What do these two items tell us about the future of work?
This is an interesting article, notwithstanding the “the new economy is so cool” overall tone of the piece. Before I go further, let’s look at the second item:
My first reaction to reading these two pieces was irritation because Richard Sennett wrote about these same developments in the late 1990s but apparently, new technologies have made precarization and destructuration of work life hip and cool. We are all freelancers and private consultants now. The world described in the first piece is that of Cory Doctorow’s Makers where the typical worker is an educated and creative engineer with no attachments whatsoever (partners or children) who lives fully connected and does not have a career but build a job portfolio of all the gigs he has had. He is the perfect flexible, mobile and individualized worker. And with the freelance and consulting fees he makes, he pays for his own health insurance, retirement plan, etc..
Needless to say, this is a view of labor with very narrow blinders. It is only because of the super-exploited labor of others that this individualized worker can live the life of the free agent, skillfully navigating the new economy (which is never in recession in this view). It is a liberating experience not only for the worker but also for the businesses (can we still talk of employers?) who can retain skilled workers for a few hours and crowdsource projects.
What the second piece shows is that this should be the era of big government: who will educate this mobile workforce if not mass higher education which can only be public? Who will assist these free agents as the building of a portfolio is not as easy and liberating as it seems? And this is definitely the era where the government should provide single payer health care and national retirement plans as these are absolutely necessary in the era of precarization and career destructuration. As the example from Denmark shows, this gig economy can only work with extensive social programs.
Any social structure that is still based on the idea of life-long employment with one employer or family structures based on the brief social stability of the 1950s is obsolete and social movement organizations (especially on the conservative side) blaming people for failing to still function according to the outdated template show themselves to be poor analysts of society at best, and dishonest (especially when such destructuring of work life, leading to the destructuring of family life is the product of conservative economic policies) at worst. After all, individualization is the ultimate form of privatization.
Ironically, both pieces emphasize the need for strong unions as guilds that could provide benefits to their members, such as social insurance of various types, instead of collective bargaining (which does not make much sense in an individualized environment, except maybe in the sense of French “collective conventions”).
And as always, both pieces behave as if everyone was equal on the labor market, as if there were no racism or sexism, as if everyone had access to a good education (primary, secondary and higher), a dubious proposition especially in the US. In other words, the gig economy is assumed to be this imaginary (and illusory) meritocracy where everyone is a member of good standing of the creative class and where we can maintain the illusion that this class is not standing on the shoulders of the global poor manufacturing the tools of the gig economy.
This is all about exploitation except that the raw exploitation of long hours in the factory at exhausting pace has to remain hidden from view and the soft exploitation of the destructured and completely precarized labor has to be reframed as hip and cool.