Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Middle Aged and Stranded

by Edward Hugh

Well, I suppose that is one step better than being busted-flat and legless (or even like Bonnie Tyler: lost in France) ! But seriously folks sociologist Richard Sennett has an article in todays FT (and here in case of link rot) which is relevant to points being made by Marcelo in this post.

Sennett and his German counterpart Ulrich Beck are what you might call 'risk contrarians', they don't seem to like it, but more importantly they don't seem to understand what lies behind the perceived extra risk. Or rather, perhaps they think they do (globalisation), but then the problem starts precisely here, since isn't saying "hey things are getting more uncertain since we have faster technical change and increasingly global markets", a bit like saying "hey I'm getting wet coz it just started raining".

"..... stagnation has become intertwined with insecurity. Work has taken on a new character in recent decades for people in the middle; its risks are especially evident among those whose fortunes are tied to the “new economy” – cutting-edge, global businesses such as financial services, media and high-tech. They account for no more than 20 per cent of US and 15 per cent of British employment but in them, modern capitalism has concentrated its energies and defined its ideals."

"The new economy has reformulated workers’ experience of time. Long service and accumulated experience do not earn the rewards that more traditional companies once provided. Instead, cutting-edge businesses want young employees who can work long hours; the “youth premium” works against older employees with multiple responsibilities. Dynamic companies have also shortened the time-frame of work itself; jobs are defined as short-lived projects rather than permanent functions. In media, mid-level employees can expect increasingly to work on six or even three-month contracts, if there are contracts at all. Throughout the “new economy”, companies are rapidly changing business focus and identity in response to shifting global market conditions."

Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm unsymathetic to the problems that many people are facing. What I don't get is how anyone thinks you are going to turn the clock back, or why anyone in India or China or Brazil would think that you should. If Marcelo's central argument worked, it should be this middle income , well educated group who should be most amenable to using high-tech plug-ins, but if you read Sennett carefully you'll see that this is precisely one group which won't be amongst the early adopters. Rather than go down the road which Marcelo is advocating (and rightly so on my view) the most effected seem to be putting in more hours rather than 'enhancing' the hours they already spend:

Many discussions of “work-life balance” focus on the lengthening time employees now spend on the job; in Britain, the European champion, working and commuting is edging up to 11 hours daily. The people we interviewed have found various effective ways to deal with these family-time deficits; they encounter more trouble managing the unreliability of work as a source of family support. That both men and women worry about failing their families was a key finding – this spectre once haunted manual labourers but has now migrated to the middle-class. Manual labourers had strong unions to turn to; white-collar unions are weak or non-existent in the new economy.


CV said...

FYI; NewEconomist also reports on the piece


Marcelo said...

You are right, those that could benefit the most from applying cutting-edge technology are the ones less sympathetic to it. It's a bit of a puzzle to me, both at the individual and the macro level, the existence of such untapped "low hanging fruit".

This underscores the importance of cultural factors, openess to new ideas, etc, which I think also affects whole countries and entire branches of technology.

Edward Hugh said...

"those that could benefit the most from applying cutting-edge technology are the ones less sympathetic to it".

Yes, I think this is the point. This is another one of those darned negative feedback loops. I don't mean to sound unsympathetic (to the people affected I mean, not to Sennett), it's just that I think that this problem is a big one, and needs a big change in attitudes if we are to handle all this comfortably.

Robert said...

Marcello hypothesizes that employees who work long hours ought to be most receptive to labour-saving technology. The rationale seems to be that by using labour-saving technologies at work, they could accomplish their work in less time, and go home. Another possibility is that their employer will insist that they work the same hours, and get more work done, which ought to increase the employee's real wages, but does nothing to increase their available leisure time, if that is what they really want.

Regardless of the productivity of the employees, firms have several incentives to want a few employees doing much work each, rather than many employees doing a little work each. The most obvious of these are forms of compensation paid on a per-employee rather than per-labour-unit basis, such as insurance and pensions.

But even when compensation scales directly with performance, there are overhead issues: workers take up space, and use equipment, and unless "new economy" managers can figure out how to run a project around the clock, with one shift of workers efficiently replacing another as in manufacturing, capital is most utilized by fewer employees working longer hours.

On the other hand, part-time jobs do seem be available for providing low-value services. I do not at present have any speculations as to why firms should prefer part-time workers in these positions, nor what could prompt firms to prefer part-time employees for performing higher-value services.