The Gnömic: The End of Work
Maybe it's not all bad news
This is The Gnömic, a mid-week read from Sunday Letters. It’s usually reserved from paying subscribers, but this week it’s free. If you’d like to get it every Wednesday, consider supporting Sunday Letters. In fact, here’s a discount.
In 1996, Jeremy Rifkin heralded the decline of the global labour force painting a dystopian picture of the future. “In offices and factories around the world,” he said, “people wait in fear, hoping to be spared one more day. Like a deadly epidemic inexorably working its way through the marketplace,” Rifkin reported, “the strange, seemingly inexplicable new economic disease spreads, destroying lives and destabilising whole communities in its wake.” He cites many instances of the 1990s “operational restructuring” to support his thesis; Bankcorp 9,000 job losses, Arvin Industries 10% job cuts, Union Carbide 14,000 workers, GTE 17,000 employees made redundant, Siemens 16,000 employees cut, and ABB 50,000 workers globally. Sounds pretty shit alright.
At the time the book was published, employment in Ireland was around 13%–a little high–and people like me were legging it to the States, Australia, and Canada. I must admit though, my sole motivation was not to find work but to party my white Irish arse off. And I did! So I didn’t notice the relative turmoil around me. In Philadelphia, I got work within the Irish community whenever I needed it and was rarely in a dire situation. The only reason I may have ever been broke was when I blew my dollars on booze and strip joints. So I count myself lucky in that regard. I got back home in ‘97 and the economy was beginning to lift so work was in plentiful supply. Ten years later at the opposite end of the building boom, I and others like me weren’t so fortunate.
I have little doubt that corporate restructuring destroys lives and destabilises communities. As it was for working people in the North of England in the 1980s, as the Thatcher government closed the coal mines, hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, are impacted by these decisions and enormous social unrest results. Even though arguably, the work was not fit for a dog, let alone a human being, people became dependent on it for their livelihood for generations. Their way of life was taken from them, and they had little say in the matter. Almost forty years later, many of those mostly men who protested at the closing of the mines have retired or passed away. Today, people of those Northern English communities are employed elsewhere and in other industries. That entire way of life has disappeared, and workers are doing other things.
Work has changed, and although we can argue, as the late David Graeber has, that many jobs people do today are bullshit (and I agree with the premise, by the way), the global workforce has not declined. At least according to the OECD, that is. Their data from 1980 to 2020 show that unemployment rates are, in fact, lower today. Leaving Covid out of the equation, although that may have lasting effects, UK unemployment had fallen from 10.78% in 1980 to 4.48% in 2020. In the US, unemployment was 7.14% in 1980 and is only 1% higher today at 8.09%, although there was a sharp increase from 3.67 in 2019. In the nineteen states of the Euro area, unemployment is currently under 8% of total employment compared to 7.84% when first recorded in 1991. The observable trend in Spain, Ireland, Poland, Greece, and the Slovak Republic paints a different picture and stands out from the UK, US, and Euro areas. Fluctuations here are more dramatic and reflect the deep recessionary impact of market collapses over the same period.
I realise the accuracy of these figures depends on how they are calculated and perhaps mask the complexity of the on-the-ground state of affairs; however, it seems the working population are, in fact, still working. The dystopian future Rifkin told us was coming due to technological changes maybe didn’t come at all. We have other problems, such as the trauma caused by Covid, global warming, social inequality and discrimination, but it seems people are still working. We’re still earning a living, and the economy is still moving and growing. Whether or not people are happy in the work they do, if they gain gratification and fulfilment from that work, is an entirely other question altogether. Maybe the end of work is only around the corner, or maybe it’s not. Maybe the need to work, contribute, and be productive is hard-wired into us, and as such, we’ll always find work to do.
The problem is that we are too reliant on big corporates. When they decide it’s time to close shop, it won’t matter what normal Joe and Jane Soap have to say. It won’t matter about losing our way of life, community upheaval, and social unrest–they will leave anyway. Corporates are built to make money first; social conscience comes second no matter how well they market to the contrary. The real problem is that masses of people are schooled from a very young age to find a job. There might be certain freedoms within the job, but you better believe that you must toe the line and play your part. You must subjugate yourself to the power centre that is the corporation. There is no room for independent thinkers and doers in large organisations, not really.
Funny, we think there is an enormous risk venturing out on our own to work for ourselves. Maybe it comes from our tribal brain; outside the fold, we can get killed and eaten! But to me, the greatest risk is staying with the crowd. As the economy rises and falls, as corporations make decisions primarily for the benefit of shareholders (no, I’m not buying the new decade corporate sales pitch that all stakeholders are their concern), the greatest risk to personal security is staying on the inside. On the outside, there is an opportunity to see more. Our vantage point is broader, and nobody is blocking our view. Groupthink presents practically zero risk; we can make decisions quickly and avoid danger. Inside the employee group mindset, we can’t see the holes in the road, or indeed, the edge of the cliff. So if the end of work is near or not, it is better that we take the decision for our future into our own hands rather than leave it in the hands of others.
Work for yourself.
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