditions on the labor market, see further below). The reverse lottery that was outlined above does not currently seem to have reached its logical conclusion (where all jobs that can be outsourced have been outsourced), and it might even be the case that this “game” currently, with ongoing developments in computing (see above) is speeding up. It becomes increasingly difficult to discern who the winners might be on a mid-term basis as the number of jobs that are “protected” decrease at the same pace that the capabilities of computer technologies increase. One clear winner is naturally the professions that are involved in bringing about these ongoing transformations of work, as well as every other (highly) qualified occupational job niche that for one reason or another can not be automated or outsourced. As apart from this “reverse lottery economy” continuing to play out its course, it also seems logical that we will continue to move towards a “winner-takes-it-all” society where, say, lawyers might or might not be paid well, but where the very best lawyers (doctors, experts etc.) can charge astronomical fees. These discussion also harken back to the 1980’s discussions about the formation of a “two-thirds society” (in German: “Zweidrittelgesellschaft”, in Swedish: “Tvåtredjedelssamhället”) where a two thirds of the population continue to prosper while one third “fall behind” into a precarious existence of temporary jobs, unemployment and poverty.

Analytical intermission - on the middle class funnel

I have outlined a number of trends that together spell out the end of the middle class in western societies, or if not the end, then at least the “slimming” and the erection of obstacles in the middle class membership admissions process. It might be that the rewards for admission are becoming higher than ever and that the stakes in terms of the difference between admission and non-admission are diverging, e.g. venturing (even) further towards a winner-takes-it-all society. To repeat, while the middle class in Western countries might be shrinking in absolute numbers, the obstacles and the rewards for admission become higher than ever before and the penalties for non-admission also become higher than ever before. The US always being a decade or two ahead of Europe, this would for example explain the heated debate about Asian “Tiger mothers” (Chua 2011) relentlessly drilling their children to succeed in the American educational system as well as the underlying anxiousness and competition for admission to Ivy League (e.g. top) universities as well as admission to top high schools, top middle schools, top elementary schools and even top pre-kindergarten (day care).

At the same time, the global middle class has expanded especially in China and India during the last decade. My question, or rather Immanuel Wallerstein’s question (1974, 1980, 1989, 2011) is if these developments in some way are connected to each other? If the proper unit of analysis is the modern (capitalistic) world-system rather than individual nations, developments in one part of the world (Asia) can (or will invariably) have repercussions in other parts of the world (Europe, the US). Wallerstein’s hypothesis is that

“The more effective way to lower costs of production is to lower the costs of labour - by further mechanization, by changing law or custom causing lower real wages, or by geographical displacement of production to zones of lower labour costs. [...] However, these tactics contradict the other mode of increasing profits [...] which is that of increasing effective demand.
How can these two needs be reconciled? Historically, there has been only one way - by geographical disjuncture. Whenever, in more favoured regions of the world-system, political steps are taken to raise in some way effective demand (increases in wage levels, and in the social wage or state-controlled redistribution), steps have been taken in other parts of the world-system to increase the number of producers at low wage levels” (Wallerstein 1983. Historical capitalism, p.146.).
In world-system theory, there always exists unequal exchange between the wealthy countries in the core and the poor countries in the periphery of the world-system . Moreover, under the 500 years old historical and current capitalist world-system, there will alway exist a core and periphery (and a semi-periphery in between), although specific countries over time can move from the periphery towards the semi-periphery and the core (e.g. China, Brasil) or from the core towards the (semi-)periphery (e.g. Greece, Tajikstan and the other five former Soviet Union Cental Asian “stans”). Although increasing absolute (material) affluence could be evenly distributed, the standard outcome is instead that it is exceedingly unequally distributed between the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. There is thus a distinct zero-sum character that contradicts the more dominant discourse of “development” (with the idea that underdeveloped/developing countries can leapfrog technological developments and “catch up” with developed (core) countries).

