The Mirage Of Full Employment
issue 166 - December 1986
Photo: Libbert / Camera Press
The mirage of
Politicians are always promising us jobs in order to get our votes.
But new technologies and changes in the global economy mean that
neither Left nor Right will be able to deliver. Phil Resnick believes that our
preoccupation with jobs blinds us to a new and creative vision of work.
The idea that everyone who wants a job should have one is a relatively new one. Only in the decades following World War Two have industrial economies been able to provide a job to almost everyone who wanted one. Memories of the hungry 1930s convinced many economic planners of the need for the government to intervene in order to ensure minimal living standards for everybody. Following the economics of John Maynard Keynes they felt that this would stabilize economic life by removing drastic fluctuations in what people could afford to buy. Personal spending would translate into predictable levels of economic demand that would remove the uncertainties from investment and allow businesses gradually to expand and create jobs.
Most post-war Western governments accepted the goal of full employment - they differed only on the amount of state intervention needed to make it work. For the better part of 30 years, unemployment rates in the main industrial economies hovered between two and three per cent, rarely exceeding the five per cent benchmark. Employment in manufacturing grew rapidly. Significant new opportunities opened up in an expanding service sector. The so-called 'helping' professions like nursing and social work as well as office jobs provided options for women workers who moved into the regular workforce in unprecedented numbers.
Then, some time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Keynesian economic strategy began to falter. Productivity lagged. Inflation took off. Investment was stunted and unemployment rose. North America and Western Europe faced increasing competition from Japan and the Far East. The period of cheap energy and resources was challenged by OPEC. Keynesianism seemed to have given birth to 'stagflation' rather than stabilization. The welfare state itself became the object of sustained attack by an increasingly vociferous right wing who insisted we could no longer afford to help those who could not help themselves.
By the beginning of the 1980s rates of unemployment had edged upward to reach double-digit figures across the industrial world. A new economic ethos began creeping in. Conservative economists set the tone by arguing that the 'natural' rate of unemployment was a good deal higher than two to three per cent. They held that any restoration of higher employment would only come through relying on the free market, weakening trade unions and restoring the discipline of a work force that had been excessively coddled by overly generous governments.
Fundamental changes in the world economy were in the wind. A variety of economic indicators pointed to the decline of such traditional industrial sectors as textiles; clothing, footwear, iron and steel or shipbuilding; Hundreds of thousands of jobs were vanishing in the industrial heartlands of North America and Western Europe. The abandoned factories of Coventry, Warwickshire, and Gary, Indiana, provided stark evidence of hard new economic realities. Trade unions could no longer defend the wages or even the jobs of their members. Some of these jobs were exported to low-wage Third World countries.
Demographic factors also came into play as the baby-boom generation of the late 1940s and early 1950s placed undue pressure on labour markets. Youth unemployment has soared to rates of 20 per cent and 25 per cent. Labour-saving microchip technology threatens to make one third and two thirds of all existing jobs obsolete over the next couple of decades. The service sector, accounting for two thirds of all jobs in countries like Canada and the US, is not immune. Innovations like word-processors and banking machines are placing traditional white-collar positions in jeopardy.
Certain things are clear. The introduction of robots and computers is contributing to the de-skilling of tens of millions of blue-and white-collar workers. There is little likelihood that these workers will find jobs in their old industries. According to the US Department of Labour, areas of major job growth will not be in computer analysis and programming but for fast-food workers, janitors and security guards.
Nor is it at all evident that even these low-paying service jobs will provide enough employment for everyone who wants a job. The French social critic Andre Gorz suggests that Western societies may be heading towards a dual economy, with a small percentage of the population holding down well-paid high-tech jobs and a much larger percentage slotted into either less glamorous, poorly paid work at the margins of the economy or else no job at all. Gorz fears a South Africanization of Western economies with a 'knowledge' class on top and a 'serf class serving them.2
But politicians have continued to promise jobs for all. Governments have experimented with industrial policies, hidden protectionism, regional subsidies, youth opportunity programs and the like. They have looked anew at issues like work sharing, part-time work, reductions in the working week or non-traditional types of employment (the informal sector). Such policies have helped some but they are not magic solutions. There have been more radical ideas emanating from 'Greens' and Eco-socialists who suggest the work-orientated values we have grown used to are a thing of the past. They believe we must question the sacred cows of profit and growth if we are to survive.
