The End of Work?
A great deal of academic research in the 20th Century focused on the negative effects of Capitalist Industrialisation; environmental effects, child labour, alienation in work- the list goes on. The beginning of the 21st Century marked at change in discourse. In the modern age scholars, ironically, began investigating the negative effects of de-industrialisation.
The intensification of global market forces on employment, unregulated by the nation state, coupled with new technologies accelerating the process of job loss means that in the 21st century the “job for life” is no longer viable for the vast majority- are we entering the end of work?
As the 2008 economic collapse illustrated, western society’s core structural framework, based in employment, was no longer a strong basis for social identity. In the past, if you worked hard, got good grades, graduated from university and got a good job you were said to have safety and an identity for life. This is no longer true. In the 21st Century a potential for a ‘proletarianisation’ of white collar workers is a plausible and distinct possibility.
During the Industrial Age work was the main orientation point in reference to which all other life pursuits could be planned and ordered. Today we are less certain of this. An attainment of a social identity through work is no longer viable for the vast majority, in a working sphere where certainty and longevity have become blurred. Today, social identity in western societies is largely, or solely, derived from what the individual consumes, thus marginalising work based meaning. Paid employment is no longer the source of identity, but is instead used as the main generator of identity for both the rich and poor. The rich can gain said identity through consumption of the ‘right’ products, whilst the poor are left behind as the “flawed consumer”, becoming devoid of social meaning.
While having negative implications in the short to medium term, the end of work as we know it is positive in the long term; are we approaching a Utopianism at work? Work must now lose its centrality in the minds, thoughts and imaginations of everyone. The social bond it forged was weak and abstract. While it did insert people into social labour and social relationships, these were only by products of being cogs in the immense machine. Are we heading towards a world where upon first interaction with a new person we no longer ask “And what do you do?”
Nostalgia for the age of full employment is the last point of relevance for the now ended Industrial age. Once this nostalgia has ceased the truly major issue of the second modernity can flourish front and centre. A reformation of the working social structure is seen by many academics, to lie in a mixture of paid employment and voluntary work. State guarantees on a minimum income and a revival of the civil society, along with a conscious re-evaluation of the stigma attached to welfare schemes will allow community togetherness to flourish and identity to be gained from pursuits of interest.
A move away from the alienation which categorised the Industrial Age towards a world of work which is challenging and fulfilling is a clearly achievable goal as we venture deeper into the 21st Century. Individuals will develop a range of skills and engage in numerous activities. The salient question when meeting someone new will no longer be “what do you do?” but instead “what do you enjoy doing?” and everyone will have an answer.