The End of Jobs?

Sarah Jaffe March 21, 2014

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich vocalized his support for a universal base income last week, calling the proposal 'almost inevitable' in the face of technology-induced job loss.

In a major vic­to­ry for a long-run­ning cam­paign, port truck dri­vers at Pacif­ic 9 Trans­porta­tion in Cal­i­for­nia have won the right to be con­sid­ered employ­ees under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, and to form a union.

That rul­ing, by Region 21 of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, that the truck­ers had been mis­clas­si­fied as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” comes after months of sus­tained actions, includ­ing strikes, by port truck­ers. It comes in an indus­try where union jobs were the stan­dard until dereg­u­la­tion turned all work­ers into free agents.” Free agency, they quick­ly found, did­n’t come with much free­dom, as they still had their hours and work­ing con­di­tions dic­tat­ed by the com­pa­ny for whom they worked – but it came with a price tag. The cost of gas, truck main­te­nance and licens­es land­ed on their shoul­ders instead of their employers’.

It’s in this con­text that I’m think­ing about the end of jobs as we know them.” 

This Wednes­day I attend­ed a con­fer­ence with that provoca­tive title at the Open Soci­ety Foun­da­tion, and I’ve long been mulling the idea.

In 2011, I wrote at Alter­Net that a future beyond jobs, where we all work less, used to be a major goal of the U.S. labor move­ment. More free­dom, less pro­duc­tion for its own sake, would actu­al­ly cre­ate a more sus­tain­able world. (Alyssa Bat­tis­toni com­pelling­ly made this argu­ment recent­ly at Jacobin.) Low­er­ing the amount of hours worked by each per­son would help dis­trib­ute jobs bet­ter among the peo­ple who still don’t have them, as econ­o­mist Dean Bak­er has repeat­ed­ly argued.

But I not­ed that mov­ing beyond jobs would neces­si­tate tack­ling issues of inequal­i­ty and con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er in the hands of the wealthy. At the moment, the end of jobs” has meant sus­tained high unem­ploy­ment and low wages, not more free­dom. The dis­ap­pear­ance of jobs in Amer­i­ca has as much to do with the pow­er of glob­al cap­i­tal to move where and when it wants and the abil­i­ty, post-cri­sis, of busi­ness­es to squeeze more and more pro­duc­tiv­i­ty out of the few work­ers they keep, as it does with tech­nol­o­gy mak­ing cer­tain pro­fes­sions obso­lete. And the rise of the free agent” work­er has at least as much to do with the desire of busi­ness­es to have an easy-hire, easy-fire, just-in-time work­force (as I wrote about in some detail recent­ly) that absorbs — as the port truck­ers do — most of the labor costs, as it does with work­ers who sim­ply enjoy the free­dom of not hav­ing a boss. Pow­er is as big or big­ger a force as tech­nol­o­gy in shap­ing the labor land­scape today.

Fast for­ward to 2014. The econ­o­my has improved only slight­ly. Unem­ploy­ment remains high, and the jobs that do exist are often low-wage and part-time. Since 2011, we’ve seen not only Occu­py but the rise of a move­ment of Wal­mart and fast-food work­ers demand­ing bet­ter wages and, often, more hours, so they can take home a full-time pay­check. A short­er hours move­ment has not mate­ri­al­ized, nor has a mean­ing­ful jobs pro­gram, despite the promis­es of a bipar­ti­san clutch of politi­cians. The min­i­mum wage has risen in some states and cities, but work­ers are still strug­gling, and the long-term unem­ployed have seen their ben­e­fits cut off by a Con­gress that con­tin­ues to squab­ble about whether or not they deserve to be able to pay bills.

