Work and Employment in Post-Manufacturing Society – part one by Michael Shanks

Work and Employment in Post-Manufacturing Society

Two centuries ago, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the workforce lived at or within walking distance of their place of work. Most were self-employed or members of what we would now call “autonomous working groups”. They worked what we would now call “flexitime”, clocking on being unknown if only because very few people had clocks or kenw how to use them. Work was part of the normal pattern of life, its rhythms and disciplines being not very distinct from those of leisure and the family. Thogh there was considerable unemployment, unemployment in the formal sense we know today barely existed. Social discipline was exercised largely by and through the church, and by the needs of survival.

Today, the Information Revolution, in the process of invading every aspect of more and more people’s time and life, evaporates in ever faster and bigger innovation cycles. Driven by enormouse public investment in Research and Development of ICT products and costtaking procurement measurs it constitutes the fastest growing sector in the economy in most of the industrialized countries since the ’80s. Leaving the flagships of the european economic recovery plan, coal and steel based manufacturing industries and agriculture behind, it serves as the major catalyst for economic growth throughout the western world. With very little public involvement in its direction of development.

The Industrial Revolution, which shifted the main balance of the workforce from agriculture into manufacturing, was the result of two parallel technological drives. Technological changes in farming led to dramatic rises of productivity, thus throwing up a surplus of erstwhile peasants whose labour was no longer needed on the land. These people migrated into the towns of cities, where fortunately another series of technological innovations was simultaneously creating a demand for labour in the new manufacturing industries arising from mechanisation and the steam engine.

Industrial technology, until very recently, has consistently operated to increase the size of operations, by facilitating economies of large scale. In so doing it has not only created the range of artefacts which has tranformed the world. It has also imposed social changes in the industrial workforce which have been hardly less revolutionary in their implications. To ensure that installed capital operates profitably, workers have had to accept an externally-imposed discipline which was not required in pre-industrial communities, and which has increasingly diverged from the conditions of life outside the factory. They tyranny of the stop-watch and of the moving assembly line – the subordination of man to the machine – has been the price for improved material living standard. The gulf between work and leisure, between work and the family, between working life and social life, has widened dramatically. At the same time, as the average size of productive unit has increased, the gulf between bosses and workers, and between capital and labour, has widened. Increasing remoteness, plus the intrinsic boredom of much industrial work, and the growing tension between the imposed discipline of factory life contrasted with the growing democratisation of society – and increasing standard of education and awareness – have led to the widespread phenomenon of alienation and bitterness on the shop floor, and the growth of a rival focus for employee loyalty in the shape of trade unions. The tensions and conflicts of industrial life have spilt over into society, with the decline of traditional religion and the takeover of large areas of the trade union movement by various forms of Marxist socialism.

All these phenomena, which have come to loom so large in Western society, derive more than anything else from the scale of operations dictated by the technologies of the ninetheenth and the first half of the twentieth century – technologies epitomised (a perfect example) by the assembly lines of Detroit, Birmingham or the Ruhrgebiet. So long as Western economies were essentially manufacturing-based and so long as technology favoured large scale operations, there was little that could be done to prevent the personal friction, the frustration and the alienation to which they gave rise; or so at least conventional wisdom maintained. Attempts to return to the pastoral innocence of the pre-industrial era were not on the whole very impressive or widely followed.

However, since the Second World War, and particularly since the beginning of the 1960s, we have begun to see remarkable changes in the pattern of Western society – changes in the pattern of social life, the distribution of the workforce, and in the thrust and direction of technology. Some writers have characterised what has been happening since the 1950s as the emergence of “post-industrial society”, as different from the society created by the Industrial Revolution as that society was from its predecessor.


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