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


One can paint an idyllic picture of industry in the post-manufacturing society, and many writers have done so. Unfortunatley there are enough negative aspects to puncture the euphoria, and some daunting question marks. But before coming to these, let me mention two other major implications of the application of computer technology. They concern the role fo woman, and the future of trade unions.

Mention has already been made of the remarkable changes in the perception by woman of their role, and the expansion of their aspirations, as a result of improved methods of contraception. Female participation in the labour force has increased sharply in recent years, and with it female demands for better job opportunities and better access to training and promotion. It is perhaps surprising that despite the recession and the rise in male unemployment, there has been very little evidence of a male backlash against these aspirations.

Industry will therefore increasingly adjust its working patterns to suit the requirements of woman, who will play an even-bigger part in it as we move into the post-manufacturing society. If one looks at the present pattern of female employment, it tends to fall into two distinct blocks. One the one hand, woman are heavily concentrated in a group of activities where the future prospects are particularly bleak: labour-intensive industries like clothng and textiles, and in service occupations most vulnerable to office automation (clerks and shorthand typists). Woman are also heavily concentrated in the retail trade, which we shall mention below.

Thus the first sweep of the computer revolution could have serious effects on female employment. On the other hand, woman are strongly placed in some of the fastest-growing sectors – in teaching, communications, and more recently in the computer industry itself. We may expect to see increased pressure for job opportunities to be provided for women in these expanding sectors of the economy, particularly if this can be done on the basis of working from home on a flexitime system.

It is clear that the kind of “return to cottage industry” type of working pattern sketched out above offers considerable attractions to woman, in that it enables them to combine home life and work. This means that there will be great social pressures in this direction. But of course this option will only be available to woman with adequate qualifications. More effort will need to be directed towards re-training woman who have left the labour force to rear a family, an wish to reenter work once the family is reared.

This is a particular instance of a much more general problem. The need for retraining to enable employees to cope with the very rapid technological changes which will be experienced in the post-manufacturing society will be a continuing challenge. The old concept that one learns a skill at the start of one’s working life which one then practices throughout one’s career has little relevance in a world where, in Professor Stonier’s words, “changes are taking place at an exponential rate rather than a linear one”. In future we must all expect to have to change jobs several times in our working life, to learn new skills continuously, if we are to cope with the accelerating pace of change.

At present society is ill-adapted to this emerging pattern. There is a serious mismatch between what the education system in most Western countries is geared up to provide, and what the world of work demands. We have to improve this relationship, by introducing greater flexibility on both sides. We have to strenghten the vocational (occupation or employment) training aspect of education, and adapt it more closely to the changing needs of industry. We have to increase the work experience element in schooling, and bridge the present yawning gap between school and life. We also have to ensure that career patterns in business are sufficiently flexible to enable people, as they feel the need, to take “sabbatical leave” to update their skills and re-charge their intellectual batteries, without detriment to their careers.

One option which merits serious consideration is to make business enterprises themselves, under suitable supervision, awarders of qualifications. The idea that the firm can be a teacher is one which is only beginning to become respectable, and it naturally arouses hostility in parts of th educational profession. But if we are to bridge the gap between work and education, and if experience in doing a job is to be properly recognised, there is much to be said for making the enterpris itself the teaching organisation in sutiable cases.

The needs of woman in this respect are thus a particular example of a more general theme. Nevertheless, they have a special relevance in another context. Only woman can bear children. One result of the contraceptive pill and the change in female attitudes and aspirations resulting from it has been a sharp decline in the birth rate in most, thought not all, Western countries. It is true that the labour force in most of these countries will continue rising until the late 1980s as a result of the early post-war “baby boom”. But it will start to tail off quite sharply as we move into the 1990s, and if present trends continue it is safe to predict that Western Europe will start to become seriously concerned about its dwindling population, and the prospect of fewer and fewer youngsters having to support a growing army of dependents.

Future trends in the birth rate are quiet extraordinarily difficult to frecast, depending as they do largely on changes in attitudes and life styles which defy analysis. But it would be rash to assume that the birth rate will turn round of itself. It would be wiser to consider what kind of inducements would persuade woman to want to have more children. The most obvious incentive would be to make it easier for woman to combine a career with child-rearing.

The computer revolution could have a profound impact on the scope and importance of trade unions. During the 1970s in Europe, thougt not in North America, trade unionism gained very considerably in power, influence and numbers. Aided by sympathetic governments, trade unions secured legislation in most European countries which would guaranteed employees a high degree of job security. It became both difficult and very expensive to make workers redundant. Health and safety regulations at work were made stricter and more comprehensive, more generous arrangements for sick pay were secured, and woman workers won equality of pay for equal work and (at least in principle) equal opportunities for training and promotion. In a numbe rof countries workers won seats on the boards of directors as a statutory right, and in almost all the powers and scope of works councils (elected representatives of employees on the shop floor) were enhanced.

Thus industrial democracy took a major step forward in most Western European countries during the 1970s. At the same time, of course, European governments and industries faced continual pressure for higher real wages and shorter working hours. As a result European wages increased substantially compared to those in North America and the Third World. Moreover, as a result of job security provisions labour became essentially a fixed rather than a variable cost item, at least in large firms.

