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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Frances has made some excellent statements about the value of people: "...defining people's value in terms of their usefulness is a narrowly utilitarian view which denies their essential humanity" and "People's "value" as human beings is not dependent on their ability to do paid or even unpaid work." The problem is that these clash with the value-neutral stance of the economics we were all taught in college: one consumer's preference curve is as good as another. We will not be able to build good policy arguments for measures such as a Basic Income until we can resolve this clash.

If we reject the dominant utilitarianism then we have to come up with other values to guide us. The bald statement in favour of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” does not get us much further forward. For a more thoroughgoing discussion of what constitutes the "Good Life" see the Skidelskys' book "How Much is Enough?" They argue forcefully that we will not escape mindless and environmentally destructive consumerism until we focus on the question of what human life is for.

Setting up dominant social values other than utilitarianism does not mean going back to some fixed religious dogma. It is rather to do with our capacity to generate a sufficient consensus when faced with major social choices, e.g. should all citizens have equal access to a basic level of health care irrespective of their circumstances? In other words, our idea of the Good Life can be continuously evolving through democratic debate, assuming (and it's a big assumption) that our institutions have the capacity to formulate, present and process these choices. Amartya Sen in his book “The Idea of Justice”, ch.18, has an interesting idea about using partial orderings to reach decisions in the presence of competing criteria.

What will surely force us to revise our values is the environmental crisis. Yes, it is a crisis, even though it is a very “slow on-set” crisis. Our current abundance of stuff is an abundance of processed stuff that has been created at the expense of a massive draw-down in natural capital, both natural resources and waste absorption capacity. The advocates of global growth – and that is just about all politicians and mainstream media – are simply urging us faster down this path without once asking themselves what the consequences might be. Just think of the impact on societies of rapidly rising energy costs making fertilizers and then food much more expensive. The environment will force us to face questions about the fair allocation of limited global resources. Market mechanisms cannot answer questions about fair allocation precisely because they are value-neutral. Environmental justice is going to be a major issue.

I agree with all that you say here, Frances, but I do think that you understate the cultural benefit of - and therefore need for, manufacturing.

(Wo)man is naturally a curious creature. Feeding this curiosity includes the need to solve problems Manufacturing is a good vehicle for generating problems particularly in science which then require scientific education, research and innovation.

In the UK we have some excellent bespoke very high end manufacturing and as a result of our warrior nature we also have a pro-active arms manufacturing industry. - think Rolls-Royce, Formula 1, satellites, BAE etc. These all need (a) a supply chain of companies capable of making the many small components to very high standards and (b) a supply of educated scientists and engineers.

It is a terrible indictment on our school examination system (not the teachers, who are often excellent and inspiring) that in England only some 25% of students take science or maths at A-level while in Scotland it is about 50%, as a recent Royal Society study showed. By contrast, in Germany (and many other countries) science and maths is studied by about 90% of students to above GCSE level.

We cannot depend ad infinitum on immigration of high-skilled people, particularly given the present government's general hostility to immigrants. It denudes their original countries who have paid for their education and welfare and is also demeaning to our own young people who do not get the chance to study mathematics and science and are turned off it by peer observation that it is 'too difficult'.

My point is not so much the economic benefits that can accrue from manufacturing - after all the main benefit comes either from the original invention (if correctly managed) and the final customisation/retail stages - but the cultural benefits of understanding engineering, science and mathematics. Ignoring these areas makes us as much a cultural desert as would ignoring music, theatre, art or language.

Sadly this seems to be the path that has been followed, hence the boom in reality TV, passive mind-numbing entertainment that has truly become the opiate of the masses.

I don't think this change is unseen before.

1)My favorite example is the washing machine.
It liberated women from doing that work by hand. But if the machine were not invented, the work would have been done regardless.

2) Romans invented the term 'bread and circus'. Bread was coming Egypt enforced by the mighty roman army and people had nothing else to do, hence the gladiator games.

3) Nowadays, abundance of ENERGY has made our lives easy. Energy is today what Egypt was for Rome.

4) There are two kinds of energy: Human and non-Human. If non-human energy like crude oil or electricity if available, then AUTOMATION becomes possible, hence less and less human energy needed.

4) Washing machine is automation, car is automation, anything not done by human hands is....AUTOMATION. Automation is possible only by abundant energy.

5) Roman army made sure grain was coming from Egypt. USA military makes sure energy is coming to the western world. It is this simple. We have to be grateful to US Military along with strong cooperation from UK military and Canadian Military.

6) Financially speaking, having many children is an investment, literally. Families in the past had many children. Work to raised children was not paid monetarily, but it was an investment with a return when parents would grow old. Multiple adult children would take care of them now, hence being paid back in kind, not in money.
Hence, women raising kids at home has never been actually an unpaid work.

I very much agree with you idea that working for a living is already on the way out in our society. As jobs fade in importance, we see a shift from labor, to capital. Those with the best investing skills will be rewarded with the most wealth. But investing, unlike labor, has no bounds - a small minority of super investors are likely to take control of most the worlds resources, and wealth. This trend has been ongoing for hundreds of years already though it continues to accelerate in pace as the exponential growth of technology continues. Such lopsided control of resources, and wealth, and power, destabilizes society and must be offset in order for society to remain anything close to democratic - for the people. Over the past 100's of years, the nations of the world have offset the inequality with growing levels of human rights laws, and labor laws, and redistribution of wealth in the form of growing government services, and welfare. But inequality continues to grow, especially in the US. A Basic Income Guarantee is in my view, the correct, and broad reaching way to offset inequality today, fairly, across the whole rage of society. We are in a period of time where work really is ending for humans, and where it's time for all humans to start the process of retiring from paid work. The machines already are doing most the work for us, and in the end, will do all the work for us.