Jobs have not yet end­ed or become obso­lete. Yet, with­out ques­tion, they are chang­ing. Research from Kel­ly Ser­vices (which, being a tem­po­rary agency, cer­tain­ly has a vest­ed inter­est in the sub­ject) finds that 44 per­cent of work­ers in the U.S. clas­si­fy them­selves as free agents.” Accord­ing to the Free­lancers Union, 42 mil­lion peo­ple are free­lancers. The full-time job itself is only a fair­ly recent devel­op­ment in human his­to­ry, span­ning a cou­ple hun­dred years or so, and the atten­dant expec­ta­tion that a job be good,” pay­ing a liv­ing wage and pro­vid­ing health­care and retire­ment ben­e­fits, with a union and some secu­ri­ty, is a pecu­liar his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the New Deal era in the Unit­ed States — an era that is almost with­out ques­tion over.

Pow­er cre­at­ed that era — the pow­er of orga­nized work­ers in unions demand­ing bet­ter con­di­tions. But the boss­es, it’s worth not­ing, nev­er stopped try­ing to dis­man­tle the deal. Since the Taft-Hart­ley Labor Man­age­ment Rela­tions Act of 1947, con­ser­v­a­tives have been push­ing to lim­it the pow­er work­ers were grant­ed by the NLRA in 1935, and the con­ver­sion of decent jobs into no-secu­ri­ty temp gigs should right­ly be seen in that con­text. The port truck dri­vers at Pacif­ic 9 and else­where real­ize that despite the promis­es of free­dom and lib­er­a­tion, they have more pow­er when their rela­tion­ship with the boss is explic­it and when they can come togeth­er as a union. 

We should care­ful­ly con­sid­er what comes next, whether that be high-end free­lancers hop­ping from gig to gig, dis­dain­ing a full-time job, or more like­ly, the fur­ther frag­men­ta­tion into piece­work that we see hap­pen­ing in dig­i­tal spaces like Ama­zon’s Mechan­i­cal Turk, and the con­ver­sion of for­mer­ly full-time union jobs such as port truck­ing or auto man­u­fac­tur­ing into low-secu­ri­ty inde­pen­dent con­tract­ing or temp labor. Moshe Mar­vit wrote at The Nation of Ama­zon’s human crowd­work­ers” who per­form the tiny tasks that are help­ing to pow­er the parts of the Inter­net that most of us take for grant­ed” and who are paid a pit­tance for their work.

Tech­nol­o­gy is often blamed for dis­plac­ing work­ers and elim­i­nat­ing jobs. Those doing the blam­ing are some­times cor­rect, as when super­mar­kets move to auto­mat­ic check­out or ports move to auto­mat­ed car­go haul­ing. And yet the sto­ry of the Mechan­i­cal Turk­ers is a good cau­tion­ary tale for those who assume that all jobs are dis­ap­pear­ing into the mechan­i­cal ether. One does­n’t have to be a Lud­dite to point out that many jobs — includ­ing ones, like those done by Turk­ers, that we think are ful­ly auto­mat­ed — are still being done by peo­ple, either because we don’t have the tech­nol­o­gy to do them yet, or because those peo­ple remain cheap­er than machines. Whether jobs are dis­ap­pear­ing for good rea­sons — because they sim­ply aren’t social­ly nec­es­sary any­more — or because they are being frag­ment­ed, made tem­po­rary or shift­ed to free­lancers, these are not process­es that are hap­pen­ing out­side of human con­trol, but rather because of it.

Carl Benedikt Frey of the Oxford Mar­tin Pro­gramme on the Impacts of Future Tech­nol­o­gy was a keynote speak­er at Wednes­day’s event. His recent study, with Michael Osborne, found that near­ly half of U.S. jobs are at risk of com­put­er­i­za­tion.” These include posi­tions in a wide vari­ety of sec­tors, from trans­porta­tion to the ser­vice industry.

The posi­tions that are least like­ly to be auto­mat­ed, this study found, were those that relied on cre­ative and social intel­li­gence” — for exam­ple, preschool teach­ing. It con­cludes, For work­ers to win the race, how­ev­er, they will have to acquire cre­ative and social skills.”

