Saturday, September 10, 2011

A jobless future?

Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio wrote a pretty gloomy book in 1994 with the striking title, The Jobless Future. Here is a Harvard Educational Review discussion of the book (link). What is most discomforting in reading the book today is the degree to which the factors they identify seem to be today's headlines. What does jobless mean here? In a word, it means that the US and other OECD countries will never recover the number and quality of jobs they need in order to regain the middle class affluence they had in the 1950s and 1960s. The future will involve work -- but not enough jobs to ensure a low unemployment rate. Here is their assessment in 1994:

For there is no doubt that we have yet to feel the long-term effects on American living standards that will result from the elimination of well-paid professional, technical, and production jobs. At the same time, nearly everyone admits that many of these jobs are gone forever. (xi)
The central structural factors they identified in 1994 are still key parts of our economic environment today: technology innovation replacing labor, rising productivity producing persistently flat labor demand, shifts in the structure of the economy towards finance and service sectors, and internationalization of production.
Technological progress and capital accumulation seem to disrupt the social fabric in the United States. A weakened position in the international economy demands that American industry increase its productivity and cut its unit labor cost. As Carl G. Thor, president of the American Productivity Center in Houston, says, "The trick is to get more output without a surge in employment." Technological change and competition in the world market guarantee that increasing numbers of workers will be displaced and that these workers will tend to be rehired in jobs that do not pay comparable wages and salaries. Women and minorities will suffer the most as the result of these changes; the increased participation in an occupational sector by women and minorities is often an indicator of falling wages in that occupation. (3)
The second explanation, more sobering, emphasized the role of huge federal and consumer debt accumulated beween the late 1970s and the early 1990s that has drained public and private investment, inhibiting recovery and growth. (5)
This, in brief, is the context within which a severely reduced job "market" began to take shape, not only for U.S. workers, but potentially for all workers. In this book we argue that the progressive destruction of high-quality, well-paid, permanent jobs is produced by three closely related developments. (8)
The implication they draw is stark: new jobs will never be created at a rate to satisfy rising demand for jobs.
Our first argument—that the Western dream of upward mobility has died and it is time to give it a respectful funeral—may have at long last seeped into the bones of most Americans, even the most optimistic economist. The dream has died because the scientific-technological revolution of our time, which is not confined to new electronic processes but also affects organizational changes in the structure of corporations, has fundamentally altered the forms of work, skill, and occupation. The whole notion of tradition and identity of persons with their work has been radically changed. (15)
They've also got a vision of what the future could look like: satisfying lives with a decent standard of living, based on a combination of paid work and guaranteed social income.
The aim of this work is to suggest political and social solutions that take us in a direction in which it is clear that jobs are no longer the solution, that we must find another way to ensure a just standard of living for all. (xii)
Accordingly, if unwork is fated to be no longer the exception to the rule of nearly full employment, we need an entirely new approach to the social wage and, more generally, "welfare" policy. If there is work to be done, everyone should do some of it; additional remuneration would depend on the kind of work an individual performs. (353)
They are as interested in the "satisfying" part of the question as the "standard of living" part. They want to know what sources of meaning, worth, and value are possible for a whole civilization in which work and career are no longer the primary focus? It is an existential question as much as it is an economic one -- which takes us back to an earlier post on income and wellbeing.

But here is someone else who has a vision of a jobless future: William Gibson. His pictures of the Sprawl (an urban agglomeration extending from Atlanta to Boston) and the Bridge (the improvised "off the grid" community living on the earthquake-damaged Oakland Bridge) offer a grim picture of life for people scraping by in a cyberpunk world. There is talent, technology innovation, wealth, economic competition in Gibson's world -- but there's nothing that looks like a middle class life for ordinary people. (Here are a couple of the novels: Neuromancer, All Tomorrow's Parties.)

It seems inescapable that the rising inequalities of income and wealth we have experienced for thirty years are strongly linked to the jobless state of 15% to 20% of us (counting discouraged workers and underemployed workers) and the fairly stagnant living standards of another 50%. By tolerating this acceleration of inequality, our society is also silently sanctioning the end of social solidarity and the compact that we've had according to which everyone benefits from economic activity. Our graph seems to be pointing more in the direction of Gibson than Aronowitz. But maybe this is the fundamental goal of right wing rhetoric after all: to decisively break the bonds of social solidarity and mutual obligation altogether and to allow privilege to have its way unconstrained by social obligations. Surely we owe each other more than this.

So far the strategies on the table about employment are either about job creation (Democrats) or providing even more tax relief for business and the wealthy (Republican). None of these voices consider the more radical implication: we may need to consider a dramatically new way of thinking about income, work, social distribution, and lifestyle in the future. And that's what Aronowitz and DiFazio proposed almost 20 years ago.

(Philippe Van Parijs' recent contribution to Boston Review on a universal basic income is a really interesting start on some serious alternative thinking (link).)

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