Friday, December 31, 2010

The decline of work

Our civilization is facing one of its most acute crises as it has financial, economic, social and moral implications.  Beyond the financial meltdown, work is at the heart of the decline of western values. Middle class has impoverished over the last two decades; part of the young generation do not even know what work is. But the decline of work is not only expressed in economic terms, it has above all a moral and social aspect.

What is happening in our western world? In past 25 years, globalization has opened up the boundaries in which national states could intervene to regulate the economic activity. Now, the most negative feature is that it creates a downward pressure on wages: a billion and a half workers in developing countries with low wages and almost no rights are competing with half a billion of workers better paid and socially protected. In western countries, there has been an overall reduction of the workforce, in particular blue collars and middle class employees which guaranteed average incomes to buy goods and services produced for them and these jobs are now being destroyed; conversely, lower paid jobs with hardly any social protection have expanded in all sectors. The consequence is that the share of annual output to workers was reduced and the one which went to capitalists increased dramatically. We have a direct experience of this structural change: entire categories of workers had their (real) incomes gradually reduced and their social status as well, whilst we are surrounded by highly qualified people who accept to work with low remunerations and low protection. This is what impoverishment of work actually means.

Technological change affects work in many ways. It reduces, first of all, the number of workers needed to produce he goods and services needed by the global population. It also changes work organization, allowing people to work more autonomously and to relate with others much faster. But all these changes do not mean necessarily the 'end of work' (J.Rifkin), nor a negative impact on human beings ('labor' in Latin means suffering!). Productivity and autonomy can be reconciled with more jobs created elsewhere and better quality of life.   

As explained by classical economists, the economic value of work and its social value are indissociable. Between the 50s and the 80s, it was a sort of 'golden age':  industrialized economies grew steadily and workers could get more income and social rights. Work was the only means to realize people's aspirations for better living, come into their own in society and create a better future for them and their children. Then  started a slow but steady decline. If work loses economic value, it also becomes less relevant in social, cultural and political terms giving rise to an individualistic and fragmented vision of society.  This was the project which was inherent to neo-liberalism which pervaded western societies in the 80s and 90s. 

Yet, this is not what young generations want. Overwhelmingly, they desire a job to be independent, start a family life, build or buy a house, all things which were possible for their parents. But what social research tells us is that, most of them  don't have realistic expectations that this may happen one day. 

We must give value to work as it is the foundation of any society as laid down in many Constitutions of democratic countries. It is not just a matter of industrial relations and the role of trade-unions. It is a more fundamental issue as it has profound societal implications. The challenge for the next millennium is to create better jobs, with higher intrinsic value and to train people being able to make them. If work gets an increasing economic force, it may drag all the rest of the economy while ensuring a more balanced society, a stronger democracy and a more sustainable economy. The decline of work values has conversely increased inequalities and made democracy more fragile and vulnerable to any form of extremism. Restoring the value of work is the only antidote to the decline and perhaps the fall of our western societies.   

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