By Enrique Lescure
There can be said to be two internal structural crises regarding the transformation of the labour market brought by new technologies and the rationalization of the market structure itself. These two crises can be said to be ideological/existential and social. Of these two crises, I will devote this entry to the first, and often overlooked version.
The transformation of labour has meant not only a different environment, but that people – most often from the younger generation – have been forced by the external circumstances to readjust their behaviour, while many of the expectations regarding rights, social obligations, the personal future and the social role of the individual remain the same – which creates a foundation for increased mental fragility and a heightened risk for psycho-social problems.
This problem is mostly prevalent in the developed nations in Europe, North America, Oceania and East Asia, though similar trends can be seen amongst the middle class in the Arab World and the less developed nations of East Asia.
- During the latter half of the 20th century, most western states developed social welfare models that gave broader protection to the people.
- This was coupled by a period of sustained growth until the 1970’s when the majority of the population attained higher living standards, guaranteed employment and expanded social safety nets.
- This created room for individualization and for the expansion of lifestyles and subcultures. In a very literal sense, people became liberated from the constraints of survival values.
- Three generations have grown up under these conditions, and been acclimatised to them.
- This presents a challenge now when the system is rupturing, and expectations both amongst the political leaders and the various groups of society is not aligned with this rupture.
- This increases the volatility of the system.
- It is unlikely a new stable equilibrium within the current socio-economic system can be established, due to exponential and ecological factors.
- This volatility brings risks but also opportunities.
The age of the Middle Class
After the Second World War, something happened – which we have come to take for granted now in the western world, but which was unfathomable to the generations who had gone through the two world wars and the Great Depression, namely a period of sustained growth from the late 1940’s until the oil recession of 1973.
This sustained growth happened basically every western country, and transformed the structural composition of the population. Production of consumer goods exploded, farming industrialization led to a sweeping wave of urbanization and sub-urbanization. From economies were only every tenth person had a car, we moved towards economies were one in two adult individuals possessed one.
Soon, basically everyone owned a car, refrigerator, TV, radio, lawn-mower, stereos, and could afford vacation trips to other parts of the country and even abroad. Of course, in many countries – like for example in large parts of southern Europe and in the United States – there were large swathes of poverty, and stagnating communities as well. For the majority however, things looked increasingly brighter.
And jobs were readily available to anyone willing to have one. Though it was not easy to study at university everywhere, there was no necessity of it, since regular jobs paid enough to sustain a household and generally allow money for other expenditures. Thus, due to the abundance, the culture in western countries was slowly transformed – away from the values of traditional societies.
The new lifestyle market emerged due to and with part-conscious support from the marketing industry, and soon fashion in terms of musical preferences, clothing, brands, experiences and even diets came to be readily applied by the industry, transforming both the economy and the behavioural patterns of the people in the process. While this process can be seen as both emergenet and intentional (to some degree), it is not the focus of our post. The focus rather lies on the fact that three generations of westerners have been individualized.
As you can see on this map, the countries seen as building up the core of the western world are all in the upper right corner, and while some (like Ireland and the United States) are more traditional in terms of their values, they too value self-expression above survival. Cultural essentialists love to claim that these values to some extent always have separated the West from other civilizations (not entirely true, they generally sport the origin of western exceptionalism to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment).
However, several distinct transformations happened relatively recent, during the middle to late part of last century.
- The choice of a romantic partner is moved to a later part in life, and parents and relatives do not any longer generally expect to have a say in the matter. Property and income is less pronounced in the choosing of a partner, though it still indirectly plays a role.
- Sex is now a recreationary habit, while it before primarily was seen as a way to form a family. Children are no longer seen as an economic investment, but primarily as a way to cement a bonding between two adult individuals (children are also largely seen as an economic burden).
- The social role of the individual in society is primarily defined by the individual theirself, and that is seen as the legitimate manner in which people define their roles in society.
- Youths are acclimatised into this thinking through education, where a large part is played (unintentionally perhaps) by the social mores and fashions, and the pecking order organically established on the schoolyard.
I would argue that most of these transformations have been positive, and have served as a liberating force for the individual, who by theirself can make life-decisions that were previously either decided directly or at least largely affected by the expectations of the community. It is however quite easy to see how the struggle for survival creates the foundation for collectivistic values and social mores, while the lack of a need to struggle for survival creates the opportunity for the individual to blossom.
There are however expectations which individuals in western societies generally are expected to achieve, and are expecting themselves to achieve. In a pre-industrial agrarian society, you are successful if you manage to hold on to what your forebears managed to build. In an early industrial society, you are successful if you manage to build savings to let your children have a better life. In today’s society, however, young people have been accustomed to, are expected to and are expecting themselves to:
- Earn more than their parents did and receive better-paying jobs.
- Make good for themselves by having a job and contributing to the economy.
- Experiencing life and travelling at an early age.
- Expressing their individuality and attain a sense of “uniqueness”.
These are all laudable life objectives, but the problem is that they are increasingly untenable for young people to achieve, especially in a situation where class differences are becoming more marked, the middle class is stagnating, low-skill jobs are less available due to automatization and the increasing competition of the developing world, high-skill jobs are not increasing in the numbers needed to absorb the increased number of youths with hundreds of thousands in student debt and degrees that lend them jobs on McDonalds.
Not surprisingly, this will cause protracted anger, especially as the system is crumbling more and more under its own self-contradictions.
