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


On the answer to this psychological question will also depend much of the future of important sectors of the service economy such as retailing, catering and the theatre. With the development of viewdata it will be possible, if we wish, to do virtually all our shopping by telephone, without actually having to go shopping at all. In this case the shop could simply become a warehouse with a delivery service. Equally, with home video equipment and with the enhanced cooking facilities which development of domestic computers will bring, one will be able to have all one’s entertainment and all one’s meals at home without any fuss, if one so wishes.

Will we so wish it? One can easily envisage a future in which those above a certain threshold of affluence become increasingly self-sufficient hermits (a person living in solitude), earning their living in conducting their lives without having to leave their electronically protected houses-cum-offices. It is a technologically possible future, but not exactly an inspiring one. It would also of course have catastrophic effects on employment in service sector such as retailing.

That is one risk arising from the technological possibilities opening up in postmanufacturing society – a psychologically debilitating (weak and infirm (not mentally strong)) retreat into affluent introversion. But it is not, in my view, the biggest risk. Much more serious potentially is the danger implied by the phrase used in the last paragraph, “those above a certain threshold of affluence”. It is plain that, over the whole of Western Europe, an increasing proportion of the working class is acquiring middle class standards and middle class life styles. Despite the fluctuations of the business cycle, average real living standards are rising slowly and inexorably, so that by the end of the century the kind of average living standard now found in Scandinavia will be general over the whole of Western Europe, while the scandinavians and other trend-setters will have moved much higher.

But these standards will not apply to everybody. In all Western countries there will probably be a substantial minority who, for one reason or another, cannot find a place in the post-manufacturing economy. As the real cost of labour rises, more and more of the least skilled jobs become uneconomic; they either become automated, or they cease to be done at all. As the amount of captial per worker increases, the cost of employing unequalified workers – who cannot operate, or who might actually damage, the very complex and expensive machinery at their disposal – becomes prohibitive.

So one very disagreeable feature of post-manufacturing society could well be the existence of a sub-class of excluded men and women, more or less permanently unemployed. Being a minority these people would not command the political muscle which the industrial working class has enjoyed in post-war Europe. A declining trade union movement is unlikely to give them the support which their counterparts have tended to enjoy hitherto. The risk that they would become permanently disaffected, a focus of increasing crime and violence, is a real one.

This is perhaps the biggest danger for the West from the present recession. If substantial unemployment among the present under 25s persists for several years -and all the signs are that it will – we may find a whole generation of our young people have lost, or never had the chance to acquire, the habit of regular work. The sub-class of unemployables could in these circumstances become an alarming large one, such as would pose major problems of absorption and containment for society. Other factors also make the prospect still more dangerous. All large Wetern countries now contain substantial minorities of immigrants who are not fully integrated into the community, who tend to have high rates of unemployment and access usually only to the least attractive jobs. These people are likely to form the hard core of a depressed sub-class increasingly at odds with the rest of society. Moreover, as the pattern of income distribution starts to move from a pyramidal to a diamond-shaped structure -as is now happening generally in the West – the political pressure for equalisation is starting to diminish, and income and wealth differentials are widening. In the areas of advanced technology workers with the appropriate skills placed to secure high wage differentials. Thus the natural inequalities within society could widen dangerously.

The withdrawal of the State, and the retreat from the principle of the comprehensive welfare state, pose further problems. Previously the State has provided employment for many of the least skilled. It has also of course supplemented the incomes of the poor, and provided them with services they could not buy on the market. It has been on the whole a rather inefficient provider of these services, but if it withdraws from them it is not clear that anybody else will provide them. Deprivation may be more limited than in the past, but it may equally be more acute for those it affects.

At the same time, the increasing internationalisation of business will make it very difficult for any individual country to pursue policies of income distribution, or social justice, which are markedly at variance with its neighbours. Business will tend to migrate to those countries where it has to shoulder the fewest social burdens – other things equal – and as technology advances it will become progressively easier so to do.

Thus there are a number of factors which, unchecked, will tend to make a post-manufacturing society more socially unequal, and therefore more divisive, than hitherto. We cannot therefore afford to be complacent. As already indicated, there are no firm bases for projecting how large a proportion of the population in the long term the sub-class of the excluded will comprise. But that it will exist is virtually certain, and we cannot afford to ignore it.

We have to tackle the matter now, before unemployment becomes too deeply embedded in our culture. I believe, therefore, that we should now be looking very seriously at such issues as:

1. Can local communities take up the slack ( characterized by a lack of work or ) left by the retreat of the State, to see that vacuum of socially needed work and the employment needs of the local jobless are filled?
2. In order to do this, and to inculcate the habit of work among the young, should we be considering schemes for compulsory community service and work experience for young people – a form of non-military national service?
3. Should we not be examining with greater urgency than we are the case for easing the present link between contribution and reward, in other words between work and income (deeply embedded as it is in the Protestant work ethic), so that income is more closely related to need, via such schemes as negative income tax, which the increasing sophistication of computers now makes more possible than ever before?

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