“Which of us … is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest –
and for what pay?
Who is to do the pleasant and clean work,
And for what pay”?
John Ruskin from Sesame and Lilies.
There are a variety of answers to the question why work. The answers vary with one’s place in the life cycle; with one’s need for an income; with an existing commitment to an occupation; with one’s desire to become wealthy, and so on. In a sense, avoiding work is not an option if unpaid domestic work is included. Even if one employs servants, there is the need to expend some energy in getting out of bed and managing the servants. This raises deeper questions as to how work should be defined. Is it simply the expenditure of some effort, or must there be some pay as well? Unpaid domestic labour can be lonely and boring; although some recent research has questioned this. It was found that 61% of the sample of 6 British towns found being at home very satisfying (Bonney & Reinach:621, 1993). It has even been suggested that it can almost be seen as a form of play, or that
“house work expands to fill the time available”.
(Hakim, 22:1996) .
However, I have argued that some paid work has an element of play in it as well. Perhaps paid work also has more conviviality than domestic labour; although in domestic work there may be some collective or shared shopping. All this seems to suggest that being paid, or not, does not settle the issue of defining work.
There is a general expectation that most men and women will be in some form of paid work. The shame of unemployment, with local gossip about men spending the whole day in the house, was something to be escaped from. Seeking paid work in this situation is more than a search for pay, it is seeking to conform to the expectations of others, and so avoid the gossip. The evidence that most men and women, and very much including young people, want paid work is clear. But the actual experience of work is another matter. There are still large numbers of boring and dirty jobs. Some of these jobs have been recently created. This creates a contradictory situation where most people conform to a general cultural expectation that they should enter paid work, but may wish to leave it after some experience. The jobs most prized remain managerial and professional.
Here the problems are the unclarity about what management is; and a variety of pressures on the professional. Managers are increasingly being made redundant and seen as bureaucratic fat, particularly in service industries like banking and insurance. Self-employed professionals will experience the uncertainty of an irregular supply of clients. State employed professionals will have the clients provided for them. However, they may suffer stress as they cannot control this supply, and may have too many clients, especially in education. Despite all this, these jobs are probably less dirty and less boring than other jobs. In addition, they remain more attractive than manual and unskilled work.
There has always been a tension between home and work, since the geographical separation of the two in the early 19th century. Currently the varieties of flexibility at work may have helped to produce longer hours at work. These hours are not just longer, but anti-social. They can be outside the traditional morning and afternoon times. The example of the tension created over hours worked in California, makes this point well. Quite apart from the tension over the allocation of domestic labour, the need to take young children to and from school, to visit the doctor/dentist etc., creates the need for time off work where both parents are in paid work. This management of time schedules not only affects the children, but may also affect the parent’s promotion prospects at work. Indeed the whole question of their commitment at work is brought up as a problem.
To understand better these issues surrounding work, there is a need to step back from the narrow focus so far taken on the experience of these issues. Focusing on the position in the life cycle does go some way to showing the changing needs for paid work. But there also needs to be a focus on the whole society, and even the global changes affecting a number of societies. Britain is a classic example of a society where dirty, boring, and even dangerous jobs have dramatically declined in number. Shipbuilding and coal mining are the obvious examples. On the other hand, service sector or white collar and white blouse jobs have increased. So there is an expectation that when paid work is found in the service sector it will be neither dirty nor boring. Where these expectations are not met, there is some disaffection. The existence of this disaffection is implicitly recognised by the variety of managerial initiatives described earlier. These initiatives appear to have a limited success. So although the dirty boring jobs of the manufacturing sector are in decline; the boring, but relatively clean, jobs in the service sector continue to exist.
Drawing up some balance sheet of historic gains and losses here is not easy. Losing jobs where there was a real danger to health and even life itself may be a gain. However, the effect of this job loss on local communities has been great. Relocating jobs like telephone call centres to these areas of high unemployment has meant more service sector jobs in the area; albeit boring jobs. On some notional balance sheet this may be seen as a gain, but a small one.
At the international or even global level, Britain’s place in the world economy has changed dramatically in the last half of the 20th century. A secure form of trading with other countries that were part of an empire has ceased to exist. Imports and exports to other countries, including continental Europe, increased. Competition with these countries, who could export coal to Britain, meant that a number of British industries were no longer viable. This is a large part of the explanation of the changing nature of employment in Britain. However, coal and ships are still needed, but are produced in other countries with much lower wage rates. One could argue that there has been a kind of export of these dirty and boring jobs from Britain to other countries. So even if there has been a small gain to Britain, it has meant a kind of loss to other countries. Not that it will necessarily be seen as a loss. It may well be seen as creating necessary employment, where before there was much unemployment.
As a final attempt to illustrate the importance of work, but perhaps still not define it, a good tactic is to look at those writers who have attempted to argue for the abolition of work. For some writers, including Andre Gorz, there is a belief that continuing increases in the productivity of new technology will eventually create a society where there is very little paid work. This can produce a pessimistic scenario and an optimistic one. The pessimistic one is where there are not enough workers in paid work to create enough tax revenues to the government to pay for health, education, and pensions. In Britain there are already more people of pensionable age, than there are paid workers. Further a growing number who are not in full time paid work will rely on the minority who are, for some social wage, or unemployment benefit. This growing number may even need more policing, than at present.
