Why is it easier to imagine infants today working until they are 100 years old in a fast-food restaurant than envisage them enjoying a world with less employment due to advances in technology? And why does the Uberisation of the workforce seem so inevitable that experts simply tell schools to educate children about its principles — enforced precarity, low wages, excruciatingly long hours — since this is the future, no matter what?
One of the great achievements of what some call “capitalist realism” is to give economic rationalisation an air of inevitability; all of a sudden, policy decisions made by fallible and politically motivated individuals and groups seem predetermined and unquestionable. For one cannot hold back the tide of progress.
A good example of this ideology of inevitability appeared recently when futurologist Rohit Talwar made some strange predictions about how future generations will make a living. He foresees that our children today will have a much longer life expectancy, and therefore work way beyond the current retirement age of 65. Much longer it turns out: Some will still be commuting to the office when we are a sprightly 100 years old.
Talwar also predicts the disappearance of many occupations we take for granted. Labour-saving technologies are rapidly replacing jobs we mistakenly assumed could never be automated, including journalism and education. This will mean our children will have to adapt. They almost certainly won’t have a permanent and secure occupation, but instead jump from one odd job to another, “gigging” between roles to make ends meet.
According to Talwar: “You might be driving Uber part of the day, renting out your spare bedroom on Airbnb a little bit, renting out space in your closet as storage for Amazon ... There are all these sort of new sharing economy models coming through.” No doubt this version of the sharing economy is one to which even George Osborne would subscribe. For what Talwar is really predicting is simply an extension of present trends around labour degradation that are fundamental to neoliberal orthodoxy.
For example, zero-hours contracts follow the Uberisation model, meaning that employment is insecure and biased towards the economic interests of employers. Moreover, quietly shifting people from the category of “unemployed” to the status of “self-employed” has resulted in the proletarianisation of a whole generation. According to some studies, those now categorised as self-employed have experienced a 22 per cent drop in wages since 2009 .
And then there is the trend of having to work in old age. Those working past the normal age of retirement doubled in number between 1993 and 2012 . And no, the reason is not because they have finally discovered the joys of work late in life but because a pension alone is not enough to survive on. None of this is inevitable or the natural order of things. These nasty developments are the result of human decisions and can thus be just as easily reversed.
This is why I find predictions about the future of employment, like those of Talwar, so problematic. What is in fact a projection of partisan political ambitions on to an otherwise open future — and on to those less able to defend themselves from such projections, our children — ought to be stridently challenged.
For example, the potential role of technology for liberating us from the institution of work has been debated for some time. Writing in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that life in Britain would one day be truly work-free — in a good way. Exponential automation and rising living standards would mean that in the distant future of 2015, its lucky space-age inhabitants would look upon past generations forced to endure “a job” and the “work week” with profound sadness. It now seems Keynes was probably wise to limit his foray into futurology and stick to his day job.
However, we do seem to be at a crossroads in this respect. Either technology will continue to be used to enforce the current work-centric society, consigning our children (and their children) to a growing mass of “disposable people” with no economic or social role, or it will be directed by an alternative version of society. One that frees up time rather than soaking it up by pointlessly sitting in the job centre waiting room or painfully eking out a living through a “portfolio career”. We are swiftly realising that work is no longer about organic survival — as if sending emails all day at the office is akin to hunting and gathering — but a cultural invention that is not set in stone.
So let us try a bit of futurology ourselves. In 2040, after the neoliberal economic paradigm became so unworkable that it imploded under its own weight, the question of what an economy should actually exist for was broached for the first time in decades. What are the wider human needs it should serve? And what about work itself? To what collective ends should our jobs strive to achieve?
These questions seemed so alien that it took time to agree upon an answer. But it seemed clear that the immense advances in technology would take care of much labour. Furthermore, many jobs considered vital in the old neoliberal paradigm would disappear, since society no longer needed them. Soon more democratic and socially meaningful institutions developed and decentring work was the only game in town. Work was put in its rightful place, so that a whole series of new and productive activities flourished.
And for those looking back to 2015, it would be clear that history was a nightmare from which we were trying to awake.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd