Hosanna ! Hallelujah ! We should fall on our knees and thank the Lord that the Curse has been lifted. And yet "Here there be tygers": unemployment and its sequel of poverty, social unrest, world debt, inflation, stagflation and underdevelopment. Our civilization has the honor of coping with the most insidious crisis in the history of Mankind. Not the worst, mind you, not the cruelest of course, but the most perverse in that it is the anticlimactic result of ten thousand years of splendid efforts to free ourselves from the Curse, culminating in two centuries of unmitigated success.
A perverse crisis will produce strange results and create topsy-turvy
threats. The race is now on to move out of the crisis and beyond, before
we are destroyed by any of three major threats which we face, each of which
would have seemed bizarre to people of past generations. The paradoxical
threats to which our society must react include a "leisure" class
which might revolt against its exploitation by the working class..., excess
"wealth" which might cause global bankruptcy..., and "winners"
so dejected that they may throw in the towel for good !
After the Curse, the Crisis. First of all, let's summarize the situation
and face the truth: jobs will not be back. We are deluding ourselves if
we believe that some clever political hodge-podge will bring back full-employment
in the near, or even the remote future. Although a huge part of the work
we are still doing is unnecessary, and is performed mainly for the sake
of providing more employment, "work" today only fills about one
fourth of the time, of about one third of the population. In spite of
all our efforts, the relative importance of work, as a human activity, is
decreasing steadily in our society. It is unrealistic to think we will manage
to keep down unemployment even at its present relatively low level! The
Age of Toil is over.
The trouble with Plenty
Where would we create jobs? Let's look first at the industrial sector. Prospects for job-mongers are bleak indeed in industry and, barring total war or a major catastrophe, nothing shall reverse this situation. To begin with, we do not need just more production. In the U.S.A., between 15% and 30% of the industrial productive capacity remains unused at all time. There are still individual wants and even sufferings in our society - and the policy in this case is to apply individual remedies - but the truth is that, globally, we have achieved freedom from want: there is basically no shortage, in a Western Industrial Nation, of anything that our present technology can produce. We may disagree with our distribution pattern or wish for a readjustment of our production objectives, but we do not need just "more production".
A very good thing, too, that we don't need more production, since many amongst us believe that our available natural resources would not sustain a large increase in production. The "Club of Rome"..., "Limit to growth"..., "Small is beautiful"..., a large segment of the population believes that the production game is literally running out of fuel, and that we cannot afford to maximize anymore, but must now optimize production. Whether we agree or disagree with this view is immaterial to our argument; what matters is that we cannot even pretend any longer that we need more goods, and go on increasing production merely to provide employment; the presence of the very vocal environmental lobby would prevent such a policy.
A third reason there will be no more jobs in industry is that, should we close our eyes and go on trying to produce more just the same, it would hardly create more jobs anyway. Should the State kick the trend and insist on creating jobs in the industrial sector, these "jobs" would not be for men or women, they would be for machines. Why? Simply because human beings cannot compete with machines for the type of repetitive jobs which are the core of the industrial production system.
This begs for a word of explanation. The problem with human labour is that the more production increases, the more global income must be made available to workers to buy this production and keep the system operational. Therefore, the price of labour must be allowed to increase roughly in proportion to the growth of the economy. Machines, although they consume some resources, are not prospective customers and must not be given extra income to match their extra production. So, the cost differential between machines and manpower grows steadily wider, quite apart from the intrinsically greater efficiency which machines may display to begin with.
The consequence is that using manpower rather than machines, in any industry, drives prices up in this industry and encourages consumers to switch to substitutes from machine-equipped industries, providing all the necessary incentive for the continuous development and introduction of new machines. More machines mean more production, more production begs for higher levels of consumption and higher prices for labour... and the use of labour, as a factor of production, becomes less and less attractive. There is no reason at all for it to stop.
Neither should it worry us: it is good news. Human labour, in industrial production, is not only less and less productive, it is also somewhat abusive. Let's make a comparison. You have heard about psychokinesis, the moving of objects by mental energy? In one specific experiment, in Russia, a woman was reported to have concentrated intensely for hours to move a milligram of matter over a millimeter..., and to have lost seven pounds during the exercise. Many people do not believe in psychokinesis, but this is not the point we want to make - (after all, if you think about raising your arm it does raise, doesn't it?) - but rather that it does not seem very efficient, anyway, to lose seven pounds to "think" an object away when, with little effort, you can think your arm up and use it to move the object as you like. The human body, in a sense, is the grand-daddy of all machines which have been put at the disposal of the human mind.