From the workers’ point of view, many of these gains seem to be proving counterproductive. The higher cost of labour has undoubtedly acted as a stimulus for the introduction of labour-saving automation, and has also deterred firms from expanding in Europe as much as they would otherwise have done. There has been a marked tendency for multinational investment to migrate from Europe to North America. The high cost of dismissing workers has made large firms reluctant to take them on if alternatives can be found. Thus the job security of those at work has, at least in part, been paid for by very high unemployment among the young, who have not had the opportunity of acquiring secure status at work. In almost every Europen country the under-25 age group has by far the highest percentage unemployed. Another reason for this fact has been trade union pressure to reduce the differentials between fully trained workers and young workers still under training. Since apprentice labour is no longer particularly cheap, it is less attractive to employers.

Thus the constraints applied by labour to large firms have led, and will lead increasingly in the 1980s, to a shift in numbers employed from large to small firms. Where possible, large firms now prefer to sub-contract work to small firms, which do not suffer the same constraints, rather than take one extra workers themselves. As large firms become more bureaucratised and more politicised, entrepreneurship is reviving at the level of small enterprises on whom the large ones increasingly rely. The principle of “small is beautiful” applies here too.

Entrepreneurship is indeed coming back into fashion. It accords with the spirit of the times, the prevailing distrust of large scale which we have already noted. It responds to the needs of large scale industry, encrusted by the restraints imposed on it by governments and collective bargaining. It is a natural reaction to the excessive taxation which the expansion of the State in the early 1970s necessitated. So we see in most European countries – particularly in Italy, but also in the UK, Germany, France and Scandinavia – a vigorous growth of the so-called “informal” or “hidden” or “black” economy, where work is being performed and income is earned by individuals or groups which are not recorded in the official statistics and not available to the tax collector.

The swing to small scale enterprise is encouraged by other factors too – notably the reviving taste for craftsmanship, the reaction against mass produced consumer products, the growing desire for individuality and self-expression among the peoples of the West. Until recently there were two powerful forces pulling int eh other direction. One, as we have seen, was technology, which before the age of the computer put a heavy premium on large scale. But, as we have seen, this is now changing. Perhaps the most significant change of all between the 1970s and the 1980s will prove to have been the fact that technology now begins positively to favour decentralisation and small scale rather than the opposite. When technology and public aspirations and values are pulling in the same direction, it is a powerful combination.

The second factor which has worked against the pressure to decentralise has been the tendency for governments, faced with the horrors of “stagflation”, to try to enlist the support of trade unions and employer organisations in governmental decision making. During the 1970s most European countries moved a long way down the road to the corporate state, with increasing power and influence devolved to the central decision-making authorities in the trade unions and employer organisations. In some countries – West Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, The Netherlands – the system worked reasonably well. In onter – Italy, Ireland, UK – it was less successful. But in almost every case the experiment was working against the grain of public opinion, and at the cost of a certain rigidity and bureaucratisiation of industrial policy, which as the decade wore on became less and less acceptable.

Now there is growing evidence that, at least in some European countries, the importance of the trade unions is declinig as inflation recedes and unemployment rises. Trade unions are on the whole not popular bodies. The rise in unemployment reduces their bargaining power, and their numbers. It forces them back onto the defensive. As we have seen, trade unions operate much more successfully in large organisations than in small entrepreneurial ones, where personal contacts between the individual workers and his or her boss are much closer. The kind of decentralised pattern of working life indicated above is likely to prove an inhospitable climate for trade unions. Part of the undinding of the dichotomies created by the Industrial Revolution, which we are postulating as characteristic of post-manufacturing society, is a decline in the overall influence of trade unions – thought they will undoubteldy remain very important in certain sectors of the economy (particularly I suspect, in the public sector).

Of course, the pattern will vary from country to country. As so often in recent years, among European countries it is the UK where the pendulum seems to be swinging most violently, towards and now away from the corporate state. In countries with a more stable political structure, such as Scandinavia and the German-speaking countries, the trend is less marked; but I suspect that in varying degrees it will apply over most of Western Europe.

The 1980s, therfore, will see a move back towards small units, operating in much pleasant environments than the old manufacturing industries today, with fewer constraints, closer personal links between managers and employeess, and with very large amounts of capital installed per worker. The opportunities for job satisifaction should be much greater than has been the case for the average worker hitherto.

Utopia? What are the snags (unexpected or hidden obstacles and drawbacks) and the risks? The first, which has been little studied up to now, concerns human nature. Working with computers has one huge drawback; for intelligent people – and intelligence is needed to be a computer programmer, still more an analyst – it can be extremely boring. That is one reason why, even today, there is an acute shortage of computer software operators. In some ways working alone with a computer in a laboratory, or supervising a bunch of robots in a hygienic control room, can be even more boring than the most repetitive work on a moving production line. On the production line one can at least talk to one’s neighbours. Much of the work required in the age of information technology is mentally but not physically fatiguing – and above all, lonely.

Industrial psychologists thus have a complex set of problems to address in the postmanufacturing age. Will it be necessary to maintain the factory and the office, not as a functional necessity – all communication can if necessary be carried out without physical contact, via the telephone and the closed-circuit TV – but as a psychological requirement, to cater (satisfy) for the human need for contact with one’s fellow beings?

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