The optimistic scenario is where all the paid work that needs to be done is spread across all adults. The estimates from Gorz in chapter one were that this could that work could be spread over 2 hours a day for five days; or concentrated over ten hours in one day; or fifteen weeks in a year; or ten years in a lifetime. This produces a situation where the time spent at work would revert to pre-industrial levels; and there would be much more time for self-development and leisure. It is this optimistic scenario that comes closest to the desire for the abolition of work!
In his latest book Gorz sees the growth of unemployment in continental Europe at the end of the 20th century as sharpening up the conflict between the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. He quotes a manager from Volkswagen who wants transferable entrepreneurial skills put on the factory floor; which has the consequences of needing fewer managers, and no unskilled workers. This transfer of skills will
“eliminate the antagonism between capital and labour … if work teams have great independence to plan, carry out, and monitor processes, material flows, staffing and skills … then you have a large enterprise made up of independent small entrepreneurs, and that constitutes a cultural revolution.”
To achieve this cultural revolution Volkswagen picked only those highly trained young workers with appropriate entrepreneurial values. Those not picked become a major problem, to which Volkswagen had no solution. The problem that Volkswagen did have to deal with was that even these carefully picked skilled entrepreneurial workers were too many. The first solution was to cut the hours in the working week from 36 to 28.8. This avoided laying off some 30,000 workers. As time passed though there were temporary closures of the factory, and some workers were laid off. Even this was not enough, and through the 1990’s 150 different ways of changing the hours spent at work were created. This produced discontinuous working, some paid, some not; and considerable productivity gains for management. This discontinuous working did, however, create another problem. As fewer hours were spent at work, by fewer workers, the spread of entrepreneurial values was seen as weakening.
It is at this point that Gorz returns to his more optimistic scenario. The increases in productivity described have the effect of both undermining entrepreneurial values, and creating short time working and unemployment. This has created a situation where a variety of responses from governments, and citizens, have come together. Firstly where there was discontinuous work, with no pay when not working, this produced a call for a social wage. This social wage ensured a continuous wage with discontinuous paid work. One consequence of this was that one did not have to search for other part time, probably low paid work, in those periods when one was not with one’s original employer. Indeed, because of the social wage, one could gain control over this time for one’s personal development in other fields, such as art, science, politics, gaining new skills etc.. Further, one could have some control over how much time one spent in paid work, and how much in personal development. Secondly, this social wage was not seen as an unemployment benefit, at least in the case of Denmark. Rather there is legal provision for the right to work discontinuously, with a continuous income. Further, these voluntarily unemployed citizens were paid an allowance of 63% of their normal wage. Gorz claims that this avoids a wage subsidy to employers, which might encourage them to offer lower wages; substantially in the Danish case. By relating the calculation of the social wage to the normal wage, instead the state minimum wage, the social wage becomes relatively generous. In this case the attraction to employers to lower normal wages would seem to be greater, despite Gorz’s claim to the contrary.
But none of this detracts from the opportunities created by less time in paid work, and a variety of forms of social wage. One proposal, a variant on the Danish experience, is that a “citizenship income” (Gorz, 99:1999) is given at the end of adolescence to all who sign up for voluntary civilian service. This income should provide for a normal standard of living. The workers have some say in defining the task, and the hours spent on it. This service would be for two or three years, and would provide them with a right to a social income for four or five years after that! This the closest Gorz gets to the optimistic scenario of the end of work; at least for up to eight years post adolescence.
A major problem with the whole idea of the social wage is that subsidises the scroungers and the work shy. As seen earlier there is little evidence for the existence large numbers of people like this. However, there is the widespread belief that these people do exist, and a consequent reluctance to see public money given to them. In order to deal with this issue Gorz now argues for a universal social wage. It is no longer to be given to just the unemployed or discontinuous workers. This should encourage all to opt for periods without full time paid work, including those already in full time paid employment. Then discontinuous work would become part of the culture of society.
Against these arguments one might reply that the decline in the number of people in full time paid work is a phenomenon of already heavily industrialised societies like Britain and America. Other countries have not yet caught up with Western industrialised societies. Here there is still an unsatisfied demand for skilled manual work. This work, although poorly paid by Western standards, is seen as preferable to agricultural work. Secondly, even in the West, paid work remains an important part of one’s sense of identity. Removing this identity can produce consequences for self identity that are as yet unknown, and may not be benevolent. Thirdly, the experience of work is an important part of political education. One can learn a sense of one’s worth to society through the size of the pay one receives. Further, one can compare one’s pay with others in the firm, and learn about the extent of economic inequality in society. It may even give one a sense of class divisions, which are otherwise opaque outside paid work!
