This post is a long extract from my essay on The Future of Work written for Future Agenda. The full piece is on Medium.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
So it is worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50–60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10–15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
Labour market woes
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. He suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage.
The Futures Company has been collaborating with the Association of Finnish Work for more than eighteen months on the idea of “High Value Work”. We define this as work that is productive (it creates new value); that is durable (it creates value over time); and work that is inclusive (it spreads value beyond the business — or the C-suite. This combination, based on the emerging post-crisis literature, also creates work that is meaningful, for employees and customers.
In the first of our four reports on High Value Work, we identified four routes to it. These are service innovation, based on a full understanding of the customer and their needs; value in authenticity, based on on a full understanding of cultural context; resource innovation, based on a full understanding of material flows; and rich knowledge, based on a full understanding of the technical knowledge held inside the organisation and a method to capture and codify it.
High value businesses combine these; for example, mastery of resource innovation often creates new technical capabilities that lead to new forms of rich knowledge.
What striking about these routes is that they have human capabilities at their heart. Service innovation and value in authenticity are based on relationships, whether human or cultural, while resource innovation and rich knowledge are based on technical processes and technical understanding. People, in short, are at the heart of value.
Most discussion of the future of work assumes that the work, or the lack of it, is our coming problem. But what if we’ve got the question the wrong way around? What if we’re slowly, or not so slowly, giving up on the idea of work? After all, we all know that most work is dull. And even the interesting stuff is exploitative, somewhere along the line.
The thought struck me while reading Dan Hancox’ book The Village Against The World, about the anarcho-syndicalist village of Marinaleda, in Andalusia. After 20 years of intense political struggle, the village won some land for itself, and later added some food processing plants. Unemployment there is five or six per cent, a fraction of the level in other parts of Andalusia. But the young people, generally, are less willing to work in either. Work in the fields is hard; work in the processing plants is boring. And this is, pretty much, a universal truth.
In my previous post on Guy Standing’s recent talk on the precariat at Goldsmith’s College, I rehearsed his argument about the economic and political changes that created the precariat, the characteristics of precarious life, and the composition of the precariat. With all of that laid out, he went back again to Karl Polanyi, or at least to his interpretation of Polanyi. He deduces three principles from The Great Transformation that seem relevant to where we are now.
- Every new forward march has to built on the insecurities of an emerging class, and there must be new forms of action. There must be a struggle for recognition (cf Syriza, Podemos) – which needs to be a process of subjective recognition. He argued that Podemos is leading the polls in Spain because it is a precariat party. In Milan, different but similar, the *sciopero social* or “social strike.”
- The second struggle is a struggle for representation in the state.
- The third struggle is a struggle for redistribution. A lot of redistribution is needed: a redistribution of security; a redistribution of the control of time (the precarisat has none); the redistribution of access to quality space (in the face of the shrinking of the commons); the redistribution of access to education (as against standardised training for the labour market; redistribution of financial knowledge and advice; and a redistribution of financial capital (see the discussion of Basic Income below).
Guy Standing has more than anyone else been responsible, as an academic and an activist, for pushing the concept of the precariat into political discourse, through his books – The Precariat (free online), The Precariat Charter, and Basic Income – and his articles and lectures. He was a guest last week in London of Goldsmith’s Anthropology Department and its recently formed Political Economy Research Centre. Anything in quotes, except the definition immediately below, was noted while he spoke, but – in the way of these things – may not be exactly verbatim.
The concept of the precariat, from Wiktionary: “People suffering from precarity, especially as a social class; people living a precarious existence, without security or predictability, especially job security.”
After he wrote The Precariat, Standing was asked to do hundreds of talks around the world. From one of these talks, the idea emerged of a Precariat Charter, timed to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which he described as being “the first class-based demand for rights and liberties against the state,” albeit that the demands were coming from the class of barons. The Charter of the Forests, two years later, was the first ecological charter.
A few years ago I wrote a set of scenarios – with Joe Ballantyne and Andy Sumner – on the prospects for the world economy to the early 2020s. In one of the scenarios we saw the “West” regenerate itself by a combination of public investment and by bringing home its high value manufacturing. After I’d drafted this post, David Cameron popped up at Davos to promote the idea of “re-shoring”, even if he seems less keen on the notion of public investment. And according to a recent report in The Conversation by some Birmingham University researchers, there are signs that re-shoring is starting to happen, that British businesses are bringing it back home.
I read The Death of a Salesman over the break because my son was doing it for his GCSE and was having some problems with it. I realised that – to my surprise – I’d not read it or seen it before, even though the Willy Loman character has become iconic; worse, I’d conflated it in my mind with Miller’s other epic family drama, All My Sons. Some of its insights about how work had changed resonate again, two generations on.
After several decades of finagling of unemployment figures, the news that there are still significant numbers of ‘hidden unemployed’ is a bit of a ‘dog bites man’ story, but Professor Steve Fothergill and his team at Sheffield Hallam University have done us a service by quantifying the numbers.