Out with the old
Meritocracy rewards the talented individual, and the skills society needs only a fraction of those educated to work in it. So, asks Richard Sennett, how will we become useful?
Saturday February 11, 2006
A defining photograph of the Great Depression in the 1930s shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence before their eyes. The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended - but its context has changed. Large numbers of people in North America, Europe and Japan want the kinds of work they can't get.
In the Depression, individuals believed in a personal remedy for uselessness: their children should get an education, a skill which would make the young always needed, always employed. The dream of a talented poor boy - or rarely, girl - becoming a doctor or lawyer is one which today seems a routine sort of dream. Rough estimates put the upward mobility of children of unskilled labourers into the lower middle class at about 20% in Britain and America - not a lot, but much greater than in the 19th century.
Upward mobility through education is, of course, an unequal solution to lack of work or poor quality work: it is a solution which turns on personal escape rather than general security. Still, today, skill remains the armour people seek; upward mobility is the opportunity government provides to a few. Even so, the "skills society" needs only a relatively small number of the educated who possess talent. In the cutting-edge realms of finance, technology, media, design and creative services, the economic machine can run profitably and efficiently by drawing on an ever smaller elite.
The education system turns out large numbers of graduates who will not find work in the jobs for which they trained; more people will lose work to those in other countries who work for less; still others will find that as they age, their experience matters ever less. These are the spectres of uselessness today - images not of people confronting a broken economic machine, but of their own irrelevance in a system that works efficiently, and profitably.
When the press writes scare stories about the labour supply draining jobs from rich to poor places, it is usually presented as a "race to the bottom" simply in terms of wages. Capitalism supposedly looks for labour wherever labour is cheapest. This story is half wrong. A kind of cultural selection is also at work. Indian call centres are a good example. Here, jobs are performed by people who are at least bilingual; they have refined their skills so the caller doesn't know whether she has reached Hertford or Bombay. Many have had two years of university; on the job they have been well trained. The workers are better educated and trained than call-service workers in the west. The wages are indeed abominable, paid to highly capable people.
Replaced by machines
The second spectre of uselessness lurks in automation. The fear that machines will replace humans is ancient. In the past, however, the threat was overdramatised. Thanks to the revolution in computing and microelectronics, automation has converted science fiction into reality.
Automation now truly delivers productivity gains. From 1998 to 2002, the Sprint Corporation increased its productivity by 15% by using voice-recognition software, while cutting its payroll by 11,500 workers. From 1982 to 2002, steel production in the US rose from 75m tons to 102m tons, even as the number of steelworkers dropped from 289,000 to 74,000. These jobs were not exported; for the most part, machines took over. Workers are finally facing the spectre of automated uselessness. Machines subtract labour across the board: Sprint's job losses were in its human-service sector.
Both job migration and automation are special cases which affect some, but not all, labour. Ageing defines a much more sweeping domain of uselessness. Everyone grows old, and, enfeebled, we all become at some point useless in the sense of unproductive.
Ageism embodies an obvious paradox. Modern medicine enables us to live and to work longer. It made sense, in 1950, to set retirement at 55 or 60, because the average male worker was likely to live only to his early 70s. Today, 50% of American males live into their early 80s. When retirement age is kept to the old standard, males have 15 to 20 years in which they could be productively employed but are not.
Age more directly touches the question of talent if we think about how long a skill lasts. How long will the skills you learned in university serve you? Less and less. "Skills extinction" has sped up not only in technical work, but in medicine, law and crafts. One estimate for computer repair men is that they have to relearn their skills three times in the course of their working lives; the figure is about the same for doctors. When you acquire a skill, you don't have a durable possession.
An employer could choose to retrain a 50-year-old or hire a bright young thing of 25 already up to speed. It's much cheaper to hire the bright young thing - both because the older employee will have a higher salary and because retraining is itself expensive.
There's a further social wrinkle in this process. Older employees tend to be more judgmental of employers. In retraining, they behave like other mature students, judging the value of the skill and the way it is taught in light of how they have lived. Young workers, lacking experience or standing, tend to behave prudently; if they don't like the conditions, they tend to leave. Because firms expect employees to move around, and because these firms do not reward longevity, the employer's choice is clear. The younger person is both cheaper and less trouble.
