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:
3) Qualified niche high-paid jobs
4) Service jobs
Analytical intermission - on globalization and the reverse lottery economy
6) Precarious jobs
7) "Astronomic" youth unemployment
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.
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).