The changing nature of work

The changing nature of work

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Frances Coppola explores how increasing automation is fundamentally shifting the nature of work away from 'making stuff' towards personal services.

One of the most interesting issues to arise in the course of the "comment-athon" on my post "The Golden Calf" was the suggestion that the link between money and work is broken, and indeed that there is no longer a reliable link between "earning" and working. This is a logical consequence of two things: firstly, increased automation of production means the number of people needed to produce enough goods to meet people's basic needs is declining; secondly, an increasing number of people do considerable amounts of pro bono" work that is directly beneficial to society. The converse to this latter point is that there also seems to be a broken link between remuneration for work and the benefit of that work to society as a whole: there are people who are rewarded very handsomely for work that benefits few people (mostly people like themselves), and there are  other people who are paid very little or even nothing at all for work that benefits far more people.

Of course, there has always been pro bono work. Women have always worked unpaid in the home: their work is not counted in measures of GDP, but in high-profile divorce cases the financial value of a woman's unpaid work supporting her extremely wealthy husband has led to some exceedingly high settlements. It is of course possible to value the housework and childcare done by most women without pay, because there are thriving industries in domestic help and childminding: the "opportunity cost" for a woman who chooses to do the work herself rather than employ others, and therefore foregoes paid work, is of course the difference between the income from paid work and the cost of employing others to look after the kids and keep the house clean. Where a woman has a lot of children, that difference can be so small (or even negative) that it is simply not worth her while doing paid work.

Middle-class women have also traditionally worked unpaid outside the home, as well, as have retired gentlemen. Charities rely on middle-aged, middle-class women to staff their shops, do fundraising and take on voluntary public service roles such as delivering meals on wheels. And the charitable jobs that both women and men do can be much more senior, too. For many years, my mother worked full-time for expenses only, running a day centre for the elderly: after she retired in 1998 at the age of 68, her replacement was paid £25,000 per annum (it is probably more now).

We also know that many middle-aged women have their paid work curtailed by the need to care for elderly relatives. Again, the opportunity cost for the woman is the difference between the amount it would cost her to pay someone to look after her dependents, versus the loss to her of giving up or reducing paid work. But the benefit to society is enormous: elderly care is one of our biggest and growing costs, and the extent to which the middle-aged (mainly women) take on this care themselves at considerable personal cost does reduce the burden on taxpayers. Not all frail elderly have property that can be used to fund their care.

Some men, too, have worked for nothing, though this tends to be in their spare time in addition to their full-time jobs. Traditionally, local politics has been an unpaid spare-time activity for men: both my father and my eldest brother have spent much of their lives working in their spare time for nothing as local councillors.

I am therefore very wary of measuring people's "value" in terms of their financial contribution to society. What is the "value" of a woman like my mother, who brings up four children and runs a day centre for nothing? What is the "value" of a woman who juggles poorly-paid part-time work with caring for children and elderly relatives? In terms of their measured contribution, it is very little. But their value to society, in terms of the improvements they bring to people's lives, is surely enormous - and their financial value, in terms of the cost that society WOULD have had to bear if these women had not sacrificed payment for caring, is also enormous. So benefits systems that are designed around financial contribution are therefore in my view fundamentally flawed, since they take no account of the enormous social AND FINANCIAL value of the unpaid work done mostly, though not exclusively, by women.

Furthermore, defining people's value in terms of their usefulness is a narrowly utilitarian view which denies their essential humanity: as Orwell noted in "Animal Farm", down that road lies the knacker's yard for those who are not "useful". Admittedly, the transformation in work practices that I expect to see in the next few years should make it possible for people who are now excluded from the workplace to work productively: home working, networking and internet-based commerce are all ways in which people who can't travel and sit in an office can nevertheless work, especially if employers start to become more flexible with regard to working hours. But there will still be some who cannot work: are we going to regard them as of no value? Surely not. We will love them and care for them because of who they are, not what they can do. And we will bear the cost of their care.

People's "value" as human beings is not dependent on their ability to do paid or even unpaid work. Which is fortunate, because I think we are seeing a fundamental change in the nature of work, arising from my first observation - that increasing automation means that in the future, very few people will be needed to produce the goods required to meet people's basic needs.

Automation only happens when machines are cheaper to run than people, and it is probably fair to say that in the last few decades automation has not happened quite as fast as one might have anticipated because companies have discovered that labour in emerging markets is cheaper than the cost of investing in machinery. But as the standard of living rises in emerging markets, and the cost of technology falls, that will not remain the case. Hazlitt, writing in 1952, pointed out that it was automation of production that enabled families to survive without children's labour, because the price of goods produced with the new machinery was so much lower than those produced in a more labour-intensive way. In the short term automation caused hardship, as people whose livelihoods depended on the old way of doing things lost their jobs: but in the longer term there was benefit to society in the reduced cost of goods that enabled many people to work less, and in the development of new industries to employ those people no longer needed in the old ones. The change we are seeing today is every bit as great, and the short-term consequences are the same - high unemployment, particularly among those with poor or irrelevant skills.

Automation should both require fewer people to work AND enable people to work less, since the whole point of automation is to reduce the cost of production, which in a competitive system would result in falling prices. Unfortunately this isn't always the case: the owners of automated industry may use reduced production cost as an opportunity to take more profit, and they may use political influence to create barriers to entry and trade tariffs to prevent competition driving down prices. But assuming that governments don't use subsidies and protections to keep inefficient companies alive and prices artificially high, where does that leave us in terms of employment and incomes in the future?