What is social intel­li­gence but anoth­er word for what soci­ol­o­gist Arlie Rus­sell Hochschild called emo­tion­al labor”? And that emo­tion­al labor has been deval­ued and indeed not con­sid­ered a skill at all, large­ly because it has been done by women. One study found that inter­ac­tive ser­vice jobs,” which include care work and ser­vice work, get paid less even if you con­trol for edu­ca­tion lev­els, rate of union­iza­tion, cog­ni­tive and phys­i­cal skill, and the amount of women doing the job. 

If those social-skilled jobs are the only ones that will be left to us, will we learn to val­ue them more? Or will this just be anoth­er excuse to pay work­ers less? The ques­tion, like the ques­tion of what is a skill in the first place, is one of power. 

The end of jobs does­n’t have to be a dystopi­an night­mare. There is some truth to the rosy pic­ture paint­ed by Kel­ly Ser­vices about the free agent” work­force. I once left a full-time job to be a free­lancer, and I enjoyed the expe­ri­ence: writ­ing for a vari­ety of out­lets, learn­ing from new edi­tors, sharp­en­ing dif­fer­ent styles, work­ing when I want­ed. The plea­sure came to a grind­ing halt, though, when a client who owed me what amount­ed to more than two months of my rent did­n’t pay for sev­er­al months, and I had few oth­er finan­cial options. I need­ed a way to pay the bills if the work did­n’t come through, and our cur­rent so-called social safe­ty net did­n’t offer one. It remains designed, as Sara Horowitz of the Free­lancers’ Union points out, for a work­force that has full-time jobs with ben­e­fits. And that was nev­er every­one, to begin with.

Women, black work­ers and immi­grants were most­ly left out of that design in the first place; what’s hap­pened is that the con­di­tions in the sec­tors where they typ­i­cal­ly work (tem­po­rary work, no labor pro­tec­tions, infor­mal work­places) have caught up with the rest of us. This means instead of cling­ing to a safe­ty net that was designed for white male bread­win­ners in man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, we need a sys­tem designed for work­ers who are doing less work, doing it from home or the neigh­bor­hood cof­fee shop, and where the human resource in demand is care as much as it is cog­ni­tive skill or brute strength.

The sub­ject of a uni­ver­sal basic income is com­ing up a lot these days; for­mer Labor Sec­re­tary Robert Reich endorsed it last week in a talk at San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty, call­ing it almost inevitable” in the face of tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-induced job loss. A basic income would serve as some­thing more than a safe­ty net in trou­bled times — it would be a firm line below which no one, employed or unem­ployed, skilled or unskilled, could fall. Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, it would help work­ers who do retain jobs (or gigs) increase their bar­gain­ing pow­er by giv­ing them the option of leav­ing rather than cling­ing to a job out of desperation.

That’s a large redis­tri­b­u­tion of income, of course, and it will take a lot of polit­i­cal pow­er to make such a thing a real­i­ty. Polit­i­cal pow­er for work­ing peo­ple has come in the past and will come in the future through work­er orga­niz­ing — par­tic­u­lar­ly, as has been the case with the port truck­ers, orga­niz­ing out­side of the old NLRB frame­work. It took work­ers com­ing togeth­er to chal­lenge their boss­es’ idea of free­dom” to win fair pay at the ports, and it will take work­ers com­ing togeth­er on a mas­sive scale to real­ly get work­ers some freedom.

Along with that idea of free­dom, it’s time to con­sid­er a call for short­er work­ing hours — a redis­tri­b­u­tion of work and leisure to go along with the redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. There will always to be some work that can­not be auto­mat­ed away, and much of that work, as Frey and Osborne found, will like­ly rely on social skills that have been pre­sumed to be wom­en’s domain. If we don’t want a world where women do most or all of the work for lit­tle pay, we’ll have to start valu­ing those social skills more, and ensur­ing that the jobs that requires them are done by all.

But most impor­tant­ly, we should be work­ing to ensure that a future with­out jobs is a future where we all get to enjoy the ben­e­fits of free time. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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