The changing nature of work

One of the most interesting issues to arise in the course of the "comment-athon" on my post "The Golden Calf" was the suggestion that the link between money and work is broken, and indeed that there is no longer a reliable link between "earning" and working. This is a logical consequence of two things: firstly, increased automation of production means the number of people needed to produce enough goods to meet people's basic needs is declining; secondly, an increasing number of people do considerable amounts of pro bono" work that is directly beneficial to society. The converse to this latter point is that there also seems to be a broken link between remuneration for work and the benefit of that work to society as a whole: there are people who are rewarded very handsomely for work that benefits few people (mostly people like themselves), and there are  other people who are paid very little or even nothing at all for work that benefits far more people.

Of course, there has always been pro bono work. Women have always worked unpaid in the home: their work is not counted in measures of GDP, but in high-profile divorce cases the financial value of a woman's unpaid work supporting her extremely wealthy husband has led to some exceedingly high settlements. It is of course possible to value the housework and childcare done by most women without pay, because there are thriving industries in domestic help and childminding: the "opportunity cost" for a woman who chooses to do the work herself rather than employ others, and therefore foregoes paid work, is of course the difference between the income from paid work and the cost of employing others to look after the kids and keep the house clean. Where a woman has a lot of children, that difference can be so small (or even negative) that it is simply not worth her while doing paid work.

Middle-class women have also traditionally worked unpaid outside the home, as well, as have retired gentlemen. Charities rely on middle-aged, middle-class women to staff their shops, do fundraising and take on voluntary public service roles such as delivering meals on wheels. And the charitable jobs that both women and men do can be much more senior, too. For many years, my mother worked full-time for expenses only, running a day centre for the elderly: after she retired in 1998 at the age of 68, her replacement was paid £25,000 per annum (it is probably more now).

We also know that many middle-aged women have their paid work curtailed by the need to care for elderly relatives. Again, the opportunity cost for the woman is the difference between the amount it would cost her to pay someone to look after her dependents, versus the loss to her of giving up or reducing paid work. But the benefit to society is enormous: elderly care is one of our biggest and growing costs, and the extent to which the middle-aged (mainly women) take on this care themselves at considerable personal cost does reduce the burden on taxpayers. Not all frail elderly have property that can be used to fund their care.

Some men, too, have worked for nothing, though this tends to be in their spare time in addition to their full-time jobs. Traditionally, local politics has been an unpaid spare-time activity for men: both my father and my eldest brother have spent much of their lives working in their spare time for nothing as local councillors.

I am therefore very wary of measuring people's "value" in terms of their financial contribution to society. What is the "value" of a woman like my mother, who brings up four children and runs a day centre for nothing? What is the "value" of a woman who juggles poorly-paid part-time work with caring for children and elderly relatives? In terms of their measured contribution, it is very little. But their value to society, in terms of the improvements they bring to people's lives, is surely enormous - and their financial value, in terms of the cost that society WOULD have had to bear if these women had not sacrificed payment for caring, is also enormous. So benefits systems that are designed around financial contribution are therefore in my view fundamentally flawed, since they take no account of the enormous social AND FINANCIAL value of the unpaid work done mostly, though not exclusively, by women.

Furthermore, defining people's value in terms of their usefulness is a narrowly utilitarian view which denies their essential humanity: as Orwell noted in "Animal Farm", down that road lies the knacker's yard for those who are not "useful". Admittedly, the transformation in work practices that I expect to see in the next few years should make it possible for people who are now excluded from the workplace to work productively: home working, networking and internet-based commerce are all ways in which people who can't travel and sit in an office can nevertheless work, especially if employers start to become more flexible with regard to working hours. But there will still be some who cannot work: are we going to regard them as of no value? Surely not. We will love them and care for them because of who they are, not what they can do. And we will bear the cost of their care.

People's "value" as human beings is not dependent on their ability to do paid or even unpaid work. Which is fortunate, because I think we are seeing a fundamental change in the nature of work, arising from my first observation - that increasing automation means that in the future, very few people will be needed to produce the goods required to meet people's basic needs.

