The year the job broke
The job was once something we felt we could depend on. A stable relationship, the job created a consistent link between the work we performed and the recompense we received. We were given roles to play and guaranteed livings — whether that meant sewing crops in a Neolithic farm to gain access to the fruits of our hunter-gatherer colleagues' expeditions or manning the front desk at an insurance company in exchange for a paycheck and health care.
We once learned from our jobs. Bargaining portions of our lives away in apprenticeships to be trained in particular skill sets like the manufacture of wooden cabinetry or forging of iron tools, we gained a sense of unique purpose. Some jobs, such as smithing or the management of horses, became common surnames, such was the extent to which we identified ourselves with them. The job was a directed pursuit toward a practical discipline, not just a meaningless scramble for the ingredients necessary to sustain ourselves in an unkind world.
Until recently, our jobs defined us as members of a structured society moving toward unified goals. "Probably no other sentence comes up at a party as often as: 'So, what do you do?,'" the Berlin critic Patrick Spaet recently wrote in the Baffler. "There is an unspoken question behind this: 'Are you useful?' Work determines our social status: tell me what your job is — and I'll tell you who you are."
"The work fetish has become deeply ingrained in the DNA of western industrial nations," Spaet continues. And why should it not? The job has been our friend, a contract between an individual and a larger group thereof that they will not be left behind so long as they continue to fulfill their duties. But our commitment to the job has wavered, and our fetish for work is wavering as the nature of labor and who benefits from it has changed.
This past year, 2014, was the year the job broke. Or, at least, we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain. Businesses — actually massive technological platforms of a size heretofore only attained by government infrastructure — moved to disrupt our concept of the full-time job by encouraging the idea that, on the internet, we are all working for ourselves rather than each other.
Decentralized companies like Uber, HomeJoy, Lyft, and others that deliver on-demand services via the internet maintain little of the physical infrastructure required by the factories of the Industrial Revolution, though they hire similar crowds of workers. These businesses have decided to revolutionize their chosen industries not as much by shifting the nature of the products they offer, but in the costs they take on in providing them.
Those costs are displaced to the people the companies hire, who are not offered jobs but instead temporary gigs that they are left to compete over. These are not jobs for employees, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, what Uber and its cohort create are opportunities to make money in a moral vacuum. As Quartz puts it, "the secret to the Uber economy is wealth inequality."
Maybe we mourn the job only because in the United States we once had it and thus its absence is perceptible as a pervasive, expanding hole in the national psyche. Other countries have not been so lucky. To those where we have exported the manufacturing jobs we once held dear, the job entails few unions, set hours, or appreciable skills. We don't miss factories, but we miss the paychecks they provided. At home, we depend on temporary, migratory laborers, a group that includes even the elderly, to perform the jobs we prefer hidden. What we don't realize is that on the internet, we are all migratory laborers.
Uber, the superlative that has come to be a byword for a particular kind of exploitation in the name of successful disruption, would have us believe that we are all entrepreneurs carving out personal business in the fertile space of the digital firmament, like gold-rush miners panning in a California stream. If we are the sifters of the monetary opportunities (né jobs) buried online, then Uber has become the dam that controls the flow of the stream.
This was a year in which the difference between capital and cash, equity and salary, the sifter and the dam, became more apparent than ever, a separation that Thomas Piketty's popular economics tome Capital helped to drive home. Piketty's theory is that capital — shares of companies, real estate, other factors of production — reproduces wealth faster than the salary gains of a traditional job, hence our rapidly inflating inequality of the one percent, and the 0.01 percent.
But we are not all entrepreneurs, nor can all of us aspire or afford to be! To argue that the disappearance of the job is an emancipation rather than a bereavement is to force the ideology of start-ups on all workers even though a culture of mutual support has not emerged between technology companies and the larger population. When Apple — which still lacks a corporate giving program — pays less of a percentage on its profits than most individuals, that ethos is not just wrong but deadly.
It's not that we can't afford to give everyone jobs and salaries and health care. Technology corporations are absorbing more venture funding and retaining more liquid cash than ever before. Rather, it's an attitude that is changing, that workers are more useful separated than together, that CEOs benefit more from coddling their highest-paid employees than making sure the entirety of their workforce is satisfied with the company's business structure.
The result of this joblessness is a disenfranchised workforce that feels a right to the same benefits it once had but now lacks and does not understand why they are suddenly missing. Venture capitalists, star developers, and management will retain all of the standard advantages of the old jobs, with the added sweeteners of sprawling offices made from the shells of former industrial factories, catered lunches, Ping-Pong tables, and equity. As 2015 arrives, everyone else might be wise to seek out local co-working space before all the other mini-entrepreneurs beat us to it.
Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.
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