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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #75, December 1996. It was written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Another article on this topic, "Work and its future," is also on this site.

Aronowitz' critique of this article - which he admits in his letter that he hadn't read - appears at the end of this page.


How jobless the future?

A few issues ago, LBO looked at some projections about the future of work - giddily optimistic from cybertopians, and relentlessly pessimistic from Jeremy Rifkin. Both were found wanting. Since the pessimistic line won't die - you can hardly go to any left gathering these days without hearing it in some form or other - let's revisit it, this time by examining the claims of Rifkin's Doppelganger, The Jobless Future, by Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio.

Aronowitz, of course, is most recently famous as one of the parties responsible for Social Text's publication of Alan Sokal's hoax article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Sokal's article quoted Aronowitz and other heavies in the science studies field to make an argument that literally made no sense. Aronowitz, scholar of science that he is, had no idea that he was being duped. Now he denies having had much to do with the piece's acceptance, even though sources around Social Text say he was an enthusiastic advocate of publishing Sokal; instead, Stanley is gallantly blaming his colleague Andrew Ross. But there's no need to review this history here; it's been well-covered in Lingua Franca, among other places.


Rotten foundation

Aronowitz also considers himself an expert on labor, and views The Jobless Future as a sequel to his 1988 tome, Science as Power. Science and labor meet in the modern job market: technology is proving so wondrous that machines are replacing living workers, and idleness is now becoming our common fate.

Aronowitz and DiFazio's whole book flows essentially from the assertions of its first paragraph:

We live in hard times. The economic stagnation and decline that changed many lives after the stock market crash of 1987 and blossomed into a full-blown recession in 1990 lingers despite frequent self-satisfied statements by politicians and economists that the recovery has finally arrived (1992, 1993, 1994). Nevertheless, there are frequent puzzled statements by the same savants to the effect that although we are once again on the road to economic growth, it is a jobless recovery. Then, in the months in which the Department of Labor records job growth, we are dismayed to discover that most of the jobs are part-time, near the minimum wage.

It's tempting to quote Ezra Pound's "wrong from the start" - but the first sentence of this excerpt is the only one that's true. Virtually all the evidence marshalled to prove the point is factually wrong. Growth in the two years after the 1987 crash averaged a respectable, if not boomy, 3.4%. The recession that followed was briefer and milder than the post-World War II average. The recovery from that slump was admittedly weak and tentative at first, but it did happen, and it ceased being "jobless" in early 1992. Over 1.4 million new jobs were created in 1992, and the total since the recession trough is over 12 million new jobs. While many of them are crappy, most are not part-time and few are near the minimum wage.

The claim about part-time jobs deserves closer scrutiny, since it has taken on a life of its own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) divides part-time work into two categories - for economic reasons and for noneconomic reasons. (The BLS's old terms for these categories are clearer - involuntary and voluntary.) People who are working part-time for economic reasons would like full-time work, but can only find the part-time variety; those who are working part-time for noneconomic reasons want only part-time employment.

Since the 1992 trough in employment, part-time employment has grown - but all that growth has been in the voluntary kind. The ranks of those working part time for economic reasons have shrunk by two million. Graphed nearby are the two types of part-time work as a share of total employment; note that there is no rising trend in the involuntary part-time line over the last 40 years. It rises in recessions, and falls during expansions, but without any upward drift over the long term. [Note not in the print edition of this article: there was a tightening of the definition in January 1994. Instead of inferring the status from answers to other questions, BLS surveyors explicitly asked unwilling part-timers is they were interested in and available for full-time employment. This knocked a percentage point off the share. Adjusting for this change would bring 1997's count to about the level of 1989, rather than being below it as it appears on the chart.]

Overwork is at least as characteristic of the labor market now as is underwork. Nearly twice as many people hold down multiple jobs as are involuntarily limited to part-time work (7.8 million vs. 4.3 million) - and well over half the multiply employed hold at least one full-time job.

Temporary jobs, another favorite of the Aronowitz/DiFazio and Rifkin schools, are growing, but they account for just 10% of the total growth in jobs since 1992, and just over 2% of total employment. All-in-all, according to a BLS survey, workers classified as "contingent" - temp and contract workers with explicitly limited job tenure - accounted for under 5% of total employment in 1995, and a third of the contingent were pretty happy with the arrangement.


Bad science

The reason work is said to be disappearing is because of some great productivity miracle, in which machines are replacing labor. This is the science angle, the reason that The Jobless Future is pegged as a sequel to Science as Power. Again, there is no evidence for this. The BLS offers two measures of productivity, one strictly of labor productivity - real (inflation-adjusted) output per hour worked and one of "multifactor" productivity, which includes capital inputs along with labor. Now the concept of productivity of capital is very problematic, conceptually and practically. An hour of labor is an hour of labor, but just what is a unit of capital? What is a unit of drill press, or a unit of computer? You can express all those material things in dollar terms, but at what value, purchase price or its cost today? How do you handle computers, whose real price continues to drop like a stone? But for all those problems, let's see if the official numbers match the assertions of the gloomsters - which curiously echo those of cybertopians like George Gilder and Wired, though with a morbid spin.