Automation only happens when machines are cheaper to run than people, and it is probably fair to say that in the last few decades automation has not happened quite as fast as one might have anticipated because companies have discovered that labour in emerging markets is cheaper than the cost of investing in machinery. But as the standard of living rises in emerging markets, and the cost of technology falls, that will not remain the case. Hazlitt, writing in 1952, pointed out that it was automation of production that enabled families to survive without children's labour, because the price of goods produced with the new machinery was so much lower than those produced in a more labour-intensive way. In the short term automation caused hardship, as people whose livelihoods depended on the old way of doing things lost their jobs: but in the longer term there was benefit to society in the reduced cost of goods that enabled many people to work less, and in the development of new industries to employ those people no longer needed in the old ones. The change we are seeing today is every bit as great, and the short-term consequences are the same - high unemployment, particularly among those with poor or irrelevant skills.

Automation should both require fewer people to work AND enable people to work less, since the whole point of automation is to reduce the cost of production, which in a competitive system would result in falling prices. Unfortunately this isn't always the case: the owners of automated industry may use reduced production cost as an opportunity to take more profit, and they may use political influence to create barriers to entry and trade tariffs to prevent competition driving down prices. But assuming that governments don't use subsidies and protections to keep inefficient companies alive and prices artificially high, where does that leave us in terms of employment and incomes in the future?

If most production is fully automated, there will be few production job opportunities. Izabella Kaminska assumed that most goods will be free, so people won't actually need paid work in order to live. I don't think I would go quite that far - production that is in private hands will always seek to make a profit, so goods will never be completely free to the end-customer even if production costs nothing. But it may be possible in the future to live quite well on very little money. Even now, discounting, smart couponing, reward schemes, special offers, product substitution, permanent sales and price comparison websites mean that it is rarely necessary to pay the advertised price for anything. The consumer price index is no longer a reliable guide to the real price levels in the shops, since it doesn't take account of measures retailers use to move goods that are not selling well at their advertised price, which these days is most of them. We have not just a glut of food, but a glut of consumer goods generally, and unless producers are artificially supported in some way, a glut always means rock-bottom prices for the consumer.

So if there will be few jobs in production in the future, and most people's basic needs can be met for very little anyway, what will people do instead? Firstly, it won't be nothing. People don't stop working when their basic needs are met: they move on into other forms of work that they find personally fulfilling (Maslow) and that bring benefit to society as a whole. The pro bono work done by my parents - arguably their life's work - was possible because my father's full-time job earned him sufficient to meet his family's needs. Would he have stopped doing that "social" work if he had only needed to work part-time to meet his family's needs? Hardly. He would have done more of it. Admittedly that work was unpaid, but there are many other types of non-production work that is or could be paid, which would encourage people who don't share my parents' commitment to public service to do socially useful things from which they benefit personally.

I fundamentally disagree with those who think that people must be "forced" to work, or that government should "guarantee" a job. In my view breaking the link between paid work and survival would be a good thing. If people are intrinsically of value, then they have the right to survive with or without working. I therefore think we should guarantee basic income, rather than jobs. Or, to put it another way (and root this argument firmly in human rights), we should guarantee people's unconditional right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness": after all, people who are forced do physically debilitating and mentally unstimulating jobs in order to survive are effectively denied the second and third of these rights.   If people don't have to work to survive, most will find or create work that fulfils themselves and benefits others, and we will all be the richer for it. There will be some who will opt to do nothing, but in my view they will be a small minority and we will be rich enough - and I hope generous enough - to tolerate their laziness.

I think we are already seeing the future of work - and it is women who have seized the opportunity and are already well established in the new types of work. You see, women understand that the most precious resource we have is TIME. Giving someone your undivided attention for an hour is an incredibly valuable gift. Combining that with a skill in some form of "grooming" - hairdressing, manicure, massage and the like - enables you to charge for what essentially is a social bonding activity. The same is true of the various "personal development" industries - counselling, personal training, personal shopping, image consultancy - and of course the caring industries. Even the retail industry is becoming personalised, with internet sales of personalised products personally delivered by local people. In my own work, individual and small-group tuition, I am seeing a growing number of adults who want singing lessons as part of their "me time", and I am sure other tutors in a variety of subjects would say the same.