The same way we would abuse our mind if we should renounce the use of our body to displace light material objects in ordinary circumstances, so do we abuse our physical body if we renounce tools to displace heavy material objects... and so do we abuse the worker when we "use" him to do things that machines can do. At current prices, the physical energy that a human body can generate is not worth the price of the food to keep this body moving; seen as some simple 1-h.p. "bio-machines", we human beings are definitely obsolete. We are obsolete also to make repetitive operations and to make stereotyped decisions. We are obsolete in most functions related to mass production.
More technology will lead to a steady decline of the need for human work
in industrial production. There is no way that a significant number of people
will revert to "toil and sweat" in factories.
Above the Prestige Barrier
It is hardly news that the industrial sector does not offer much hope for more employment. After all, the proportion of the labour force working in the industrial sector has declined steadily for forty years! But what about producing more services? Our planners often tend to emphasize the superiority of the "solid jobs" created in the industrial sector - which is normal enough since we have been trained to think that the mass production of industrial goods represents our standard of living - but still, couldn't we keep everybody at work in activities that do not result in the production of material goods?
The answer is: we sure tried! The displacement of workers from Industry to Services has been the greatest social move in history, with over 25 million workers of a single generation (1950-1975) in the U.S. putting on a brand new white collar. In addition to really useful new services, we have been creating also an awful lot of "Fake work" - (paper-shuffling and inconsequential jobs for the sake of employment) - over the last few decades, so this is not a very original thought either. Why not go on and create more? This approach seems to be doomed, for three reasons.
The first reason fake work does not offer a long-term solution, is that workers do not want to fill these jobs anymore. It is a normal human reaction to resent jobs that could be done by trained monkeys, and this natural tendency has been exacerbated by a major attack on our population of what we might call the "College Blues".The education we give presently is far from perfect, but we give a lot of it. We have a society more educated, by far, than any society has ever been before, and the young "scholars" we produce for the labour market simply do not accept fake work anymore. A rejection reflected in the high value that workers attribute to job significance in motivational surveys. Fake work brings about absenteeism, general neglect of duties, a negative attitude about work, and all the other symptoms that so worry our industrial psychologists and to the dire consequences whereof we will come back a little later.
The second reason is that those who still do real productive work grow more and more restless about fake work projects which they feel - quite rightly - are all sponsored with their taxes. Workers in the United States have less real purchasing power, now, than the workers of half a dozen countries in Western Europe. Intuitively at least, the message is not lost on the workers; the so-called "Right" in America is not composed of millionaires, but of blue-collars who are not against the "poor" but just tired of all the fake work, make-believe jobs and sheer nonsense.
The third reason is that not only will most of the jobs in the industrial sector soon disappear, but that modern technology also tolls the knell for paper-shuffling jobs in the third sector: most of these can now be done by computers. We may try desperately to keep these jobs alive by pretending that they cannot be done that way, but this will fail for the same reason that the primitive labour-intensive alternatives enforced in the industrial sector to create employment had to fail: the employer who uses human beings for paper-shuffling that can be done by computers will not remain in business.
What else? Has work disappeared forever? Of course not! What we call "work" is the effort towards a result, and it cannot ever be a scarce commodity until the last of our wants is satisfied and the last of our wishes is granted. There has always been - (and it seems reasonable to believe that there shall always be) - an infinite amount of work to be done. The concept of a global shortage of work is absurd. It is simply that what used to be called work is now being done by machines, and that what work remains to be done is now to be found only above a mobile threshold, a "Prestige Barrier" which separates work that requires human ingenuity, "above", from the growing mass, "below", of activities that machines do or could do. We must realize that the only haven left for manpower today is in that part of the third sector that lies above the Prestige Barrier.
It is a spacious haven, a sector in which we are far from the affluence we have attained in the field of industrial production, and in which the demand appears inexhaustible. There, we may find an infinite amount of needs to be satisfied and of wishes to be fulfilled, needs of which we are not even conscious, needs not only unsatisfied but as yet unidentified. There, the labour force would find no dearth of work to do.
The problem is for the millions of workers to jump over that Prestige Barrier: the work crisis we live through is nothing but the queueing up in front of the Barrier, and the anxiety before the jump. There is work to be done above; but work above the Prestige Barrier does not mean work in the manner we have been accustomed to think of "work"... and, most serious of all, it does not mean "jobs" at all.