This new retired life will allow us to concentrate on both ourselves, and each other, as was talked about.

However, though we may provide services for each other, the amount of money anyone would pay for such services is likely to be insignificant. We spend our money on what is most important to us, which will be mostly the basic needs of life, which are food, shelter, healthcare, and various material goods. Only after those are taken care of, do we pay for personal services. So odds are, it will be the same tomorrow, as it is today, we might choose to spend our time helping others, but not as a form of work, but only as a form of our own emotional gratification. We will help others, like the mother described in the article, because we enjoy doing that. It will not be the new way to "make a living", it will simply be what we choose to do. We will do it as a volunteer service.

Once machines are able to replace all humans (which is only a few decades away now), we will have expanded the Basic Income Guarantee to the point that it's not just a poverty level income, but is in fact, a good standard of living. Others will work, by investing their money in the machine economy, and some will still get very rich, but most, will simply live off their Basic Income, and volunteer their time to whatever efforts they enjoy working on. The basic income will become the world retirement income and we, as a society, will live a retired life, doing whatever it is we each enjoy the most, and never worry about being paid for our contribution - we will trade mostly in social credits - friendship, and gifts we give each other - which will mostly be our time.

The end of work is already here for many, and we need to understand that it's social responsibility to help transition our society from one based on work, to one based on a retirement lifestyle.

Frances Coppola

Hi Thomas (and Tomas),

The bifurcation post was really looking at the secular labour market trend - hollowing-out of the middle, forcing the majority of people down into lower-skill insecure jobs and creating a sub-class of virtually unemployable people at the bottom of the pile. I find this a very disturbing picture, not least because its effects on aggregate demand and on economic stability. If the majority of the workforce are dependent for income on short-term, insecure and personally unfulfilling work, the result is bound to be a stagnant economy. If the workforce is additionally highly mobile, the result will be brain drain as better-qualified people seek more interesting and better-paid work elsewhere.

I didn't discuss the basic income idea in the bifurcation post but it would in my view go some way towards providing stability to the workforce and lean against the tendency of companies to force down wages to starvation levels when workers have no alternative, as I discussed in last week's post on financialisation of labour. If not working is a real alternative to doing rubbish work for appalling wages, companies will have to design work better.

I agree there is a problem with incentives for taxpayers. But the other side of this of course is an elite of extremely well-paid people who are very short of time. If companies can be persuaded to design work better, so that more people are doing better-quality work and not wasting time and skills on jobs that could be automated, that should benefit this elite too. It is in taxpayers' interests to support people who choose to reject badly-designed work. After all, a job which requires you to work ridiculous hours and sacrifice your family life is badly designed, however highly paid it is. People working silly hours in high-powered jobs and people working silly hours in low-skill jobs have exactly the same problem.

Pushing down wages for the majority is a VERY short-sighted policy. If it leaves a large and growing part of the population barely earning enough for food and shelter, the highly-paid won't remain highly paid for long anyway. After all, someone has to buy the goods and services they provide. Inevitably, countries with domestic demand deficiency due to repressed wages look to mercantilism as a solution - which results in currency wars and possibly even real wars. Really it is not in the interests of the highly-paid not to support the lower-paid in their quest for a better life. It's just sad that many of them don't see it like this.

I could write lots more on this. Maybe another post or so!

Hi Tomas,
Thanks for your response. I actually hadn't read the piece, but I did go away and read it, and agree with it in general. I think the bifurcation is simply the division between those jobs where human labour really is indispensible, and those where it isn't. As this border is cutting more and more of the population into the dispensible group, it will become more and more important (and visible).
Incidentally, maybe I read through it too fast (often guilty of this), but I didn't see much on your advocated basic income there. I completely agree though, a Basic Citizen's Income would be a very sensible way to ensure some sort of life to those disenfranchised. I suppose that only leaves the moral justification inside our current income based tax stystem- why should the taxpayer (ever more squeezed labour pool) provide an income to those not in work? I think we need to look at the way taxes are collected as well as distributed, and would advocate a location charge a la Henry George as the best most efficient way to do this.

Tomas Hirst

Hi Thomas,

This is precisely the dynamic that Frances has discusses in her post "Bifurcation in the labour market". In effect we are getting a two-speed labour market with increasing demands on those in full-time work, eating up their leisure time, and satellite market of part-time, poorly paid workers brought in as temporary assets to meet immediate needs of businesses.

The purpose of a guaranteed basic income is to give both of these groups greater bargaining power by providing basic income security. This should not only foster better wages but should also expand opportunities for people to share skills, improving the opportunities for cross-discipline innovation. In theory it should even reduce the administration burden on the state as it could replace a lot of existing welfare schemes that currently attempt something similar, but in a piecemeal fashion.

I wish I shared your optimism Frances,
I can't help feeling that there is a flaw- we have already seen incredible increases in efficiency in manufacturing, yet most people work longer hours than ever. In this world where people no longer have anything to offer manufacturing (or the "productive" economy), they will still need to barter their labour with those that control said productive economy in order to survive (at its most basic- food and shelter). We have seen greater concentration of ownership in those means of production, so ultimately, a majority are going to have to barter themselves to an elite minority. And while I agree the very attractive or talented might be able to negotiate a subsistence from their gifts of nature, the vast majority will not- and will be relegated to being simple recipients of the so called charity of those holding all the wealth creating assets.

And in a few years everyone will be able to use a 3D printer to make whatever they need. Manufacturing is on the verge of a revolution!

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