The obvious criticism from male readers of this blog will be, of course, that this "personal" work is mainly sold by women to other women. But actually men have always been prepared to pay for women's time and skills. The "oldest profession", at its higher levels, recognises that what is being sold is not sex but time and attention. At the most basic level, the smackhead streetwalker prices what she offers in terms of acts - hand job, blow job, full sex etc.  But in the rarefied world of the "escort" business, the price is time. Wealthy men buy the time of a high-status woman: what he does with that time may include sex, but it doesn't have to - and in some versions of the industry, sex is actively discouraged because it cheapens the offering. Courtesans down the centuries have charged men a lot of money for their time and their skills - by which I don't just mean their sexual skills: geishas, for example, have to be highly accomplished in music, dance and other artistic enterprises. The middle-class marriage market in Jane Austen's time understood this, too: women were expected to be beautiful and highly accomplished in order to attract a suitable husband. Money helped, but it actually wasn't as important, as Austen noted in her biting satire Pride & Prejudice. In our society the same still holds, and in fact because of our "camera age" it is even more the case now that a woman who is physically beautiful is a high-status woman. Even accomplishment seems less important these days than beauty, as Robert Silverman noted in his critique of Katherine Jenkins, who he (and I) regard as at best a mediocre singer whose looks have made her famous. And money - well, that inevitably arrives anyway.

Now, I am certainly not suggesting that the future of work lies in prostitution, even disguised forms of it. But I am suggesting that the future of work for most people lies in personal services. And an increasing number of men now offer these too.  The counselling industry is still dominated by women, but in the related world of psychotherapy there are a much greater number of men (probably because most of the theory underpinning this has been developed by men). Personal shoppers are almost all women, but a high proportion of personal trainers are men. Personal image consultancy is dominated by women, but motivational training is dominated by men such as Anthony Robbins. Massage is almost entirely women's work, but in physiotherapy, osteopathy, chiropractic and Alexander Technique the balance is much more even. And increasingly, we pay others - still more women than men, though that is gradually changing - to care for those who can't care for themselves. In so doing we recognise the value to society of both the carers and those cared for. Those who bewail the loss of our industrial base, sniff at service industries and think that only "making stuff" is proper work, are living in the past: the future of work lies in social activity and caring for people, not "making stuff" that we can produce for nearly nothing with little human involvement.

Personally I regard this as an exciting time. For the first time in history, people have the real prospect of no longer having to work long hours in boring, repetitive and physically debilitating jobs to meet basic needs. We will have more time to spend interacting with each other, caring for each other and - like all apes - "grooming" each other, and creating beautiful things and clever ideas to brighten up people's lives. And since the prices of basic goods will be very low, we will be both willing and able to pay those with skills in personal service and creative industries for their time and attention. And perhaps then people's remuneration will relate to their enhancement of the lives of many people, not their ability to make profits for a few.

Related posts:

Beyond Scarcity - FT Alphaville (series)
The Gospel of Consumption - Kaplan @ Orion Magazine (h/t Jon Stone)
Marx was right (about Napster) - Stone @ RedRock


  1. Agreed. 'Respect for Humanity' should mean that our systems and processes serve US, not the other way around. During my tenure at Toyota there were lots of examples where processes reductions led to manpower surplus and this surplus was then turned into additional Kaizen force.
    Very powerful mechanism to drive further change yet something that seems very counterintuitive to North American business.lean manufacturing training

  2. paulgriffithsuk6 August 2012 at 13:41

    "Those who bewail the loss of our industrial base, sniff at service industries and think that only "making stuff" is proper work, are living in the past"

    Perhaps I'm taking this out of context and extrapolating a bit far but the implication is that we can have an economy where we all sell aromatherapy oils and massages to each other. However this would seem to completely overlooks all the externalities of the British economy. Surely we need trade to pay out way in the world (e.g. get access to the raw materials, technology and energy we need to maintain our living standards).