The existential crisis of the Western Civilization
The social contracts of modern western societies generally entail that people have a right to housing, to food, to water, to electricity (apart from the rights from being exposed to conditions imposed by other humans which are less than desirable). However, these rights have de-facto not needed to be guarded that much since the truth has been that the vast majority of the people in western industrialized societies have been able to guarantee them for themselves due to employment – and those not able to gain access to these life-necessities have most often been caught up by social safety nets that have provided them with what is considered the minimum that an individual could expect from society.
I am not denying the fact that there are those who are destitute and truly homeless, but these are still – luckily – a comparably small group.
In general, the social welfare systems have been dependent on – no matter what country we are talking about – a full employment state, where the revenues are collected through income taxes, and a part of those revenues are redistributed to the part of the adult population that is unable to find work, either permanently or through structural or temporary unemployment. When revenues are not increasing in the same amount as expenditures, then the government must either raise taxes or shrink its obligations. Raising taxes generally reduces the availability for consumption. The prevailing orthodoxy since the 1970’s has generally been tax reductions, since these are presupposed to stimulate the economy by increasing consumption, thereby increasing the amount of readily available jobs.
Since the population pyramid in most western societies is skewed to the middle, with the largest population share being the bulk of middle-aged citizens and a flattening peak of old people, it is difficult for youths to affect the division of resources with this dwindling resource base, since it is likely that older and more well-connected population segments can negotiate to keep a larger share of the pie, while inexperienced youths find themselves with less and elss opportunities for jobs, housing and education as time passes on.
This has also largely happened, starting already during the 1980’s, and resuming during the 2010’s. Youths are gradually, but at an accelerating pace, thrown into a world that is more ruthless and predatory than that of their parents – of whom many have little understanding or patience for the sense of uncertainty today, instead meaning that youths have become soft like jelly and less prone to work hard and shut up – not realising that it is difficult to even gain a job interview when jobs are scarce and every job has several hundred applicants.
What is problematic is not that youths cannot fulfil their own ambitions, or the ambitions of their parents. It is doubtful if it can be said to be a human right to be successful within the paradigms of consumeristic individualism, and even if it was a right, it is evidently very much on a lower priority than the things that billions of people in the developing world are going through. What is problematic however is when people are living in lives of uncertainty and never know how the next month is going to look like. if they would have to move to another side of the country or if they are getting as many work hours as the previous month.
This is however problematic on a deeper level. If society cannot guarantee housing, income, safety and electricity to all its members, things which are pre-assumed by human rights definitions and national laws, it is putting the democratic concepts of the inclusionary nation-state in conflict with the values of capitalism.
In short, are human beings having an inherent value because of their humanity, or is their worth determined by their economic performance (and them being allowed to performed economically) inside society? Is it human rights that determine human value, or is it human utility, or some combination thereof – and how can we adjust internally in regards to this self-contradiction?
There are several ways to adjust to this crisis, and at least be able to prolong the social fabric of our societies some more decades than otherwise possible.
- The shifting of the tax burden to other productive factors, such as capital, land, technology, or to consumption and production, which would mean that the expenses won’t increase (through social welfare) the same way when unemployment rises and revenues are decreasing.
- The transformation of the social safety net into a simpler model that means that all human beings get money for necessities, without as many control systems to check if they are eligible.
Culturally, there must be changes as well. The awareness that we live in a different society than 1970 has not dawned upon decision-makers in politics, industry and media, especially as the majority of them have not experienced this transformation and what it entails for new-comers on the labour market.
Youths must also adjust their expectations and try to develop their survival skills and understanding of the current system. That does not entail acceptance, and youths must be better to understand the system in order to be able to properly channel their anxiety into the anger necessary to form a movement with political demands. These demands must however not be attached to just changes in how the redistribution patterns are working, but into systemic changes related to the establishment of the post-industrial service economy in the Western world.
However, while the biosphere is slowly collapsed by the joined efforts of humanity, technological development is
accelerating, leading to less and less labour hours needed to sustain the same production, meaning that new jobs are not created in the same pace as old jobs are vanishing. Those economies worst affected are those that entered the “High Industrial Age” (1946 – 1973) phase later than the early adopters.
One example is being Greece, which today is in a state of perpetual crisis, that only will deepen as the adherence to the flawed Euro currency system is basically leading to the country relenting what independence it has left in economic matters, and accepting probably this century’s largest redistribution of wealth from the people into the hands of financial capital. This also shows that the current political establishment and the current political paradigm is directed towards protecting the interests of the system before the interests of the people.
In the western world, technology – which was a liberating force during the previous eras of the Industrial Age – has turned into a factor that greatly upsets the social order and is forcing a change of the expectations that we have been accustomed to have. This does not mean that technological development should be stopped, in fact, technological development must necessarily be consciously utilised in the process of creating an integrated civilization that can monitor the environmental factors of the Earth and allow us to reduce our impact in as intelligent a manner as possible.
However, technology is a destructive force in regards to how it affects both the ways in which social safety nets operate and how the labour market is shrinking of available hours, leading to more competition horizontally and more strained relations both vertically and between generations.
The first thing that youths must realise is this relationship between technological development and the difficulty to land one-self a full-time employment today. Internalization of emotions of guilt, worthlessness and a sense of being meaningless is leading to the collapse of the self and is a certain path to becoming depressed and losing all the will to struggle. However, that it isn’t your guilt does not mean that you do not need to adapt to changed circumstances.
Finally, the Earth Organisation of Sustainability must talk about these issues and try to establish why our alternative is plausible and why it is essential to struggle, not only for the future of individuals, or or humanity, but of the future of our very planet.