The result is that as experience increases, it loses value. The diminishing value of experience is, however, more than just a prejudice against wrinkling flesh. Skills extinction is a durable feature of technological advance. Automation is indifferent to experience. Market forces make it cheaper to buy fresh skills rather than pay for retraining. And the draw of capable workers in the global South cannot be stemmed by the worker in the North through the invocation of his or her service and understanding of a firm and its work.
What can a state offer?
The spectre of uselessness poses a challenge to the welfare state. What can it offer those who are marginalised? The late 20th century response was not good. Even in countries such as Britain and Germany, which have good retraining programmes, it has proved difficult to cure the unemployment resulting from automation. The state proved inept at dealing with the conundrums of work experience, as at the Rover works in Britain, where large numbers of long-serving employees found the state had nothing positive to offer them for their decades of work - indeed, nothing to say to them other than "sorry" when the firm went bust.
Cultural attitudes have derailed the public realm from coping with the spectre of uselessness. The "new man" takes pride in eschewing dependency. This cuts down on public responsibility. But it avoids an equally hard truth. Uselessness begets dependency; insufficiency breeds the need for help.
The welfare system deals poorly with the underemployed. In the US, about a fifth of men in their 50s suffer underemployment. No figures exist for women, but given the prejudices about women workers in general, and middle-aged women in particular, their underemployment surely cannot be less.
The most afflicted subjects I have interviewed are middle-class, middle-aged men who, cut out of the old corporate culture, have trouble finding a place in the new. Few are self-pitying. When they set up as consultants, as some do, they vigorously pursue whatever leads come their way. But in their communities, these men become invisible. Others avoid asking them questions, for fear of raising the issue of uselessness. "Your friends talk sports and kids with you, but avoid business," one said to me. When they try to use the network of contacts they developed in their old firms, "it's like nobody knew you," another observed.
While the welfare state provides cash for those unemployed, the underemployed cannot be easily monetised, and their social problems tend to be ignored. In Europe, the state could finance the transfer of their knowledge and experience into the various activities of the "caring" economy and non-profit work, but does not.
The diminishing value of experience reveals what "skill" means - the ability to do new things, rather than to draw on what one has already learned. The new capitalism slights the craftsman and celebrates the person who can learn new tricks fast.
This new meaning is especially influential among management consultants. The consultant embodies the new ideal: flitting from company to company, getting a quick fix on problems, recommending changes, then departing, leaving the consequences for others to sort out, the consultant's skill is not based on doing one thing well, in one place, with sustained relations with other people.
The person who, by contrast, has the work ethic of a craftsman will dig into problems, acting on the impulse to get something right; this is a psychological strength, but sends a negative social signal - the stubbornness and obsession that fuels craftsmanship slows you down. The craftsman is likely to seem dysfunctional in a culture of innovation and change.
The spectre of uselessness lifts the curtain on a fraught cultural drama. Management guru W Edwards Deming predicted a generation ago that capitalism will "do more with less". That prediction has come true. Global export of labour and automation have made it so for increasing numbers. They become surplus to requirements simply by ageing.
Solution to problems
Remedies as old as Thomas Jefferson's belief in "natural aristocracy" or as recent as Tony Blair's celebration of "meritocracy" are not remedies for ordinary people; they celebrate the talented individual's escape from the mass. However, I don't believe the problems posed by "doing more with less" are insoluble, nor that we should look back to an earlier age for models of how to solve them.
One place to start is in the public sector. In my view, the task ahead of the welfare state is to finance and to organise usefulness. Many tasks that provide care and mentoring are either poorly paid or unpaid; unrecognised as work. As the private economy sheds workers, we ought to invent ways to use the skills and experience of these workers as carers - which is to say that we need to expand the welfare state, rather than shrink it or convert it into a private, profitable enterprise.
I don't offer this as a total panacea for uselessness, but rather as the kind of experiment we need to make, socially, to countervail against the economy's ever stronger tendency to do more with less. Usefulness is the political project of our times.
· The Culture of the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett is published by Yale University Press on February 28 at £14.99
Indian call centres are a good example. Here, jobs are performed by people who are at least bilingual; they have refined their skills so the caller doesn't know whether she has reached Hertford or Bombay.
That's news to me.