The graphs nearby offer no support for the fundamental change argument. Labor productivity in all private nonagricultural industry is growing at under 1% a year, and well below Golden Age levels. Manufacturing productivity is growing more quickly, but the Aronowitz/DiFazio-Rifkin lines hold that the real jobkilling action is in the service industries, where computers are making human workers obsolete - but they're not. Nor does the capital productivity series offer any evidence of a fundamental change; quite the contrary, output per unit of real capital is in a 40-year downtrend.

Maybe the sea change is ahead of us, not upon us. But there is just no evidence, aside from some gee-whiz anecdotes Aronowitz and DiFazio have picked up in the business press, that things have fundamentally changed. Our authors have rather loose standards of evidence. "Most recently," they write, "Alvin Toffler and Jacques Attali have offered futurologies that confirm prognostications of the workerless factory and office." Very nice indeed; today's futurologists are called in to confirm the wrong predictions of yesterday's soothsayers!



This fact-checking has relied entirely on U.S. experience. Here, such provincialism is defensible; the U.S., despite its problems, is probably the most technically advanced of all the major economies (with the possible exception of Japan), and the U.S. has one of the least regulated labor markets in the First World. So if the Aronowitz/DiFazio-Rifkin diagnosis were correct, it should probably be most visible in the U.S. But it ain't. We see plenty of wage polarization, a disappearance of middle-income jobs, the loss of fringe benefits, longer hours, speedup, and rising stress - but no generalized disappearance of work.

But non-U.S. experience offers no backup for Aronowitz and DiFazio either. Asian stats on capital productivity show no great leaps forward. A recent survey of employers in New Zealand - which has experienced one of the world's most extreme bouts of deregulation over the last decade - shows a decline in reliance on "casual" labor (temp, part-time, contract, etc.), to the surprise of the surveyors. An OECD study shows an increase in the share of temporary arrangements in total employment since the early 1980s in Australia, France, the Netherlands, and Spain; little change in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the U.K.; and drops in Belgium, Greece, and Portugal - in other words, a very mixed picture. In the cases of France and Spain, the growth in temp work can be traced to legal changes more than anything else.

In its 1996/97 World Employment Report, the International Labor Office (ILO) argues that a review of the global evidence shows no support for end of work theories. There's been no long-term structural change in the relationship between economic growth and employment growth. In areas of high unemployment, like Western and Eastern Europe, the main causes are slow growth and economic collapse, respectively, not technological transformation. Faster growth may not be politically possible or ecologically desirable, but those are different matters entirely. In Latin America and Asia, paid employment is growing, as peasants are daily transformed into industrial workers, for good or ill.

Further, says the ILO, "while there has been some increase in self-employment, part-time work and other non-standard forms of employment, this has not meant the disappearance of regular jobs. Data on job tenure do not show any generalized decline in either the period employed individuals have been with their current employer or projected future tenure. At the same time there is also no evidence that the rate of job change has increased in labour markets...."

Of course, none of this is meant to argue that the world of work is wondrously pleasant or secure. It rarely is. But for all the centuries of its history, capitalism has drawn an ever-larger share of the population into paid labor - while never supplying as many jobs as people would like. In other words, unemployment is a constant feature of economic life, rising in bad times, and falling in good. Times of mass unemployment like the 1930s are rare in the rich industrialized countries, but so are times of low unemployment, like the 1960s. There's no evidence that this fundamental fact of capitalist life has changed.

The increasing harshness characterizing economic life can be traced to some very old-fashioned causes - like tight money, tight budgets, increased capital mobility, and union-busting - rather than epochal technological transformations. The recent U.S. downsizing mania, which now may be waning, can be traced largely to pressures from Wall Street for fatter profits and higher stock prices - far more than to snazzier microprocessors and competition from Malaysia.

In fact, few things could make the world's bosses happier than blaming abstractions like "technology" and "globalization" rather than the bosses themselves or the charming system known as capitalism; blaming impersonal forces is one giant step towards naturalizing a problem that's really social in origin. Worse, by encouraging a belief in the inevitability of downsizing, the end-of-work crowd may be deepening the sense of resignation that lubricates the austerity agenda, rather than encouraging a challenge to it.

Aronowitz and DiFazio use the inevitability of job-death to argue for less work and more leisure, and for shorter workweeks as a way of boosting employment. These are extremely admirable goals in themselves. But there's no better way to discredit the left, which has enough credibility problems as it is, than to make your case by using arguments that can't survive a routine bout of fact-checking.

