Towards a less stable work life?

More temporary contracts, more flexible positions, and many people without paid jobs at all. The way we think about labour can be about to change, according to anthropologists.

Job hunting could be the future for many more of us in the years to come, according to researchers Martin and Krohn-Hansen.

The idea that fixed, paid labour should be the norm for the majority in society seems natural to many, but is in fact quite recent, and is still only the norm in some parts of the world. However, even in regions where it has been widely accepted for decades the idea is now being challenged. Across Europe and the U.S. businesses are being shut down or transferred to countries where the labour force is cheaper. Short term or zero hours work contracts are getting more common, even in sectors that have been regarded secure and privileged, like academia.

‘A sense of being insecure and precarious was a common feature of millions of people’s lives for most of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. It was only with the post-war economic boom of the 50s and 60s that security was spread to millions more people, in Western Europe and North America at least’, said scientist Keir Martin at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.

‘Now over the past couple of decades insecurity is becoming the 'new normal', but we are still getting used to that fact.’

Feel humiliated without a job

Recently, Martin and other anthropologists discussed the consequences of this development at a seminar named ‘The Reconfiguring of Labour’. Societal changes often don’t happen without problems. Even if many people choose flexibility, there are also many that long for stability, but don’t get it.

‘I think it is hard for Europeans to be outside of the job market, partly for the obvious reason that you don't have a lot of money to live on, but perhaps more fundamentally because paid labour is so fundamental to most European cultures’ sense of self-worth and self-reliance, so that if you lose that then you become reliant upon other people in a manner that you can feel humiliating,’ Martin said.

The idea of paid labour as a common feature in society hasn’t always been there. The industrial revolution brought a distinction between paid labour and other work. In earlier times farmers’ families consumed much of what they produced and through trade or exchanges they got what they didn’t produce themselves. In many parts of world the situation is still like this.

Bitterness and anger

Our society’s distinction between paid labour and other work also affects our experience when we are being left out of the job market. When scientists studied unemployed in North Manchester, England, where a lot of industry has been shut down, they saw that unemployed people still felt that they worked. But they didn’t get any money for it.

‘Many people in North Manchester consider themselves hard working. They look after relatives and friends whose conditions are worse than their own. They feel that they clean up after the state, which left them behind. There is a lot of bitterness and anger’, Martin said.

This bitterness and anger Martin also experienced during his field work in the village Sikut in Papua New Guinea. The inhabitants have experienced large cultural changes in the work life. After the country became independent from Australia in 1975, a business sector has developed, and class divisions have emerged in a former egalitarian society.  

‘In our society we are used to social inequalities. For them it is a shock. Many see relatives get rich, while they themselves are poor. They see it as horribly unjust, and they feel left behind by relatives and authorities. At the same time, they develop a categorization of labour that we know from Western societies. The elite can use this categorization to justify their position. They can say that the poor deserve to be poor’, Martin said.

Stronger relations to others

According to Keir Martin, the categorization of labour is constantly changing, also in Western societies. But when waged work has become a basic part of our identity, it becomes extra hard to be left out involuntarily.

Christian Krohn-Hansen, professor at the Department of Social Anthropology, thinks that a common reaction to lack of security in work life is to try to compensate by creating stronger relations to neighbours, family and relatives.

‘We see it in many European countries. Young and old are being left behind, they are not even close to getting a fixed position. At the same time, several states have debts to pay and the welfare system is under pressure. There are limited places to turn to in order to get help. Then people turn to the people that have a moral obligation to help. People help each other, and that’s universal. In many parts of the world this is not new at all,’ Krohn-Hansen said, and added:

‘We are all part of the same global economy. But different stories have shaped the more local work life’.

The future for millions?

There is a possibility that large parts of the population in many countries never again will be employed the way many took it for granted in the decades after WWII, according to Krohn-Hansen.  

‘One took for granted that all people could be employed in businesses or industries’, he said.

Keir Martin added:  

‘Many more people are probably going to have to get used to this insecurity, unless there is a political counter-movement against it.  The spread of so-called 'zero hours contracts' in the UK is just one example of that.  And it is spreading to areas of the economy that were previously very secure and relatively privileged, such as academia. I know lecturers in the US who claim food stamps as their pay is so low. That's the future for millions I suspect’.

By SIlje Pileberg, journalist
Published July 7, 2015 12:10 PM