What is it going to look like when we eventually reach the stage where only two in five citizens actually have a liveable wage? What is to become of work itself – its meaning, contribution, benefit for the charitable sector, and its link to the value of citizenship? How will those who no longer work acquire any dignity or status within a modern society? If labour is always linked to capitalist production, what happens when it’s not? What if nothing is really required from most of us in a world of globalization?
We can’t seriously discuss such questions right now in either the political or economic spectrums because … well, it’s just too disruptive to consider. There will be plateaus along the way that will hold up this inevitable process for a time, but new transformations are coming.
We have seen this before, during the Industrial Revolution, when the introduction of mechanization resulted in the huge dislocation of the former agrarian society. While the technology produced a vast array of new products, there was a time when the hordes who were put out of work threatened to destroy, by their collective weight, any progress that had been made.
We are heading for such a time where don’t really know the end from the beginning. If work is associated with worth, self-esteem, community respect, capacity, citizenship, and provision for family, what occurs when it is delinked from production because such values aren’t really what private enterprise is aiming for – namely the bottom line? The irony of possessing “lifetime employability” while remaining “lifetime unemployed” is just too bitter to consider.
It all comes down to this. In an age in which more wealth is being generated than at any other time in human history, it is increasingly being accumulated without the assistance of workers. And what does depend on labour is increasingly driving down worker standards and wages in order to make a profit and satisfy shareholders. To many this makes sense and to others it is lunacy, but the reality is that it is the future. The statistics contrasting the ever-increasing corporate holdings continuing to climb while workers’ share moves progressively downward are everywhere, and yet policy makers, many economists, and capitalist leaders alike continue to direct us down the same avenues that resulted in this complex intransigence.
It’s not as though there aren’t some nagging doubts in the back of the minds of capitalist leaders about what will happen when workers, kept on the cheap, or not at all, don’t have the resources to purchase the products or make the investments. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who noted that if his own workers didn’t make enough money to buy the very cars they were making then his vast company would fail? But that was the old capitalism, celebrating its infancy in mass production. Under the new regime, it isn’t exactly clear what the future will hold if significant sections of the population are either unemployed or underemployed. No matter; as long as profits remain high, corporate leaders will continue to roll the dice, hoping to postpone the day of reckoning. It’s one thing to require fewer workers than customers, but what does it mean when your customers were once former workers and no longer have the resources to purchase products? It’s a troubling omen.
It’s hard to believe that it was almost 15 years ago that former American Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan observed,
It is one thing to believe that the economy, indeed the job market, will do well overall, but quite another to feel secure about one’s individual situation, given the accelerated pace of corporate restructuring and the heightened fear of skill obsolescence that has apparently characterized this expansion.”
What must workers think now, not even two decades later, with employment far more fragile and the future of work looking ever more bleak? There will be a thousand adjustments made until the cliff is reached – shorter work weeks, job-sharing, early retirements. When modern civilization reaches the point where work has been stripped of so much of its meaning and value and where those employed make scarcely enough to afford the necessities, not so much the luxuries, the restructuring required will be significant, even historic, and we will look back on our present circumstances, wondering how, in the greed for profits, we had remained so intransigent. If nervousness truly is a sign of being ill-prepared, then our modern generation is in for a stressful ride.