Work and a changing world Some reflections on two recent studies

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Work and a changing world

Some reflections on two recent studies

Work, which is for man a means of support - for himself and his family- as well as a means of personal fulfilment, is undergoing deep changes in a globalized world; these are linked to the economic and production relationships, that have been stressed several times, among the different areas of the world having different economic, social and cultural development levels as well as to the changes in the demographic and social structures of industrialized countries, including Italy.

Two recent essays on this topic represent stimulating food for thought: they analyze this issue from two different and correlated perspectives leading to partially , although substantially, different conclusions.

The first contribution is a study edited by Ronald Dore – Associate Researcher at the London School of Economics – for the International Labour Office (ILO) and entitled “New forms and meanings of work in an increasingly globalized world”, recently translated in Italy by “Il Mulino” publishers of Bologna as “Il lavoro nel mondo che cambia” (Work in a changing world).

As an initial reflection on the aforementioned theme, it seems interesting to focus on some ideas offered by the above mentioned essay. It starts from taking stock of the substantial failure of Keynesian forecasts concerning the radical reduction of working hours that – according to Keynes’ prediction – should have already been accomplished. Indeed in our contemporary world, the working week should have been made of a handful of hours. On the other hand, it is easily noticed that in may countries there is a trend towards increasing the number of working hours in a year, by applying measures such as an extension of the “working week” or the cancellation of non-working holidays: this is the case of the United States that sometimes are indicated as a model of development.

Moreover, Dore observes that the international scenario – the stage of economic globalization – is neither peaceful nor balanced, especially from the point of view of power and economic relationships and how, in such a context, a gradual loss of value in the “traditional” forms of work and social security is observed, also accompanied by “social” dumping phenomena, in a sort of “competition amongst the poor”.

All this drew our attention to the labour market “flexibility” concept, often looked after as a priority welfare policy in Western countries. As a matter of fact, two different – and antithetic – views of labour market flexibility emerge.

On the one hand, market flexibility is seen as the central role played by market demand and supply mechanisms also in the field of labour that gradually gets free from burdensome public constraints. According to some supporters of this view that results from Anglo-American development models, this would lead to a gradual improvement social and production systems.

On the other hand, according to an alternative view, flexibility involves lack of work stability, especially in some sectors and for less professionally or culturally workers, that is not offset by appropriate benefits for workers.

This seems to stem from a dichotomic gap between requests of freedom – inherent in the first view of flexibility – and the demand to establish other values, such as solidarity and equality. In this respect, it interesting to wonder to what extent these requests are really conflicting and to what extent, instead, their reconciliation can be the source of new opportunities of human and social development.

To conclude, the Author identifies two sets of problems that emerge in a globalized international context. First of all, the need to promote widespread "minimum” working conditions that help guarantee working conditions also in less "developed" countries - at least from the regulatory point of view - and that envisage outsourcing phenomena, especially on the part of multinational companies in labour intensive production sectors. ILO's mission, as international standard promoter, is to be seen in this context, especially as far as the weak, less skilled segments of the population, unable of self-defence, are concerned.

Secondly, it is stressed that the spreading of a certain "cultural supremacy" of Anglo-Saxon cultural models is going through a gradual crisis, involving also the related labour management models. This culture is not the only one, nor the best one – not even in terms of the capital-labour relationship - to the point that the need is emerging to rethink those exclusively market-oriented capital/labour relationship-based schemes.

A different approach to the problem is described in the essay by the sociologist and past president of the "Istituto Nazionale di Previdenza Sociale (INPS)"(National Social Security Institute), Mr Massimo Paci, entitled "Nuovi lavori, nuovo welfare. Sicurezza e libertà nella società attiva” (New jobs, new welfare. Safety and freedom in the active society), recently edited by "Il Mulino” publishers of Bologna.

The Author takes especially into account the changes occurred in the labour market, their interrelation with social structures and dynamics, starting from the consideration that the economic conditions of international scenarios present signs of crisis in the production system efficiency levels as well as in the financial conditions of traditional welfare systems. The Author perceives in all this – from the point of view of a widespread culture and opinion - a substantial "opposition" to the individualization process and to the related flexibility that is taking place in the labour market.

However, individualization may be rightly interpreted as an attitude that is foreign to egoistic individualism, a sort of "reappropriation" on the part of individual workers - operators in the market - of the management of some crucial factors in the labour market, such as flexibility in the work forms, shifting one’s “offer” towards tendentially - and subjectively - higher levels of personal satisfaction, the choice of when to stop working and the consequent retirement, the choice of social security and health care schemes, traditionally confined to the public powers’ decision making sphere.

In other words, we would need to (re)-activate a “multi-active” society also in the welfare and labour policy field, by promoting collaboration forms in the market, based on production paradigms that differ from the traditional ones that (inevitably) failed, like the Ford model. “Flexibilization” of work also offers the possibility for labour and the related welfare to get free from the – regulatory, cultural and economic – “domination” of companies and, especially, of the State, making intermediate social bodies and private – personal or associate – initiatives free to act and manifest.

Some approaches in this respect may, for example, focus on a gradual shifting of policies - and, consequently, of resources - from high productivity sectors to the low productivity ones such as, in particular, services to people that encourage the development of "jobs" requiring a high interaction between service provider and user.

Moreover, it is appropriate and necessary to reconsider the time devoted to work and to the distribution of time to work and other activities: the organization of social and personal time is, indeed, still structured according to the “work-centric” Ford model, preventing full human fulfilment in the professional sphere, but also the access to work to particular social segments, according to age or genre.

Furthermore, it is necessary to reconsider the active “aging” processes, that is the gradual increase in the average age of the population and its use, both as resource and as potential way to relieve the welfare system, which tends to be obsolete and unsustainable.

In short, Paci’s proposal suggests to interpret individualization as self-promotion of one's personal condition and consequent social improvement. As a result, the "flexibilization" of work forms, hours and age is not a risk, but rather an opportunity to change operating and interpretation schemes that are currently dystonic vis-à-vis the real evolution.

To conclude, it is useful to identify – following the suggestions resulting from the international debate and, in particular, those resulting from the review of the aforementioned essays– some initial open questions on the cultural and political table:

  1. Is work "flexibilization" resulting from the economic globalization really a dynamic redemption instrument or, on the contrary, it represents the exacerbation of economic and social gaps within social structures and amongst the various countries?

  2. What policies and economic guidelines can really address human promotion in the labour market, without neglecting the capital's legitimate requests? Are there successful “cultural models” in this respect or, on the contrary, will it be necessary to recover cultural differences as a trump card?

  3. How can intermediate social bodies and the private free initiative become the new actors in the implementation of an active welfare, of a “multi active” society and, in other words, of a civil economy?

Giorgio Mion

Full titles:
Ronald Dore, Il lavoro nel mondo che cambia, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2005 [original title: New forms and meanings of work in an increasingly globalized world, International Labour Organization, Geneve, 2004]
Massimo Paci, Nuovi lavori, nuovo welfare. Sicurezza e libertà nella società attiva, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2005

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