    Globally you find that service jobs in the third world (where there are a lack of other jobs and limited high value trade) pay barely get people above the poverty line. In the UK people can earn good money providing services to the local economy - particularly by providing services to wealthy people in the South East of England. however even in the UK its very questionable even now how much this applies to the whole of the UK. I fear without a emphasis on infrastructure projects and supporting exporter businesses, a policy focused on small businesses and encouraging the service industry would simply be the road to serfdom.

    Fundamentally its good that people have skills and are entrepreneurial but (as far as I can tell) the wealth of such people is VERY dependent on having government that maintains the national infrastructure and corporations able to sell goods and services internationally.

    1. Maintaining national infrastructure is essential and I am implicitly assuming that government continues to do that. And obviously that will employ people, although again I think technological improvements will mean that far fewer people will be needed in the future.

      Why do you think that a depopulated, automated manufacturing sector means no international trade? I didn't assume that. On the contrary, automation and depopulation should make it possible for us to compete on better terms with countries with lower unit labour costs, because our costs of production will be far lower: high levels of automation in Germany are a key driver of its export-led economy. So we may actually find that our export position improves. But there won't be nearly so many people employed in manufacturing.

      I used "personal services" in its broadest sense. You obviously missed my comments about adult education, and about personalisation in the retail sector - including artisan crafts.

      What is your emotional objection to "work" meaning, for most people, small business and service?

    2. Oh, and I work in a "service" industry. My clients are not wealthy people - by and large they are people of average income. Person-to-person services are certainly not exclusively sold to rich people in the South East of England.

    3. paulgriffithsuk6 August 2012 at 15:29

      Possibly I misread your blog. I guess the key thing is the distinction between manufacturing as a key driver of economic activity and manufacturing as a major employer.

      Obviously automation will lead to a decline in people directly employed in manufacturing and the increase in service jobs is obviously no bad thing.

      However this is not the same as ignoring our industrial base which remains vital to our national economy and is the reason why people in the service industry can enjoy a (globally) high standard of living [closer to that of German service workers than their equivalents in Tanzania!]

    4. No, I'm certainly not arguing that the industrial base is unimportant. Quite the opposite, actually - the "service" world that I envisage is only possible if it is built upon a sound, though highly automated, production sector. That's why I didn't agree with Izabella about free goods - I don't think that's either achievable (with production in private hands) or desirable.

  3. A very interesting and perceptive piece, Frances. As someone with a 'portfolio' career, I'm well aware that some of what I do - lecturing - is well paid - other work often unpaid. You've nailed it - the link is broken between work and pay. There is still a lag until everyone realises that. I like your solution too!

  4. I'm not sure there is, or was ever, a link between work and pay. Or bonuses. Or pensions. Or share option schemes.

    How do we pay for our imports of food, consumer goods, energy, and transport equipment?

    1. Excellent post. The link between work and money is becoming ever more tenuous, and the sooner we stop with all this S&M between the left and right over inculcating a 'work ethic' the better. The question is not 'how many people are going to use a guaranteed minimum income to skive?' but 'how many people are currently doing things which are hugely useful to everyone without any income from it?'

      Guaranteed jobs are just a recipe for government corruption, mis-allocation of resources and other less serious cock-ups. One need look no further than the shameful treatment of people who genuinely want help into paid work in the form of re-training or up-dating, who these days run a treadmill of incessant CV tweaking or irrelevant 'work experience' which amounts to a subsidy to whichever business takes them on. And that's to say nothing of the various form-fiddling scandals by the private providers of these schemes. Who's really skiving? Don't get me started...

      Having been here during the 1980s, even while Thatcher was driving a huge wedge between the employed and unemployed with Right to Buy and the attack on the unions, there was a far less interventionist regime for people on the dole. I saw a lot of people use that time both to support each other and to create new businesses and even whole new occupations.