The capitalist world-system is continuously finetuning the very most efficient global production machine possible, including moving production to countries with the cheapest resources (both material resources and labour). But, as per the quote above, there also needs to exist a market for consuming the goods produced as well as for supervising the global production process. The task of supervision as well as consumption is primarily the task of “cadres” or managers, or more generally of the global middle class:

“The cadres of the world-system [...] an in-between group of people who have leadership or supervisory roles in various institutions. [...] This in-between group may be larger or smaller according to the county’s location in the world-system and the local political situation. The stronger the country's economic position, the larger the group” (Wallerstein 2004, p.40).

The capitalist system thus both "needs" a relatively affluent middle class that can buy all the goods being produced and that can control the teeming masses not privy to their “fair share” of the material wealth being produced. According to Wallerstein, the global middle class can only “bear” ten to fifteen percent of the total global population. This model would thus imply that just as there can only be one "king of the hill", only, say, 15% of the global population can belong to the “global middle class” and if production and economic opportunities shifts towards Asia, they will also shift away from the absolute dominance of the older centers of wealth creation and affluence (Europe and the US).

This XXX (model?) would explain many of the trends above by linking developments in western labour markets during the last decades (increased unemployment and uncertainty, downward mobility, decreased life prospects for the younger generation) to the rise of a global, non-Western middle class. New entrants to the global middle class (China, India, Brasil etc.) thus exert pressure on individual wanna-be Western members of the global middle class) who do not have the same almost self-evident access to this privileged position that their parents’ generation had (Henley 2013).

söndagen den 6:e april 2014

Books I've read recently (Nov)

I wrote about "Books I've read recently" in  a blog post two and half weeks ago, but something strange happened. Since it was the second blog post during the same month (March) with the same topic, the second blog post "replaced"/"unpublished" the older blog post. I thus realise that I have to change the naming practices of these blog posts (see above). I read the four books below between mid-October and mid-November (five months ago). These books (yet again) treat the topic of work and this is the third blog post in a row to do so.

I bought this book at a flea market (something I hardly ever do, and I don't remember how it came to be, but it cost less than a package of chewing gum...). The book "Kneg" (edited by Viktoria Widmark) is a 2006 collection of short stories that is published by the [Swedish] "Association of labourer-writers". The association was founded in 1990 (Wikipedia) and its purpose is to "encourage and inspire pencraft emanating from work and daily life". The association has (perhaps unsurprisingly) strong roots in unions and in workers' (social) movements ["arbetarrörelsen"]. The association also has as a homepage and apparently an (active) blog.

The title of the anthology is hard to translate. "Kneg" is slang for a job, or hard work, but it has certain difficult-to-translate connotations referring to the humdrum, everyday characteristics of (potentially back-breaking) working-class, blue-collar work. I actually found a (Swedish-language) discussion thread about people's connotations to the word "kneg" - hard, physical work for scant monetary compensation (e.g. industry jobs, or a job in a fast-food restaurant or being a cleaner). Based on the stories in the book, I would say that the physical back-breaking characteristic of our forefathers' "kneg" has been supplemented by "kneg 2.0" which includes non-physical, psychological pressures of various kinds in modern workplaces.

This short book contains almost 25 chapters with short snapshots, or perhaps "portraits" of labor. It's not necessarily great literature, but it for sure does its job. The stories are written by people who for the most part perform blue-collar (or clerical) work and it's about (their) work - in fictional form but for sure heavily informed by their own experiences and those of colleagues/friends/family. The emphasis is on shitty working conditions, stress, oppressive structures and bastard bosses, brown-nosing backstabbing colleagues, surveillance and having to interact with crappy computer systems, being middle-aged and physically worn our (for example through repetitive strain injury) or being sidelined in the workplace after an operation and sick leave, challenges to a "healthy" work-life balance and "burnout", on immigrants being discriminated against or never "let in" to the regular labor market, on bad bosses (again - it's a big topic) and workplace victimisation, of squeezing (artificial) friendliness from someone who performs emotional labor, about running out of unemployment benefits or of falling in the cracks between/being abused by inflexible welfare systems. Lastly it's also about divorce and the strain on relationships, about the lack of social networks, about always being first to leave your child in daycare and the last to pick him up and about about the single parent's children having to take full responsibility for getting to school by themselves (by public transportation) at a tender age. 

