Chapter Summary for Chapter 20
The general term ‘work’ is defined broadly as tasks requiring mental or physical effort. Not all work is paid employment. Other hidden forms of work exist, such as self-provisioning, housework and voluntary work. Globally, agriculture remains the main source of work in the developing world but accounts for only a tiny proportion of paid work in the developed world.
A complex division of labour and the expansion of economic interdependence accompanied the emergence of industrial capitalism. The division of labour reached its logical conclusion in the emergence of Taylorism and its mass production partner, Fordism. These had their weaknesses including high start-up costs and a relatively rigid production process. Such ‘low-trust’ systems can be contrasted with ‘high-trust’ systems, where workers operate with greater autonomy and cooperation.
A whole series of techniques and initiatives are described by the term ‘post-Fordism’ including group production and mass customization. These are epitomized by the Quality Circle, a concept alien to Taylorist assumptions that workers need to be stripped of opportunities for creative input. Such systems tend to be marked by high skill levels and rapid turnover of product designs.
The decline of manufacturing industry as an employer can be explained both by competition from the Far East and the increasing rate of technological change. Global production systems have also contributed to the movement of industry around the world. These processes have led to a steady decline in trade union membership since the 1970s.
The separation of home and work contributed to the marginalization of women from paid employment, a pattern gradually reversed during the twentieth century. Within the economy women remain concentrated in poorly paid routine occupations. Either work becomes routinized and recreated as ‘women’s work’, or heartlands of female employment slowly have their status eroded over time. Labour-force participation is higher among childless women, though many more females now return to their full-time jobs after childbirth than they did a decade ago. Women dominate part-time employment, though their reasons for remaining in such jobs remain the source of controversy.
The most notable change in working life in developed countries has been the expansion of female participation in the paid labour market and consequent erosion of the male breadwinner model within families. Among men, the trend has been away from manual work and latterly also away from routine non-manual labour. These trends have levelled off in recent years, with women remaining over-represented in routine white-collar jobs and men over-represented in skilled manual work. Despite women’s advances across the economy, the top posts remain the preserve of men. Women in the most recent generation have benefited from the legislation passed in the 1970s, but the pay divide remains substantial over a lifetime.
Debates on skills in the workplace have tended to become polarized between those, like Braverman, who see capitalism as continually deskilling the workforce as new machines and technologies replace crafts and creativity; and others, like Blauner, who argue that it is not technology per se but the way this is used, that is most important.
Recent theories have focused on the proposed shift towards a knowledge economy in which information production and knowledge (such as research and design) underpin innovation and economic growth. In some of the developed countries, more than half of business output comes from the knowledge-based industries, though the extent to which these remain reliant on manufacturing is still debated.
Many individuals still find themselves either temporarily but repeatedly, or indeed totally, excluded from the labour market. Work is still very important in people’s lives because it offers money, a level of activity, variety, a temporal structure, social contacts, personal identity and esteem. Work retains much of its social significance.
Unemployment has a long history and has ebbed and flowed throughout the twentieth century. There are significant effects for individuals, communities and the wider society. These are disproportionately borne by the young and ethnic minorities.
Sennett argues that there is a close relationship between the flexible work patterns of the post-Fordist era and the corrosion of character, as loyalty becomes a liability rather than an asset. A key task for individuals will be to find ways of forging long-term life plans in a society that privileges the short-term.