      In many ways the UK is still living off the great burst of creativity during the 1960s-early 1990s - the era of high taxes and a relatively easy dole regime, as evidenced by Danny Boyle's olympic opening. Which by the way, to me seemed like nothing so much as a requiem for traditional notions of "work".

      The Liberal Party was proposing a citizen's income back in 1978 - whatever happened to that?

  5. "The "oldest profession", at its higher levels, recognises that what is being sold is not sex but time and attention."

    Maybe I can lower the tone a little, but what is actually being sold is that the woman goes away after sex (I think it was Tim Worstall who pointed this out originally).

    1. Exactly, tho Tim Worstall was only repeating what is well understood by prostitutes themselves. That was the one weak point in the post. Men basically pay not to have any complications, whatever the 'level' of the sex trade. But this is quibbling, really, over a detail and not addressing the fundamental point.

    2. Hmm. It's really just a question of how much of her time he is buying. With prostitution it's an hour or so. With marriage in Jane Austen's time it was a lifetime. But the offering was basically the same.

    3. That's one way to look at it - it's true the punter is buying both the time and the right to walk away. But really the higher the payscale, the higher the pretended buy-in on both sides. Check out 'True Girlfriend Experience' sometime.

  6. Frances - Sorry for delay. You really must read 'Inequaliy, the Third World and economic delusion' by the late Lord Bauer. Chapter 1 'The grail of equality' makes the point that people able to, for example, repair their own cars (harder now-the chapter was written in 1980) are misrepresented in conventional income comparisons, as the value of the goods they can provide themselves goes totally unnoticed? The one worry I have is possibly fom reading too much science fiction, and based on a proverb:

    'The devil finds work for idle hands'

    In the fictional world of many a dystopian vision (I use as an example 2000AD by John Wagner) automation has replaced most jobs and unemployment is over 90%, with tongue in cheek remarks like companies organising trips to Alien worlds for people to work as serfs which are heavily oversubscribed, and crime rampant to the extent that the 'police force' are empowered to act as judge,jury and executioner.

    In the real world, we can see what the decline of certain industries that were crucial to communities such as mining and steel, caused , when lost, massive dislocation and social disruption - I agree that you recognise the positive aspects of this trend, especially from women's perspectives, but it would be remiss not to point out the downsides

    1. One of the major concerns I have is the unwillingness of many men to embrace what they consider "women's work". There is no logical or biological reason why service-based work should be principally done by women, or why "men's work" should involve "making stuff" - or, in the past, "growing stuff" or, even earlier, "hunting stuff". It is simply that cultural values and traditions make it hard for people to adapt: men are understandably protective about their traditional work, and women are equally protective about what they see as suitable work for "real men". But there is real danger that these attitudes will force redefinition of the family roles of men and women. In a world in which many men are both unskilled in the types of work available and unwilling to do that work anyway, the burden of providing for families increasingly falls on women, the responsiblity for caring for children falls to professional providers and men are in danger of becoming superfluous. I think we are already seeing this trend and it is not one I like.

  7. We are already well advanced towards the post-scarcity world. As you note, the real "commodity" is time not labour. If productivity gains had been remitted in time over the last 60 years, we'd now be working a 15-hour week (as envisaged by Keynes). Instead, time has been hoarded by the creation of supernumerary roles and by the manner of technology deployment.

    Blue-collar roles have disappeared through automation while white-collar roles have expanded. This is sold as "higher skill", and "moving up the food chain", but the reality is that many of these roles are just middle-class job creation, e.g. roles in marketing, HR, training, accountancy etc. Even apparently skilled disciplines such as IT are largely populated by skill-lite roles such as project managers, business analysts and generalist managers.

    The growth in business regulation management (i.e. "red tape") is presented as a state (or EU) burden, but most of it is self-imposed. There's no law that says you need a corporate social responsibility manager, or that you should employ the MD's daughter to tweet marketing messages all day. The impact of H&S is negligible when compared to the impact of marketing (which at an aggregate level is a zero-sum game and thus adds nothing to GDP - NB: that's marketing, not sales).

