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.
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.