What is really necessary is a debate about who is to benefit from the new labour-displacing technologies being introduced and the industrial restructuring now under way. The disappearance of manufacturing or white-collar jobs has traumatic implications for workers and communities affected. Yet it is ironic that the drudgery associated with many such jobs - from machine shops to textile plants to office pools - has to be mourned. If the wealth flowing from technological change and the work left to be done could be distributed equitably workers could control much more of their own time in the way they saw fit.
Gardening, craft and artistic production, caring for the young and old, environmental protection and other community services might blossom in such a climate. But this is only a possibility. The market philosophies and right-wing political agendas of the Thatchers and Reagans continue to hold sway in the Western world. It is only natural that large corporations, banks and their allies use the productive new technologies to maintain their power and privileges. But technological change could point in another direction - the reduction of the amount of necessary labour required from each and every one of us.
Socialists and other critics of corporate privilege should cease their rearguard action in favour of full employment. A fairer distribution of the labour actually required and a creative approach to the use of free time provides a much more compelling vision of the future. Capitalism, for all its many contradictions and failures, may at last have brought Western societies to the threshold of a new, potentially liberating, future.
We no longer need to ask each and every would-be bread-winner to work a 40 or 48 or 56 hour week. We no longer need real growth rates of four or five per cent per annum, as in the 1950s or 1960s, to sustain an adequate level of production and wealth. (Although in global terms, the Third World may still need such growth rates.) We can move beyond the fixation buried deep in the Western psyche, that work for wages is the only realization of our human essence.
It seems strange, in what remain uncertain economic times, to forecast a time in which most of our day is not caught up with work-related activities of a traditional sort. But this may well be where the restructuring of the world economy and the new technologies of the last couple of decades have brought us.
Phil Resnick writes on political and economic issues. He teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
1 Cited in Giles Merritt, World Out of Work, Collins, London. 1982, 61.
2 Andre Gorz Paths to Paradise; on the liberation from work, Pluto Press, London 1985.
See also Michael Harrington and Mark Levinson, The Perils of a Dual Economy, Dissent, Fall, 1985
Worth reading on... WORK
Working at leisure, by Barry Sherman, Methuen. This is the latest in a series of books by the author on the future of work in our society. Sherman us a good writer and marshals his facts in a convincing way. One of the most articulate proponents of rethinking the meaning of work.
The Partnership, by Graeme Doel, Hexagon Press, Sydney. The story of a hypothetical work co-operative based in manufacturing. By illustraing the principles of running a co-op the book can be used as a handbook for this purpose.
Towards a History of Needs, by Ivan Illich, Pantheon. Illich is difficult to read but combines brilliant insight with great breadth of knowledge. The centrepiece of this book is the essay 'Useful unemployment and its professional enemies'. A must for those interested in the topic.
The Uneasy Eighties, The transition to an information society, Arthur Cordell, Science Coucil of Canada. Gives a good idea of the enormity of the changes that will follow in the wake of the new technologies. Pulls up a bit short of the radical implications of his own analysis.
Why Work, arguments for the leisure society, various authors, Freedom Press. Puts forwards an anarchistic case in a clear and lucid fashion.
Changing work; a magazine about liberating worklife, P.O. Box 261, New Town Branch, Newtown, 02258, Mass. USA. A quarterly magazine on the theory and practice of how to cange work. Chock full of information, examples and addresses. Subs are $12 in North America and $17 elsewhere. Good value.
The Worker Ownership Development Foundation; 357 College Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1S5 Canada. Provides publications and public education courses promoting worker co-operatives.
The Institute for Workers Control; Bertram Russell House, Gamble Street, Nottingham NG7 4ET, UK. Interested in all initiatives to do with worker democracy and ownership of the workplace. Good publications.