To summarise; (work) life (oftentimes) suck! I'm eternally grateful for my job, but, let me point out that I write these blog posts not at work but during my "leisure" (instead of watching TV etc). It can be hard for me (and other academics) to differ between work and leisure or to (ever) relax. Still, on the whole I'm sure I'm much better off than 90% of my Swedish compatriots and they are probably better off that 90% of everyone else on earth.

The 2012 book "Skitliv: Ungas villkor på en förändrad arbetsmarknad" [Shit-lives: Young people's conditions in a changed labour market" continues where "Kneg" (above) ended. This anthology (edited by Victor Bernhardtz) has a slightly different angle, the focus in on young people and on precarious jobs and the difficulty (especially) young people have to establish themselves in the labour market today. Another difference is that the book focuses on (and the texts are for the most part contributions by) people with university degree or some kind. From the back cover:

"The day begins with an anxious gaze on the mobile phone, looking for the text message that tells you if there is a job to do today or not and if so, when, and where to be. The inbox is empty some mornings. Then you'll just have to wait. Maybe something will turn up later during the day.

Some people call this flexibility. For those who work, it is more often a lack of freedom. Wages can not be predicted, an apartment of your own remains a dream, to start a family appears to be an act of recklessness. Uncertain job lead to uncertain lives.

Shit-lives is a book about the new labor market in Sweden, seen through young people's eyes. A new generation of workers are trained into a work culture that creates stress, pain and alienation. A culture that demands a total will to adapt, but that does not give back in the form of a natural place in society. Is this how we will all live in the future?"

I wrote about Guy Standing's book "The Precariat" in my previous blog post about books I've read. Here they are. A dozen authors (born between 1971 and 1987 with a median around the beginning of the 1980's), with an emphasis on cultural workers like (freelance) journalists, authors and editors write about own and others' experiences of never having had a permanent job, despite having worked for 5 or 10 years or more. The contributors' backgrounds makes for better crafted texts than in "Kneg", but it also means that the texts for the most part are written by people with "pretentions" (an education and a will to "go places" rather than "just" to live their lives. The first text (by Torun Carrfors) is called "Perhaps we also pay with our dreams". It ends with a powerful plea? demand? ultimatum?  

"You are welcome to demand a lot of those of us who work in health care. But don't demand that we should live childless. I may never become a mother. But if I refrain, I sincerely hope that it will be the result of my own decision and not because this society has made it impossible for me to give my children a reasonable and secure childhood".

Other texts are for example called "One SMS that runs your life", "At the limits of flexibility", "Tears in the weave", "Generation 1000 Euro in the wake of the South European economic crisis" and "Moralism hides a global class [consisting] of the insecure". A great but depressing snapshot of the changing conditions on the labour market.

Isaac Rosa's (2011) "Den osynliga handen" [The invisible hand] is a remarkable book. I can not praise it enough. It hasn't been translated to English and I'm so thankful it has been translated to Swedish. It might be translated into half a dozen languages ("options have been sold"), but English seems not to be one of them. I did however find a 10-minute English-language interview with Rosa here and here's an English-language blurb I found about the book:

"As this is not a common subject for contemporary fiction we must issue a warning: in this novel, the characters work. A lot. In fact, they don’t do anything else. And the work is not exactly creative or intellectual; they are not film makers or researchers, certainly not writers. Some even work with their hands. And sweat. And, of course, get tired. And sick, hurt, bored, and desperate. Each morning they feel the depression so familiar to workers who expected something else from their adult lives. The pages of La mano invisible contain people who lay bricks, work on an assembly line, cut meat, sew, polish and load. But they don’t know why. Just one thing is for sure: a hand is pulling the strings."

