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


This gap between expectations and achievement in the Western society is one of the main problems confronting us as we move into the post-manufacturing era. There is little evidence that the gap is narrowing. Undoubtedly there has been some reduction in expectations as the world has moved from boom into recession. Unemployment is clearly modifying wage demands. Student unrest has largely disappeared as a social force with the rise in unemployment for the under 25s (the worst affected age group in virtually all countries). It could of course return with redoubled force if we fail to solve the problem of youth unemployment.

But, as expectations decline, so does the ability of the productive machine to meet them. If you cannot satisfy expecations when real output is growing at 3 or 4% a year, it requires a major change in attitudes to satisfy them when real output is static or declining. Opinion research indicates that with the exception of student unrest, there has been no discernible reduction in the strength of the social attitudes which played their part in disrupting the boom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, as we have moved through the 1970s, one set of attitudes has emerged in survey after survey in country after country – a deepening disrespet and contempt for authority in all its guises. This is a point of enourmous significance to which we shall return later in our analysis of post-manufacturing society.

However, the point I wish to make now is the impact of all these forces on government. Governments in all Western countries came under increasing pressure from the late 1960s on. Social expectations increased while inflation and recession weakened industrial performance. The first reaction of most governments – most notably in the case of the UK, Italy and The Netherlands – was to expand the public sector to offset the decline in the private sector and to respond to the increased demands of society. As a result the proportion of the total population employed in the public sector, and the proportion of total national income taken by the State grew progressively as “stagflation” (persistent high inflation combined with high unemployment and stagnant demand in a country’s economy) worsened.

The result was, of course, to burden the private sector, and the taxpayer, still more – without in fact satisfying the public demand for improved services. From the mid-1970s, therefore, government in all major Western countries has been contracting, both as an employer and as a provider of services. This retreat of government from earlier commitment is a painful and difficult process. Nevertheless it seems an inevitable trend as we move into the 1980s. The turnaround has been most marked in the US and the UK, but in contrast to a decade ago it is evident everywhere.

This turnaround has two major effects. First, it means that one major source of employment in the service sector is declining. Second, it means that services formerly provided, with varying degrees of adequacy, by the State are either going to revert to private enterprise in the 1980s or are not going to be provided at all.

I hope the foregoing analysis explains, albeit sketchily, why the 1980s – the first decade in which Western society can be said to have fully entered its “post manufacturing” phase – is likely to be a decade of under-employment. But is this a necessary condition of the post-manufacturing society, or merely an unfortunate and temporary coincidence?

This is the next major question I wish to address. in order to do so, it is first necessary to define in rather more detail the main characteristics of post-manufacturing society. The following definition is drawn from an article by Professor Tom Stonier in a recent publication by the Henley Centre for Forecasting in London. Stonier describes as the main characteristics of what he calls “the post-industrial economy”:

“1. It is primarily a service economy rather than a manufacturing one with the knowledge industry predominating.
2. It is a credit-based economy, characterised by a flow of credit information rather than by large transactions involving money or gold.
3. It is primarily transnational rather than national
4. changes are taking place at an exponential rate rather than a linear one.
5. It is characterised by unprecedented affluence both at the private individual level and in the public sector.”

Whether or not these are the most noteworthy characteristics is something that could be argued about a great length. Other writers have cited slightly different elements. But for our purposes this is probably as good a list as any. The question I have to pursue is what the implications of a society whith these characteristics are likely to be for employment and for work. I take them in that order, though obviously the two are inter-related. I assume that, in accordance with Kondratieff’s theory, irrespective of the speed of movement down the post-manufacturing road, the level of economic activity and therefore of employment will generally be less in the 1980s than in either the 1970s or the 1990s. In other words, we can anticipate some recovery in employment and in the general level of business activity, taking account of the fluctuations of the business cycle, during the 1990s (assuming, of course, no major outburst of hostilities and no major breakdown in law and order). That much economists can tell us. What they cannot tell us is the precise extent of that recovery – whether, for example, it will be enough to restore the kind of employment levels that we experienced in the heyday of the post-war boom in the 1950s and 1960s.

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