If most production is fully automated, there will be few production job opportunities. Izabella Kaminska assumed that most goods will be free, so people won't actually need paid work in order to live. I don't think I would go quite that far - production that is in private hands will always seek to make a profit, so goods will never be completely free to the end-customer even if production costs nothing. But it may be possible in the future to live quite well on very little money. Even now, discounting, smart couponing, reward schemes, special offers, product substitution, permanent sales and price comparison websites mean that it is rarely necessary to pay the advertised price for anything. The consumer price index is no longer a reliable guide to the real price levels in the shops, since it doesn't take account of measures retailers use to move goods that are not selling well at their advertised price, which these days is most of them. We have not just a glut of food, but a glut of consumer goods generally, and unless producers are artificially supported in some way, a glut always means rock-bottom prices for the consumer.

So if there will be few jobs in production in the future, and most people's basic needs can be met for very little anyway, what will people do instead? Firstly, it won't be nothing. People don't stop working when their basic needs are met: they move on into other forms of work that they find personally fulfilling (Maslow) and that bring benefit to society as a whole. The pro bono work done by my parents - arguably their life's work - was possible because my father's full-time job earned him sufficient to meet his family's needs. Would he have stopped doing that "social" work if he had only needed to work part-time to meet his family's needs? Hardly. He would have done more of it. Admittedly that work was unpaid, but there are many other types of non-production work that is or could be paid, which would encourage people who don't share my parents' commitment to public service to do socially useful things from which they benefit personally.

I fundamentally disagree with those who think that people must be "forced" to work, or that government should "guarantee" a job. In my view breaking the link between paid work and survival would be a good thing. If people are intrinsically of value, then they have the right to survive with or without working. I therefore think we should guarantee basic income, rather than jobs. Or, to put it another way (and root this argument firmly in human rights), we should guarantee people's unconditional right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness": after all, people who are forced to do physically debilitating and mentally unstimulating jobs in order to survive are effectively denied the second and third of these rights.   If people don't have to work to survive, most will find or create work that fulfils themselves and benefits others, and we will all be the richer for it. There will be some who will opt to do nothing, but in my view they will be a small minority and we will be rich enough - and I hope generous enough - to tolerate their laziness.

I think we are already seeing the future of work - and it is women who have seized the opportunity and are already well established in the new types of work. You see, women understand that the most precious resource we have is TIME. Giving someone your undivided attention for an hour is an incredibly valuable gift. Combining that with a skill in some form of "grooming" - hairdressing, manicure, massage and the like - enables you to charge for what essentially is a social bonding activity. The same is true of the various "personal development" industries - counselling, personal training, personal shopping, image consultancy - and of course the caring industries. Even the retail industry is becoming personalised, with internet sales of personalised products personally delivered by local people. In my own work, individual and small-group tuition, I am seeing a growing number of adults who want singing lessons as part of their "me time", and I am sure other tutors in a variety of subjects would say the same.

The obvious criticism from male readers of this blog will be, of course, that this "personal" work is mainly sold by women to other women. But actually men have always been prepared to pay for women's time and skills. The "oldest profession", at its higher levels, recognises that what is being sold is not sex but time and attention. At the most basic level, the smackhead streetwalker prices what she offers in terms of acts - hand job, blow job, full sex etc.  But in the rarefied world of the "escort" business, the price is time. Wealthy men buy the time of a high-status woman: what he does with that time may include sex, but it doesn't have to - and in some versions of the industry, sex is actively discouraged because it cheapens the offering. Courtesans down the centuries have charged men a lot of money for their time and their skills - by which I don't just mean their sexual skills: geishas, for example, have to be highly accomplished in music, dance and other artistic enterprises. The middle-class marriage market in Jane Austen's time understood this, too: women were expected to be beautiful and highly accomplished in order to attract a suitable husband. Money helped, but it actually wasn't as important, as Austen noted in her biting satire Pride & Prejudice. In our society the same still holds, and in fact because of our "camera age" it is even more the case now that a woman who is physically beautiful is a high-status woman. Even accomplishment seems less important these days than beauty, as Robert Silverman noted in his critique of Katherine Jenkins, who he (and I) regard as at best a mediocre singer whose looks have made her famous. And money - well, that inevitably arrives anyway.

Now, I am certainly not suggesting that the future of work lies in prostitution, even disguised forms of it. But I am suggesting that the future of work for most people lies in personal services. And an increasing number of men now offer these too.  The counselling industry is still dominated by women, but in the related world of psychotherapy there are a much greater number of men (probably because most of the theory underpinning this has been developed by men). Personal shoppers are almost all women, but a high proportion of personal trainers are men. Personal image consultancy is dominated by women, but motivational training is dominated by men such as Anthony Robbins. Massage is almost entirely women's work, but in physiotherapy, osteopathy, chiropractic and Alexander Technique the balance is much more even. And increasingly, we pay others - still more women than men, though that is gradually changing - to care for those who can't care for themselves. In so doing we recognise the value to society of both the carers and those cared for. Those who bewail the loss of our industrial base, sniff at service industries and think that only "making stuff" is proper work, are living in the past: the future of work lies in social activity and caring for people, not "making stuff" that we can produce for nearly nothing with little human involvement.

Personally I regard this as an exciting time. For the first time in history, people have the real prospect of no longer having to work long hours in boring, repetitive and physically debilitating jobs to meet basic needs. We will have more time to spend interacting with each other, caring for each other and - like all apes - "grooming" each other, and creating beautiful things and clever ideas to brighten up people's lives. And since the prices of basic goods will be very low, we will be both willing and able to pay those with skills in personal service and creative industries for their time and attention. And perhaps then people's remuneration will relate to their enhancement of the lives of many people, not their ability to make profits for a few.

Related posts:

Beyond Scarcity - FT Alphaville (series)
The Gospel of Consumption - Kaplan @ Orion Magazine (h/t Jon Stone)
Marx was right (about Napster) - Stone @ RedRock


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