Later, we shall see why what work now remains to be done does not fit
the job pattern anymore, and how work will tarry with us but will get to
vest a new shape. At this point, let it be said only that fake work will
not turn the trick. Jobs disappear, and the transition to a new work style
above the Prestige Barrier brings unrest and angst to individuals, social
and economic turmoil to society.
The Work Dope
We are living through a transition crisis and there are, in this process of transition, threats and turmoil in excess of what we might have guessed. It is a perverse crisis, indeed, which has us all crave for work when the original and natural quest of mankind has always been for leisure. It is enlightening to remember that the present love affair with work and employment is quite recent and that, all through history and until the Nineteenth Century, work was not endowed with that much favor in the public eye.
As a matter of fact, great rulers who managed really efficient full-employment policies - those who built for instance the Pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China - avoided popular wrath only by putting the blame on Divine Will or foreign foes..., and by keeping strong security forces of their own. They sometimes held to dear life, but then their children, or great-grand- children, were usually beheaded, or treated more harshly, as soon as the labour force could enjoy a moment of leisure to sharpen its tools into something that best fitted its aspirations.
Work has never been very popular. Why such a fuss now, if it should slowly disappear? Who cares to work in the first place? "For the money", they say. We are presumed to be interested in the income and to still despise work, as always. Were it not for the money, they say, we would all rather go fishing... But this does not have the ring of truth. Are our motives really so transparent?
When jobs began to disappear, a generation ago, all WINs have put into operation comprehensive systems of transfer payments, and welfare policies that have practically replaced for non-workers the traditional "job-for-salary" way to make a living. Transfer payments are not perfectly equitable, of course, but neither was the salary approach for that matter, and the financial conditions of Social Welfare are rather competitive with minimum wages. Today, for a large number of people, gratuities from the State have replaced wages and salaries as a source of income. Poverty and squalor are still with us - and the global gap between the "Haves" and the "Have-nots" still alternatively narrows and widens in our society - but now the flux obeys other rules than simply to work or not to work.
Why not go fishing, if money is showered on both the busy and the idle? "Money" does not explain every-thing... There is the matter of self-respect of course, and we shall come to it later, but also a craving for the work itself, whether or not it is essential to provide an income. Surprising? Not really; there has been more to work than just producing things and distributing income. Work is not only the mean to earn a living; for most people it is also the focus of their life, their privileged medium of expression and their main access to power. It is the very basis of our society's structure.
And, since the very beginning, work has been also what has kept us away from thinking. There is still a "Faber" alive and well, both in our collective and individual souls, who keeps us very busy, maintains Sapiens - the thinker in our mind - at a safe distance, and protects us from acute awareness of our human condition. It is not surprising at all that our society, regarding work and jobs, should behave like the chronically-ill who feels a vacuum when the pain stops. The fact that work might lose some of its importance is acutely disturbing: Mankind is addicted to work.
This addiction creates ambivalence in us all towards the burden of work, since we do not really want to kick the habit but only to keep it in check: it is not really leisure we want, but a chance to work at our leisure. Therefore, the obvious ambiguity of our collective actions as we meet the present work crisis; we aim to create "jobs" - (which we identify with work) - but we spare no efforts to reduce the work-content of these jobs and to increase leisure. This ambiguity will lead to frustration, for the jobs will never be back.
It is a perverse crisis which generates this ambiguity of purpose and ambivalent love/hate relation with work. More so when we realize that we are addicted to work in its "job" format, and that it is precisely these jobs which we are trying to protect in a rear guard battle which stand as the obstacles to a new "work-at-your-leisure" status for Mankind which would let Sapiens come of age. Renouncing jobs, as an obsolete way to work, will not be easy, since it is not unemployment so much as the fear of it that lies at the root of so many of our most serious social problems. This fear will not fade away; the Curse will have to be formally exorcised.
We may be addicted to work in its job format, still the Age of Toil is over. We will have to be weaned from the work-dope, and we better kick the habit fast, for until the moment we decide to set up a new framework for human activity, our society will live with three time-bombs ticking in the attic, anyone of which could explode and set us back decades, if not centuries. The work crisis has produced three major weird looking - but very serious - threats, lurking in the transition zone between toil and the new ways to work. A threat from the Losers at our society's Game of Power, a more subtle one from the Winners themselves and, finally, a "joker" threat resulting from the sharpy's way the dealer has been handling the chips.
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