As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, for the next four weeks, we will publish the responses to a different question.
How would you characterise the state of ‘work’ today and its recent developments? Is work in crisis – if so, how?
Work today, in the high-income economies, has taken on a number of unique characteristics relative to the postwar social democratic era (though we may ask whether that period was not itself a unique and one-off period for capitalism). The first and most notable trend has been the polarisation of incomes – with increasing earnings for those at the top, and a growing number of people pushed into low-wage work. The rising trends in income inequality that have been noted by the likes of French economist Thomas Piketty find their basis here. In part, this stems from the automation of routine jobs (e.g. many manufacturing jobs) as well as the outsourcing of middle-wage jobs to cheap places across the globe.
In part, these changes wrought by automation and globalisation are also expressed in a second trend: that of deindustrialisation and the rise of a broad service-based economy. While ‘services’ encompasses a (too) disparate set of jobs, ranging from finance to care work, it has come to be the dominant employment sector of high-income economies. With this shift in the nature of jobs has come a decrease in the power of workers. Facing attacks from the likes of Thatcher and Reagan, not to mention international finance, traditional workers’ organisations have withered and been beaten down (quite literally in some cases). Service sector jobs, moreover, are more difficult to organise than more traditional manufacturing jobs. Whereas large factories once provided both a mass of workers with a common interest and a powerful tool of leverage (the strike), today service jobs tend to have smaller workplaces or even be individualised, and leave little in the way of an obvious replacement for strikes that once brought economies to their knees. Workers have therefore seen their power significantly curtailed.
The end result has been a third trend: increasing precarity. The hard-won gains of the postwar era – permanent, well-paying jobs – have been slipping away. In their place, more and more work is increasingly infrequent and temporary. There are more part-time jobs, more temporary jobs, and even extreme limits such as zero-hours contracts (where workers are not guaranteed any hours) and the gig economy (where workers are employed for a single task at a time). With workers’ power diminished, capitalism has run rampant and given rise to an increasingly precarious proletariat.
Perhaps the most defining feature of the present era – and the one that poses the biggest challenge for capitalism – is the rise of surplus populations.
After the Cold War, with Russia and China entering into the global capitalist system, the number of proletariat across the world doubled to over 3 billion. Yet capitalism has been unable to create sufficient numbers of jobs, leaving many low-income economies with huge informal labour markets with people eking out an existence at the edges of capitalism. After the 2008 crisis, high-income economies saw incredibly high levels of unemployment and a very slow return of job growth. With a new wave of technology emerging and potentially automating vast swaths of existing jobs, the future looks set to push even more workers into under- and un-employment. The result? An increasingly large surplus population that has neither the means to survive outside of capitalism nor the jobs to survive within it. The result is a crisis of work.
Dr. Nick Srnicek is Lecturer in Digital Economy in the Digital Humanities department at King’s College London. His current research is focused on post-work politics and social reproduction, and how the two separate areas can be fit together. He is the co-author, with Dr. Helen Hester, of a forthcoming book, entitled After Work (Verso, 2018) and has previously written on labour market transformations – Inventing the Future (co-authored with Dr. Alex Williams, Verso, 2015) – and on the digital economy and its dynamics: Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016).