    China is already importing German robot technology to automate its production lines as rising wages erode their labour cost edge. Offshoring in turn to Vietnam will not be enough. Equally, the Chinese investment in education (look at the number of their students in UK universities) means they will soon be taking those design, technology and high-end service roles that we comforted ourselves we'd keep as manual jobs disappeared.

    The last 30 years of technology can be read as an unequal fight over declining time. Technology has driven the substitution of manual and low-skill roles, but it has also given rise to activities that have offset the potential substitution of white-collar roles. Thus emails are more effective than paper memos, but this has led to everyone writing more with no overall reduction in labour time. The added speed of research that the Web has brought has been offset by time spent on "capricious browsing". The clamour for social media's use within business has long looked like a solution in search of a problem.

    Portfolio careers, flexible working, job-shares and the like are middle-class privileges, along with the use of personal service companies to avoid tax (much more widespread than the media allow), and can be seen as the emerging symptoms of a demand for a reduction in the working week. The problem is that such a benefit cannot be made available to the unemployed or the under-employed. The case for a guaranteed basic income is obvious, in part because this would allow a fairer re-division of work.

    1. I'm amazed you think project managers and business analysts are "skill-lite". I was a project manager and business analyst for a long time and believe me you have to have skills. More projects fail due to poor project management and inadequate business analysis than anything else. I know banking as well as I do because of my work as a business analyst. In order to define systems requirements you have to understand the business better than those actually doing it.

  8. Ms. Coppola:

    In terms of the discussion of what the future holds, I would recommend Peter Frase's "Four Futures" feature in Jacobin magazine:

    I would agree with your prediction that we are moving towards a general glut, but the political and legal structures defining the ownership of these means of production will greatly influence whether the majority of people in the future will actually be able to access these good.

  9. I agree that the future should be one of greater leisure in the sense of less or no time spent on money making. It follows from economic theory and has been a theme of left wing /anarchist radical politics since Godwin in 1793.

    But in the actual political system all the policy of states is towards forcing everyone to work and cutting welfare benefits and public services. Governments are stuck in a capitalist mind set where the victorian work house is a good idea as private profit is king and work for pay has some mythical moral function unconnected from productivity. The main utility of technology for human freedom lies in greater leisure but I am sceptical that without a transformation in philosophical world view and some socialist revolution that the old mind set of victorian values will keep everyone working at useless occupation.

    1. I wasn't suggesting greater leisure, actually, or less time making money, necessarily. I was suggesting less time spent on meeting basic survival needs, leaving more time for more rewarding forms of work. In parallel with this, I also think there are changing patterns of work - from unskilled jobs aimed at making "stuff" towards skilled jobs aimed at benefiting society in a multitude of ways but especially helping others.

      If we are to move towards a more highly-skilled work paradigm, the growing tendency of young people to delay entry to the workforce in order to gain skills and qualifications may be a good thing, even though it is currently forced to some extent by unemployment. At the other end, the need for skills and experience (and less need for physical fitness) should encourage companies to retain older experienced staff, rather than laying them off to make way for younger inexperienced people. Perhaps we will start to see the return of true apprenticeship - older, experienced people training their eventual replacements.

  10. Spending huge amounts of time accumulating goods hardly seems to square with your assertion about the moral value of human beings being unconnected to market valuation of their activity. The growing productivity of an advanced economy opens up the possibility of changing our priorities away from wealth accumulation towards human values.

    1. I haven't suggested spending huge amounts of time accumulating goods. Quite the opposite, actually - as readers of my other posts will know, I'm certainly not a fan of hoarding! But I acknowledge that many people DO want to accumulate wealth, and the changing work paradigm won't necessarily prevent them from doing this. On the contrary, it may make it easier if most goods can be produced for virtually nothing so don't cost very much.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. If you are aware of the Alexander Technique then you may find the Feldenkrais Method even more widely useful.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

WASPI Campaign's legal action is morally wrong


What really happened to Signature Bank NY?