September 1995 - Emerging working classes
There is an old
Haitian motto that says: 'If work were a good
thing, the rich would have found a way of keeping
it to themselves.'
The motto is recalled in a new
book, Licensed to Work by Barrie Sherman and Phil
Judkins. This suggests that we should be questioning
the notion of paid employment as an ultimate goal
of life, and investigating ways of arranging society
so that all people are able to live happily without
paid employment at least for some of the time.
Instead, the prospect of life
without employment is creating almost unprecedented
fear across society, to the extent that it is
damaging consumer-led growth. The very companies
that have found they can make products far more
cheaply with fewer people are confronted with
potential customers worried about spending money
when they are being told they may no longer have
a job for life.
Sherman and Judkins are exploring
what is becoming a familiar belief among many
employment theorists - that microelectronics,
led by the silicon chip has triggered a new industrial
revolution as momentous as those arising from
the advent of steam power and later of electricity.
This is partly responsible for
an estimated 35m people officially unemployed
across OECD industrialised countries, and an additional
11m people available and willing to be employed,
but who do not show up in government statistics.
The plight of some of these unemployed,
the so-called underclass, was recognised during
the 1980s when social commentators identified
a group of people disadvantaged by unemployment
who seemed beyond the help of society. This 'underclass'
neither possessed a job nor the means to obtain
Sherman and Judkins have highlighted
a second and fast-growing group of under-employed
or unemployed men, which it calls the overclass.
While both groups are divided by wealth, qualifications
and in many cases age, they share a common inability
to find work.
This newer category of the unemployed
is perhaps most recognisable in the US, where
the real incomes of the American middle classes
have fallen by 15 per cent in the last 20 years
and where, because of low welfare payments, there
is a real danger without employment of falling
from overclass to underclass.
While it has been possible for
Western administrations to neglect the underclass
without sustaining political disadvantage, the
so-called overclass still clinging to its middle-class
roots is, argue the authors, a potential force
for both political and social instability.
The disillusionment of the British
middle classes is spilling over to their children
who, the authors argue, need to be prepared for
coping with life as well as employment.
They make a powerful case against
an education system geared principally towards
preparing children for paid work. Dedicated vocational
courses should be left to tertiary education and
schools should instead concentrate on teaching
children how to learn. Education, they argue,
should be about ideas and knowledge, the merit
of which is neatly encapsulated in a Chinese proverb:
'If we each have an egg and we exchange them,
we each have an egg; if we each have an idea and
exchange them, we each have two ideas.'
Applying this fundamental principle,
it should be possible, they say, to re-establish
the old work ethic of being useful to others and
to yourself, embracing voluntary work as readily
as paid work.
It should be said that Sherman
and Judkins are proposing some radical solutions
to a problem which they believe has not yet fully
materialised. Comparing the developments in microelectronics
with those in manned flight, they reckon we have
just about reached the stage where Alcock and
Brown flew the Atlantic.
At the same time, many computer-based
jobs are moving to areas of cheap but intelligent
labour. They point to British Airways, which carries
out computer booking operations in Delhi, Swissair,
with its accounting department in India, British
Telecom which solves some of its software problems
in Bombay and IBM's use of programmers in Bangalore.
For every £100 earned by a Western computer
programmer, these Indian specialists, many of
whom are women, earn less than £8. The impact
on even skilled western jobs is clear.
The authors are attracted to
the idea of a gradually introduced basic citizens'
income - a guaranteed payment from the state -
as a way of tiding people over financially between
periods of part-time or temporary employment.
They also toy with the notion of a national social
service for young people replacing that which
was once the preserve of the military, although
they see difficulties if such a service was compulsory.
Additionally, as the title of
the book suggests, they advocate rationing hours
of employment using work licences: smart cards,
each containing a yearly quota of hours eligible
for paid employment. Should we dismiss their ideas
as scaremongering in order to promote outlandish
proposals for a social Utopia, or could any of
it ever happen?
Sherman is not new to this field.
In the late 1970s, he co-authored The Collapse
of Work, a book which predicted a ' leisure revolution'.
Instead of having more leisure time because of
technological advances, however, many of those
in work found they had less.
There is no doubt that changes
are taking place, but whether they are as fundamental
as Sherman and Judkins would have us believe,
and whether they will require drastic measures,
remains to be seen. Still their observations and
ideas make stimulating reading.
*Licensed to Work by Barrie
Sherman and Phil Judkins is published by Cassell,
price £40 in hardback and £13.99 in
© 1995 The Financial Times
Ltd. All rights reserved
as a pdf file