Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Future of Work

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Future of Work

Article excerpt

The advent of an 'intangible' economy does not mean the end of work. But it does mean the end of familiar routines and rhythms, of job security, of rigid hierarchies and career planning

People are worried about the far-reaching transformation of the economy. Are we heading for "the end of work" predicted by the American economist Jeremy Rifkin? He and his supporters say we have reached the end of the road. We are no longer creating jobs in industry and automation is sure to reduce their number in the services sector. The quantity of work is thus inexorably bound to decrease.

This thesis may be popular, but it is also mistaken and harmful. History shows that technological innovation has always created jobs on a large scale. In no way is the current trend leading to "the end of work". Just the opposite: the new economy contains huge pools of new jobs which can more than make up for the inevitable loss of traditional jobs.

Dematerialization - the shift away from material products - is revolutionizing all aspects of work - its nature, its organization and its relationship with other activities. Its function is no longer just the manufacture of physical objects but the handling of data, images and symbols. The content of jobs is becoming more abstract. Skilled workers need to know a lot more about mathematics than their fathers or grandfathers did. Even milking cows and manufacturing require more and more calculation, evaluation and control.

Financial markets that never sleep

The organization as well as the product of work is also becoming increasingly intangible. The unity of time, space and action which characterized work in the industrial economy has disintegrated. Work is no longer a regular eight-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week routine. New rhythms have appeared - the hectic pace of financial markets which never sleep, the ups-and-downs of life in show business and the uncertainties of "just-in-time" production where components are delivered a few moments before the final product is assembled.

The new jobs are quitting familiar workplaces such as factories, offices and warehouses. Telework is increasing. Europe's teleworkers may number 10 million by the year 2000, up from one million in 1994.

This upheaval of worktime and workspace is going hand in hand with a functional explosion. The range of skills and types of work is expanding all the time. In the United States, the number of job categories has risen from eighty in the 1940s to nearly 800 today. At the same time, trades are dying out faster and faster, especially in information technology where many jobs have a short life of only a few years. Jobs are becoming simultaneously more evanescent and more pervasive, more dissociated and more integrated. On the one hand, fragmentation in time and space seems to be more extensive than it was in the industrial economy. On the other, information technology is strengthening the links between different stages of work and creating an overall fluidity.

Disparities in productivity

The new forms of work are non-linear. When handling information, knowledge and feelings, there is no direct relationship between the amount of effort and the final result. This makes for very wide disparities in productivity. In industry, the ratio of the performance of an average worker to that of a good one is no more than one to five. But in immaterial work, an excellent programmer can be a hundred times more productive than an average one.

Non-linear work means non-linear organization. The notion of a rigid, formal hierarchy based on unchanging criteria no longer makes much sense. All that matters now is technical, scientific or artistic skill and the ability to establish a solid relationship with the customer. Functional hierarchy is replaced by what Thomas Stewart, a journalist with the American monthly magazine Fortune, calls "brainpower" - authority gravitates to those who create and control the new stock of intangible assets: data, brand image, technological know-how and human capital. …

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