Shortly after the publication of this piece, Aronowitz wrote this letter:

Over the weekend I received calls and email expressing dismay at your recent LBO comment on my book The Jobless Future. My informants expressed dismay that you misread or did not read the book. The title is a metaphor for the disappearance of good jobs, not paid work. The book details the replacement of high-paying jobs with part-time, contingent and temporary work and spends a great deal of time discussing the reasons for it. Nowhere in the book do we predict or state that paid work is disappearing. Apparently you read the title and some misleading comments by others, but not the book, at least carefully. Needless to say some of the 50 reviews have made the same mistake that you have done. Manuel Castells has made the same mistake because he confuses our thesis with that of Jeremy Rifkin who predicts the end of work. We do not.

I have arranged with my publisher to ship a copy to you. You may not like what we say but I hope you represent what we say with greater accuracy.

Best wishes.
Stanley Aronowitz, New York

LBO responds to Aronowitz

from #76, February 1997

It's nice to be accused of careless reading by someone who, without having seen the piece in question, relies on "informants" to tell him what's been written about him and his coauthor (who disappears in the phrase "my book"). LBO responded to specific points made in the book, and much of the article was devoted to refuting the claims Aronowitz makes again in this letter about "part-time, contingent and temporary work." Such claims are not supported by data from the U.S. and other First World economies. Maybe the figures are wrong, but that case would have to be made by techniques more rigorous than assertion and anecdote.

But the book does argue, like Rifkin's, that paid work is disappearing. "So, from the construction of buildings and the production of machinery, the number of workers...is reduced by quantum measures in computer-mediated labor" (emphasis in original, whatever it means). "But given the astounding improvement in productivity...attributable to computerization...there is no evidence that a general economic recovery would restore most of the lost jobs...." In fact, productivity growth is unspectacular and all the lost jobs have been restored plus 11 million new ones. That's hardly cause to strike up the "Star-Spangled Banner," but apparently Aronowitz feels that just as you needn't know any science to be an expert on "technoculture," neither does being an expert on labor require any knowledge of labor markets.

Why is it that so many people seem to have misunderstood The Jobless Future - including two of the reviewers quoted on the jacket? Could it be that it's indulgent, confused, and badly written? That anything like a coherent point is buried under tons of hamhanded theory? ("Core knowledge becomes a description of the relationship between reified hypothesis and the limits of technologically and electronically mediated procedures.")

U.S. labor markets are, and always have been, quite turbulent. But for some reason, official statistics suggest skepticism about Aronowitz' claims. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has just released its latest job tenure survey. It showed that in 1996 the average (median) worker had been at his or her job for 3.8 years, little changed from 1983's 3.5 years. There was less stability when you look at workers by age and sex. Tenure for men in every age group fell, with 55-64 year olds falling the most, from 15.3 to 10.5; 35-44 year olds, from 7.3 to 6.1. But since workers are, on average, getting older, and tenure rises with age, the average for all men fell only slightly, from 4.1 to 4.0. Tenure for women rose on average - from 3.1 to 3.5 years - and in half the age groups. Looked at by industry, tenure rose slightly in the private sector - steady in manufacturing, up a bit in services. This looks like a picture of increasing volatility for older men, part of a slow convergence of the work lives of the genders, but not an epochal transformation. Figures on part-time and contingent work quoted in last issue's article are even less friendly to The Jobless Future's analysis. This isn't to minimize the pain or prevalence of unemployment and insecurity. It's just a call for writers to know what they're talking about before engaging the word processor.

There are many ironies here. This newsletter has argued that the degrees of globalization and technological change are exaggerated both in cybertopian propaganda and leftish jeremiads. Similarly, today isn't as jobless as yesterday's futurists predicted. But the fact that people believe deeply in globalization, technological hyperspace, and vanishing jobs has greatly weakened the bargaining power of workers, both organized and unorganized. Worse, for many individual workers, the macro trends are irrelevant; it's clear that employers use the threat of a move to Mexico to extract concessions, a threat it's difficult to ignore even if it's a bluff. This balance of forces is very pleasing to Wall Street and the Fed; both have tolerated an unemployment rate persistently under 5.5% because they think that labor is so desperately weak that there's no danger of "wage inflation." The Fed would almost certainly tighten at any sign of increased labor militancy. Maybe all of us, LBO included, should spend more time trying to figure out what to do about this awful standoff and less circulating horror stories.

Aronowitz and DiFazio focus on the inevitability of joblessness to promote an admirable agenda - shorter hours, more leisure, more security, less time spent on the production of toxins and schlock, less alienation. The pervasiveness of overwork is a better argument for that program than is the exaggeration of underwork. As
Suck reported on January 21, "Since 1969, full-time employees in the United States have increased by a full workday the hours they put in each week, and in the past two decades, the number of people working over 50 hours a week has increased by a third." What does a book called The Jobless Future have to say to them?

© Copyright 1996, 1997, Left Business Observer. All rights reserved.

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