Have you noticed the West is in the throes of a full-blown populist uprising? Whether it's Brexit, left-wing movements in the Mediterranean, the establishment parties booted from the presidential runoff in Austria, the rise of France's Marine Le Pen, or, of course, America's own Donald Trump, populism is surging.
This phenomenon has many causes, including identity, values, and the fecklessness of our elites. But one important issue has to do with work. And it's not just about the unemployment rate, which in most countries has dropped from its post-2008 highs. It's about dignity.
Yes, globalization and automation have destroyed many jobs and are going to destroy more. But the problem runs deeper. It's not just that there are fewer jobs, but that the nature of work is changing. Whether to bemoan or applaud, we often hail this as the rise of the "gig economy."
The trouble is that people look for more than just a livelihood in work. We seek dignity and impact. For most of us, work is a necessary part of flourishing. As Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) put it recently on Twitter, what this means in the 21st century is crucial and underexplored.
One way to think about the phenomenon is provided by Nick Grossman and Elizabeth Woyke in Serving Workers in the Gig Economy. The various parts of what we usually mean by "a job," they say, are becoming unbundled, in the same way technology broke apart many other services into separate parts.
It makes sense. A "job" isn't just exchanging services for money. In many cases, it includes a raft of benefits such as health care coverage and a retirement pension, of course. But it also includes a social circle, learning, a career path, and a part of our sense of self.
All of those bits are becoming unbundled in various ways. An Uber driver definitely exchanges services for money, but when it comes to the other aspects, he's on his own. A freelance web designer who finds clients through the web might learn a lot through her work, but will have to make an extra effort to make friends.
Reversing this unbundling process is probably neither possible nor desirable. So how do we find a way to restore the dignity of work?
One idea is a bold proposal by Cesar Conda and Derek Khanna to integrate the gig economy into the welfare system, allowing people to stay connected through work even when they're on welfare. Under their proposal, welfare access would be conditional on working a number of hours in the gig economy, thereby maintaining the crucial link to the workforce that enables welfare recipients to bounce back instead of being sucked into the quicksand of poverty traps.
Another idea might be to bring back the fraternal societies of the late 19th century. Before there was a welfare state, there was mutual aid, as the historian David Bieto points out in a crucial book. So-called fraternal societies — think the Knights of Columbus, which originated as a mutual aid society to help Catholic immigrants — provided not only health care coverage and other forms of insurance, but also a sense of belonging and a social circle for workers going through an earlier definition of work wrought by industrialization.
Another analogue would be the compagnonnage, the traditional French elite apprenticeship system for the country's best tradesmen. After years of intense apprenticeship, a compagnon is always a compagnon — the members of the informal guild help each other with business contacts, fellowship, and even mutual aid.
Of course, these sorts of institutions would have to look different in the 21st century. The closest analogue today to what I'm thinking of is the Freelancers Union, which, as the name says, helps freelancers get the sorts of benefits normally associated with stable jobs. Historically, the Freelancers Union has been an aggregator for health care coverage, allowing members access to America's byzantine market.
It's possible to imagine mutual aid societies, lodges, fraternal organizations, church-based organizations, and so on, that help people navigate the gig economy and find dignity in work. Maybe they own physical workspaces so lonely freelancers can have their watercooler. Maybe they set up meet-ups of members to exchange ideas and socialize. Maybe they have their own online training and education programs so that one gig economy job is a stepping stone to a higher-skilled one. Maybe they offer counseling of various sorts. Maybe they offer financial services — if everyone has to be a CEO, the organizations can be CFOs. And maybe they offer various sorts of financial programs, such as unemployment insurance and pensions, which might be subsidized by the government acting as a reinsurer on quasi-market terms.
Some societies would be open to all, but others would be selective on some criterion — say, by profession, revenue, education, or even religion, minority status, location, veteran status, or simple co-optation — so that belonging to them might become a point of pride and a form of social insurance itself, the way a college degree once was. Because this suite of services would allow anyone to embark on their career rationally, belonging to such a society would give one a sense, not only of security, but of dignity and belonging.
And it even might be that one day, when chit-chatting with a stranger, instead of asking "What do you do?" you'll find yourself asking "What society are you in?"