The text above is somehow similar to the text on the back cover of my Swedish copy. It is very hard to say anything sensible about the book. It's even hard to say what genre the book is. I guess it is fiction, but its' description of work being performed by actual (fictive) flesh-and-blood humans is the best I've ever read and I can't imagine that any researcher could come closer to describing the essence of work than what Rosa does in this book. It's actually riveting to read these stream-of-consciousness descriptions of monotonous movements and work procedure seamlessly mixed with thoughts about life histories and decisions, the meaning of work and hopes for the future or for one's children. It's an extremely interesting novel that asks the big questions about work and about life and that does it with flair. This is what I imagine Studs Terkel has written about, but I haven't come around to reading any of his books. Perhaps I should read his "Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do" (1974), it seems to be somehow similar, but I have an exceedingly hard time imagining any book in this "genre" can surpass Rosa's.

For once, I'm out of words to describe this book, but I'm on the other hand full of praise. If you trust my judgement and if you can read Spanish, Swedish or Dutch - run out and buy this book! I will for sure buy other books of Rosa's if they are translated to Swedish or English!

Sociologist Roland Paulsen's book "Arbetssamhället: Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin" [The work society: How work survived technology] came out 2010, three years before his ph.d. thesis "Empty labor: Subjectivity and idleness at work". It feels to me as if Paulsen's takes up the thread after André Gorz and other free/radical thinkers. Paulsen's point is that work has become an ideology and an end in itself and he dissects the ideology and the substance of work ("today we don't work to create economic growth, we need economic growth to create work"). 

There is much to draw from and think about in Paulsen's book, but I unfortunately don't have the energy to translate stuff from this or other Swedish-language books (see above). I will instead emphasise just one phenomenon Paulsen writes about - that of "empty work". 

With more specialized, technical (primarily white collar) job descriptions, it becomes difficult for a manager to know a lot about the practical tasks performed by his or her “underlings” who oftentimes sit in front of/interact with computers all day long. Work becomes opaque and it becomes difficult for a manager with general skills to know if a specific task will take 200 hours or 2000 hours to perform - and the difference between these two estimates is equivalent to a man-year! There are endless opportunities for (a fraction of the workers) to fritter away time by watching movies or reading the newspaper or books (if they have their own workspace and can close the door). If they instead work in an open office environment, they will have to find other more socially accepted ways to wasting time and performing non-work, for example by "working" with their computers, writing private e-mails, reading e-mail distribution lists or online fora, aimless web surfing or other forms of “cyberslacking”.

Paulsen finds an interesting example in those seven persons who were laid off from the Swedish Civil Aviation Authority in 2009 for having spent upwards to 75% of their working hours for private web surfing. Much public indignation was expressed over the fact that their web surfing in fact consisted of porn surfing, but less attention was paid to the more fundamental question of how it is possible for well-paid professionals to spend only two hours per day working and six hours per day doing other things without others (managers) noticing? The behavior in question was discovered not because said professionals didn’t manage to “do their job” (whatever that means in this context), but rather because the addresses of ethically questionable websites were discovered when trawling through log files of work-time surf habits. Paulsen has interviewed people who perform empty work as part of his ph.d. research in sociology and his conclusion is that unemployment or underemployment is a phenomenon that happens within as well as outside of wage labour. The six-hour workday already exists, although people might put in eight hours or more at the office every day.

We would be forgiven to believe that empty work could be perceived as a privilege for employees, and it might so happen that that indeed is the case, at least initially. Over time it does however turn into a curse that becomes very detrimental to job and life satisfaction. A lock-in effect makes it harder and harder to break out of paid idleness as time passes. With withering job skills, withering self-respect and poor work habits, a change of jobs might be frightening, difficult or even represent an insurmountable challenge (especially in combination with the "reasonable" wish of maintaining social prestige and a stable salary).