Will society provide enough work for everyone tomorrow? In what forms of employment will this work be structured? These issues, ignored until recently, are now at the center of current debate. And yet science fiction has embraced the subject with a very dystopian view, as seen in TV productions like “Trepalium” and “Section Zéro”, where few scenarios offer inclusive or satisfactory alternatives. Who will have a job tomorrow, and who will work?
The origins of employment
From the industrial revolution emerged the overriding need to provide a legal, social and economic framework for the work performed by individuals. These individuals had one or more skills that the company needed, and the reasoning was thus to define a relationship of hierarchical subordination between the party that paid to make the skill available, and the party that provided it. The terms employer and employee were then used in reference to employment, which was itself the framework.
In 1841, Labor Law was enacted to formalize this new framework for cooperation. Some 175 years later, the rules and mechanisms governing employer-employee cooperation have been refined, but the true essence of this cooperation has not been redefined, as can be seen in the record of Labor Law amendments on the website of the French Labor Ministry.
Since its enactment, Labor Law has evolved little in terms of the true essence of employment.
At a time when interns potentially possess more critical skills and knowledge than their hierarchical supervisors, how is this hierarchical relationship relevant? And at a time when the average term of a permanent contract is only slightly longer than a fixed-term contract, what is the point of maintaining such rigidity in either one? And lastly, at a time when the value produced by a freelance worker is becoming comparable with the value produced by an employee, while costing half as much, what does a company gain by keeping all its employees on the payroll?
The world is changing fast, and from now on we cannot say this enough! Society today is in a social rut that it has created itself. So what really is the difference between Work and Employment? The system we live in has given us little reason to ask this question until now, to the extent that even the dictionary considers them synonyms. And yet…
Decorrelating labor and employment
Work is all of the activities performed in order to achieve a result. Employment is the framework that determines the work performed. Literally, employment is the way in which something is utilized. Labor Law should therefore rather be called Employment Law.
In other words, work is the value created for an organization, whether this work is performed by a human or a machine. Employment, meanwhile, is the contract that governs the employment relationship between an organization and a human being: permanent contract, fixed-term contract, internship.
Labor Law should therefore rather be called
And when the work of a human is done by a machine that replaces them, a job is destroyed.
When a machine replaces a human, the work still gets done, but there is no need for an employment contract with a machine… Work and employment are fundamentally very different and yet we all continually bundle them together. And this is the crux of the problem today: should we continue to correlate employment with work? Before we address this thorny issue, it is worth taking a few moments to consider the consequences of separating employment and work.
Decorrelating employment and social protection?
For example, social protection for workers today is directly linked to their professional situation, their employment. If you have a permanent contract with a traditional French company, you are in the general social security system. If you are self-employed, you are in the social security system for self-employed workers.
Beyond the names, these are entitlements for which each individual may or may not qualify: unemployment benefit, pension, training, and compensation for occupational health risks. For the same job performed, a person with a permanent contract pays more into the system than a freelancer. A freelancer therefore represents a lower cost, and while this may seem advantageous, it is detrimental in that less is paid into the social protection system, which is dependent on the funds pooled from these contributions.
With the current system and trends, these pooled funds are gradually being depleted, a problem they could well do without. And without an efficient social protection system, in a situation where no viable alternative has been considered, it will simply lead to a massive social divide.
Decorrelating employment and the creation of economic value?
Almost one out of every two jobs could be done by a machine within fifteen years. This means considerably fewer jobs! Will they all receive unemployment benefit? Unfortunately not, the coffers will already be empty due to a lack of contributions. In an effort to stop this, people are protesting everywhere to keep machines from taking their jobs.
But they are actually doing themselves a disservice. As other countries take a more pragmatic approach to this problem, they become more economically competitive than us. The smaller the economy, the less employment. It’s a vicious circle!
And we have to admit that the worlds of labor and employment are both in the midst of tremendous change.
Humans must find their place alongside machines, delivering skills that are unique to humans.
Meanwhile, beyond the human role, how this work is regulated and coordinated must be reconsidered to enable each individual to benefit fully from social protection.
Decorrelating employment and productivity?
Many economists believe that the replacement of employees by machines will actually help to revive the economy and generate a massive amount of new jobs. The excellent CaptainEconomics website gives us an overview of this theory in the following diagram.
In reality, this scenario does not seem to take into account the relatively short-term approach of investors who own the various production tools. Sell for less, boost investment… Even if the formula works on paper, the mere idea of a company sustainably selling its product for less is a real cultural revolution.
Considering that some business leaders barely even had an e-mail address in 2016, we might wonder about the market’s ability to play the game and, therefore, how many jobs will actually be created. But one certainty is that those who do play the game will make a lot of money in the medium-to-long term.
Decorrelating employment and remuneration?
One of the most promising ways of avoiding an irreparable social divide is to stop correlating employment with remuneration. Such a decision requires a fundamental change in attitude within our society, to accept the fact that the value added by work is not just about a job or an employment contract.
Doesn’t a volunteer in a charitable organization play just as important a role in society as an employee in a company?
The value added by an individual is not just about the type of contract that enables them to work. And most importantly, essential work to help society function correctly is today provided with no financial compensation: through voluntary work, whether by choice or not. By choice is in the case of a volunteer working with an organization on a simple day-to-day basis, doing community or charity work.
A fairer society is possible, if the right entitlements are attached to good deeds. To believe that work can be done without being employed, in the case of a machine for example, is to accept job destruction, plain and simple, while still preserving the benefits of work. If economic value is still generated, why not consider employment without work.
The debate on universal remuneration seems to be the logical follow-on from such reflection and is one of the rare, optimistic scenarios in line with the changes underway. Otherwise what other scenario can we envisage?
See the Unow MOOC module on this issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RRUXNsnOVA