It's work, Jim - but not as we know it

Ralf Dahrendorf argues that the government's welfare reform policies may be undermined by a revoluti

I accept the principles behind this government's attempts to change the welfare state. But there may be one big flaw in the thinking. Everything is regarded as fluid - as either changing or in need of change - but one area of social reality is quite often, at least by implication, regarded as constant. That's the world of work. There are quite significant changes in the labour market and these are highly relevant to any policy of equality, or as I prefer to put it, of inclusion. They may be summarised in six statements.

1. Since the early 1970s the relationship between GDP growth and employment has become tenuous in all OECD countries. Considerable increases in per capita GDP were accompanied by little or no employment growth. In Japan, from 1970 to 1995, GDP per head grew by 150 per cent, employment by only 2 per cent. In the UK, which was fairly typical of Europe, GDP per head grew by just under 60 per cent, while employment ended 4 per cent down. Even in the US, where the connection between growth and employment remains, as is well known, positive, per capita GDP grew by just over 50 per cent, employment by 25 per cent. Thus there is at least a prima facie case for the thesis that we have experienced a period of jobless growth.

I believe, therefore, that we have to change our economic language. We can no longer assume that GDP growth equals employment creation. And this is an argument for abandoning GDP as the one-dimensional indicator of economic success or failure.

2. There is evidence of significant divergences between the traded and non-traded sectors of the labour market - for example, between financial services and healthcare. In the traded sector, expansion is generally accompanied by employment contraction; a higher output of goods and services is achieved with less labour. The non-traded sector, on the other hand, provides, in principle, unlimited opportunities for work.

The important point here is that jobs do not materialise automatically from favourable macro-economic conditions for GDP growth. On the contrary, they may contribute to a decline in jobs.

3. In all OECD countries, there has been a significant decline in the number of people in typical employment relationships: full-time permanent jobs (or, more precisely, full-time dependent employment without built-in time limits). The most thorough study of this change is that by a recent German commission. It concludes that "in countries where the employment rate has changed little, about a quarter to a third of typical employment relationships has been replaced by atypical ones since the 1970s". In western Germany, 84 per cent of those in dependent employment had typical contracts in 1970; by 1995, this proportion had gone down to 68 per cent with a particularly steep decline in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s. If one includes the self-employed, those on employment schemes and the job-seeking unemployed, less than half of the employable population in European OECD countries is today in typical employment relationships.

My comment is that we have already learnt to think in new ways about the family: we no longer assume that the nuclear family is the only model. It is time to make a similar leap of understanding with respect to jobs and employment. What used to be typical is about to become a minority phenomenon.

4. The new forms of employment, which have grown in importance, include, above all, part-time work, limited-term jobs and contract employment. There are also home workers; those on employment schemes of one kind or another; paid self-employed workers; and some other categories for which we have barely found a proper description. In addition, there is a vast array of not-for-profit, or rather not-for-gain work, much of it in the third, or voluntary, sector.

This proliferation of kinds of work requires us to rethink many aspects of social policy. A welfare system based on typical jobs leaves people who work in the new categories uncared for. Tax and benefit systems need to be adapted. Methods of guaranteeing everybody a basic income through tax credits or otherwise become irrelevant.

5. Since the end of the second world war we have seen a huge decline in the role of paid employment of all kinds in people's time budget. Longer education, shorter working hours, more generous holiday entitlements, earlier retirement - all these accompanied the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. Since 1970 we have seen two further developments. One is the frequency of portfolio living - or what might be called "women's pattern of life" - which combines employment and other activities. The other is the growth of ever earlier retirement at a time of rising life expectancy. The number of hours worked annually by the whole population has declined in most European OECD countries by 20 per cent since 1970. Retirement figures are even more dramatic. In the UK only 56 per cent of all 55 to 64-year-old men were in paid employment in 1995. The corresponding figures for Germany were 49 per cent; for Italy 42 per cent; for France 38 per cent.

These are figures of major significance. They show that universal social benefit systems can no longer be built on contributions from those in paid employment. They also show that work in the sense of paid employment loses much of its force as a source of satisfaction, of self-realisation and of social identity. More importantly still, work ceases to be an effective instrument of social control. How will people's time be structured in future?

6. Such changes in the world of work imply changes in the nature of unemployment. To be sure, there are still genuine problems of long-term unemployment. In the UK, in some inner-city areas, there are a large proportion of households without employment. Many no doubt, particularly single-parent families, need attention. But for many, unemployment is a phase between jobs, even an opportunity for alternative activities, including unfortunately, but tellingly, benefit fraud. "Total and helpless" unemployment as Beveridge described it in 1909, and as many countries experienced it in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most countries fought it in the 1950s and 1960s, may well turn out to be a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon. It did not exist before, because people had alternative sources of survival, and it may not exist in future as new alternatives are discovered.

If the picture I have tried to sketch in these six points is largely correct, important policy consequences are indicated: for example, a reorientation of macro-economic policy towards jobs in the non-traded sector; the transportability of entitlements; a new approach to paid employment, other life activities and the sources of people's income and well-being.

Last March a group of 11 business and trade union leaders, as well as academics, wrote a letter to the Times. The implicit assumption of the government's reform policies, they wrote, was that the labour market will in the future provide the scale and type of employment required to support a shift from public to private provision. Yet we are also witnessing a revolution in the world of work, the longer-term implications of which are subject to speculation and controversy. What was needed, they argued, was a commission to pull together all the material that exists on the future of work and paid employment. Commission or not, I agree that the subject is of major importance and needs more consensus on facts as well as more debate on the consequences.

This is an edited version of a talk originally given last year at an 11 Downing Street seminar and now published, price £9.95, in "Equality and the Modern Economy", the first of a series from the newly launched Smith Institute, 191 Victoria Street, London SW1E 5NE

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times