Finally, a contemporary and influential writer, Ulrich Beck has argued that as work became more flexible, casual and part time, class divisions became even more opaque. Further, these new forms of work are only new to the industrialised west. They are not new to countries like Brazil. Indeed more non-formal kinds of work may be the future for the west, which can learn from Brazil’s experience. In America rising rates of employment are in the service sector, but there is much job insecurity, and much flexibility. Beck also quotes estimates to show that only 12% of the full time American working population will be working in factories in ten years from now; and only 2% by the year 2020. (Beck, 43:2000) These new style, or very old Brazilian style, workers may see their work in very individualistic terms. He gives examples from Brazil of full time factory workers resigning to start small businesses. They want to be their own boss! Beck’s argument is that the 19th century may have standardised work, and produced class divisions and loyalties; the late 20th century individualised work, and this tended to reduce class loyalties. (Beck, 55:2000). In these individualised workers there is also little loyalty to the firm. Even where full time workers have their weekly hours reduced, sales of holiday books increase in Germany.
Beck’s response to these changes is to argue that increase in unemployment in continental Europe, and the flexible work also seen in Britain and America, have created a new/old situation, which needs radical and new/old ideas. The current situation at it’s most pessimistic is where state institutions are rapidly losing their legitimacy. Fewer people vote or belong to churches or trade unions. Added to this, the globalisation of production where jobs are being relocated in countries with lower wage rates, has created a rich mix of individualism, fatalism, fear of an insecure economic and political future. At it’s most extreme this view sees the political and military violence of Yugoslavia Albania and other African countries as showing a
“Hidden vacuum of state power.”
A possible way of regaining legitimacy for the state is to introduce forms of work that he calls Civil Labour. He defines this as follows:
“Civil labour is not paid work, but is rewarded with civic money, and thereby socially recognised and valued.”
Examples of this civil labour include domestic labour, working in schools, retirement homes, with groups involved with ecological issues, AIDS sufferers, basic education for adults (including IT), etc.. Civil labour must be voluntary and self organised; and must address issues and needs not well addressed, or not addressed at all, by the political state. How this civil labour is to be rewarded is the first problem! Although this labour is not aimed exclusively at those currently unemployed, it could reduce this number so freeing up state moneys to pay a sum somewhat above the minimum unemployment benefit. Secondly, successful forms of civil labour including co-operatives could generate their own income. Thirdly, what he calls rewards including free crèche places, qualifications, and pension entitlements, should provide an economic basic security which give confidence to face the this risky form of work.
A major advantage to the state from civil labour is that it takes away the state’s responsibility for delivering full employment. Beck argues that it is anyway now beyond the state’s powers to deliver on this implicit promise. Further, with the success of a variety of forms of civil labour, the legitimacy of the state may slowly be increased, if it has been seen as encouraging and even funding civil labour. Indeed, Beck argues that the success of the neo-liberal policies in reducing the power of the state vis a vis large multi-national corporations needs to be reversed. This reversion is political work for both the state and local and global pressure groups. This is an argument for the revival of politics, against the dominant values of individualism, which will also help to re-legitimate the state. At a more practical level, Beck advocates a new role for unemployment offices. As well as finding full time paid work they should be advocating and finding civil labour.
There is clearly an uneasy relationship between the need for civil labour to be voluntary, self organised; and then funded, managed, and even rewarded by the state. One could argue that the state should only be involved in the early stages. When a civil labour project became self financing, then state funding could stop. The initial investment could even be repaid. Where civil labour projects failed, state funding for new projects could still be a possibility. Civil labour could also lead some, or many, individuals into full time work as their successful projects could be attractive to a local employer. The fundamental argument in favour of civil labour is that it retains the dignity of those individuals without traditional full time paid work.
Beck is aware of the difficult relationship between the state managing and rewarding, and the need for self organisation. There are, however, other difficulties. Where there is already state provision for, say retirement homes or adult learning, local civil labour may be very welcome where local need is still not met. It will be difficult to avoid some relationship with the local state providers. This relationship can potentially be very positive, with both sides learning from their differences. It can also be very negative with qualified and professionalised state employees seeing similar work being done for much less money by relatively under qualified and under trained civil labourers. Managing these potential conflicts goes against the requirement that civil labour is self managing. The worst possible outcome would be that the state service undermines the civil labour service by criticising it, and undermining local confidence. This could lead to a failure of the project. Alternatively, the civil labourers could themselves see the need for more qualifications to improve the service. This fits with Beck’s requirement for rewards to include qualifications; but these would have to be generously funded by the state.
These practical difficulties of implementation aside, Beck makes large claims for civil labour as a way of dealing with large scale unemployment, which is particularly present in the re-unified German state. The sharp reductions in unemployment in Britain analysed earlier, and similar movements in America, may make this idea seem less important outside Germany. However, the narrow definition of unemployment used since 1984 in Britain, leaves many millions who could still potentially benefit from this idea. More generally, the insecurity in full time jobs in the growing service sector, and the individualisation of employment, may make this civil labour attractive. The attraction would be that the values of individualism would be replaced by the values of altruism; or service to others. There may also be a growth in the values of collectivism. Work that one has freely chosen, whatever the difficulties of the relationship with the state and local professionals, could reduce the negative aspects that have been such a feature of this book.