Lately I’ve been having a lot of interesting conversations on the changing nature of work, and the ways in which it might impact our lives going forward.
I recently published an anthology on inequality, and these discussions have been a natural outgrowth of research for our follow on effort which will address risks and opportunities inherent in the rapidly evolving technological environment. People have been telling me what they are excited about, as well as what they are afraid of. While a few of them see a coming age of ease and plenty, far more seem apprehensive.
We’re living through the end of a unique era—one in which the belief that things were generally going well and continually getting better (in some places anyways), was widely held. This was a departure from the hard lives and slow gains that humanity had long experienced. Things went well enough, long enough, that the aberration became the expectation.
Jobs became buckets which carried important things like regular work with stable compensation, continual increases in income, and a host of other benefits, including: insurance, paid time off for illness and vacations, and retirement income. Jobs tended to provide security. Debts were manageable. Children grew up expecting to enjoy ever-increasing standards of living.
This era gave birth to the idea of the Kuznets’ Curve, which suggested that income inequality would follow an inverted “U” shape as a country developed, increasing at first, before tapering off as the benefits of industrialization spread throughout society. Bright days appeared to lie ahead. Those who hadn’t yet experienced the inexorable wave of prosperity just needed to sit tight.
The late 1970s witnessed the beginning of the end of this era as the wave slowly petered out and began to recede. Andy Grove, the recently deceased founder of Intel, detailed the shift from his perch in the tech industry, “[W]ages and health-care costs rose in the U.S. China opened up. American companies discovered that they could have their manufacturing and even their engineering done more cheaply overseas. When they did so, margins improved.”
Growth continued apace, and the finance sector smiled Cheshire-like in approval, but the promise of the Kuznets’ Curve went unfulfilled as many nations saw inequality begin to creep back in. The growth of good jobs sputtered, and hard won gains in wages and benefits began to erode.
The effects of the shift in inequality was not immediately obvious as access to credit helped people get by. The Great Recession was preceded by an extraordinary rise in borrowing by US households (primarily mortgage debt), but as we’ve witnessed, rising debts among stagnant wages are a recipe for disaster. And as we put that financial crisis in the rearview, household debts have started to climb again.
Many economists and pundits cite the decreasing level of unemployment in the U.S. as a sign of a return to economic health, but from 2005 to 2015 “there was a small net decline in the number of workers with conventional jobs.” In that same period, the U.S. population grew roughly 8% (From 296 million in 2005 to 326 million in 2015). If “conventional” work grew at the same rate as the population in that period, we’d have seen another 10 million of those jobs added to the economy, rather than the loss of 400 thousand that was realized. Instead, a sizeable, fast-growing portion of the workforce struggles to survive in precarious circumstances as ever-larger numbers shift to alternate work arrangements (which accounted for the entire net gain of jobs in the same period). “Gig economy” work is still relatively small when compared to other alternative forms—around 0.5% of all U.S. workers in 2015—but that segment is growing rapidly.
Tech workers have tended to be shielded from such effects, but they’re increasingly finding themselves exposed to the same fate as those in manufacturing. And an Oxford study found that 47% of all US employment is at risk of computerization and that the higher the probability of such, the greater the downward pressure on the role’s compensation.
The picture isn’t pretty, but the shoe fits. We sat like boiling frogs as the ground shifted beneath us. We turned our heads as neighbors began to struggle, and hid our own growing challenges. But as Albert Camus wrote, “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.” Whether we like it or not, the truth is that the ways in which we organize work are changing. I don’t know what the future holds, but I believe that things won’t get better of their own accord. So we can either start thinking collectively about how we want work to work in the future, or we can continue to let it happen to us.
I’ll close by borrowing a phrase from John Donne for those who still find this a distant worry:
And therefore never send to know for whom the app hails;
It hails for thee.
Duncan Bartlett FRSA is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC Correspondent; here he offers his perspective on the war of words.