FULL EMPLOYMENT: A SATURATED MYTH
The myth of full employment is empty. It is saturated, with no more grip on reality. With no replacement, it continues to feed institutional discourse, whether it comes from political actors or the economic world. In reality, « on the ground », this myth is no longer operational other than by attempting, one last time, to mobilize the attention of a population which, in its heart of hearts, already knows that the time of full employment is over. As well as that of a growth that would still be able to take it with it. In the developed countries, the society of salaried, full-time work for everyone is dead. Its history, born out of the industrial revolution, is quietly unraveling, without it being possible yet to distinguish clearly what will happen next. This creates a climate of anxiety that is filled by a kind of panic activism. For the time being, all the measures revolving around employment, and claiming to facilitate it, to make it more flexible, to develop it, to save it, to strengthen it, are a kind of bricolage, often convoluted. All grief is difficult to admit, especially for leaders who find themselves suddenly naked before their subjects, deprived of arguments, stripped of their strategies, ineffective forever or, if not, in a hopelessly anecdotal way. More in
core, this grief is difficult to live for those who, employees posted on the front line, suffer the full consequences, finding themselves dispossessed of an existential structure which, until now, represented a key element of their personal identity: their profession, their job, their « livelihood » as they used to say, to signify that something of value was at stake. vital, conditioning the access to a social life considered as « normal ».
A JOB OR NOTHING
To put it plainly, access to employment has become so selective that it is no longer able to be a factor of socio-economic rescue, nor of political democratization. It no longer represents a common denominator on which to base « living together ». This is for various reasons:
the sectors that are recruiting are not in fact accessible to everyone; 1) or because the physical qualities required on the workstations are strong, due to the arduousness of the jobs; 2) or because the level of technical skills required is very high, for high-level jobs; 3) or because the statutory conditions of employment are insufficient (part-time, low income, short-term contracts, etc.);
- The increasing unbearability of working conditions in all sectors, which the smokescreen of so-called « responsible » management obviously does not dispel, serves as a psychological deterrent;
- the « performance » of a company or an administration is no longer reflected in the creation of jobs due to its development potential, but very often in the elimination of jobs due to its restructuring capacity.
As a result:
- there are no more, there will be no more, decent wage jobs for everyone;
- not everyone is and will be able to fill the positions available;
- the belief in the « value of work » logically decreases, leading to disappointment, disengagement, disloyalty, idleness and cynicism among the working population.
In this context, « work » no longer plays its role as a great integrator. It no longer structures collective life but, through its weaknesses, even contributes to its progressive destructuring, as the credo linked to the social elevator, to long-term professional commitment, to the merit of seniority and to the values of loyalty and reward which were associated with it, is no longer operative in daily life. The increased flexibilization of working conditions leads to the liquidation-liquidation of the previously prevailing social security structures. When religion — understood in the sense of what connects — is only economic, salaried employment, exhausted by reality, no longer arouses either belief or adherence. It then becomes the perfect vehicle for the ambient nihilism, fed by the multiple frustrations of a mistreated producer, deprived of the means to occupy the role of consumer which is devolved to him. A being made one-dimensional by economism, an individual whose dreams have been stolen by money and who no longer sees anything coming. On the employers’ side, there is a growing sense of dismay at not being able to make long-term commitments, as well as cynicism and a certain lack of responsibility that facilitates the use of precarious employment status and measures to separate employees.
Such facts lead to the conclusion that work can no longer pretend to serve as a basis for a serene collective life.
MANAGEMENT: A SERIAL JOB KILLER
Since the price of the value of work is melting on the social market, the blackmail of employment is gaining strength and vigor. It does not matter whether this is explicitly stated or kept silent. Losing one’s job is scary, and this fear helps mobilize the lucky ones in the labor market. Competition and the « crisis » are omnipresent threats that whip up and justify productivist enthusiasm. Faced with such threats, management must be rigorous, especially since management is taught in prestigious schools. Declaring itself scientifically based, it hopes to make itself unquestionable (anyone who has worked in a pretentious managerial company will laugh at this arrogance). In reality, management is more ideological than scientific, which does not take away its power to generate practices. However, one fashionable principle of « good » management deserves to be considered, as it is so revealing: it is efficiency, which can be summarized by the lapidary formula: » do as much, if not more, with fewer means and fewer resources ». Including human ones. In times of austerity, efficiency is the key to the performance of organizations, public, private, medical, social, for-profit or not… At first glance, efficiency appears as « the capacity to produce some effect » (Larousse). This in itself is not difficult. However, the managerial use of the term has complicated it, it has « expertly » defined it. Efficiency is therefore defined as the ability to achieve desired effects with the least possible expenditure. In other words, in a more economic version: efficiency is the way to achieve one’s objectives at the lowest cost, to produce while spending less, to win without losing anything. However, the search for efficiency and productivity gains, particularly through the use of technology, is the death knell for employment for all. In the name of efficiency, creating jobs is, in fact, no longer a priority objective. In reality, it is better to operate or even develop without employees: they are considered a burden because the « payroll » is never productive and profitable enough. Jobs are the first to be sacrificed for efficiency, and managerial ideology very rarely associates, in practice, more efficiency with more jobs.
Neither auto-entrepreneurship, nor wage portage, which set up as a remedy the creation of one’s own job, compensate for the loss of jobs. These new faces of the employee accompany the dislocation of the wage-earner. With these statutes, we try to give a semblance of allure to the precariousness of situations, just to blur the face of unemployment. In reality, it is the employee who is summoned to become an individual-company, as André Gorz had already guessed. Now we have to create our jobs or we won’t get any. This injunction to create a company, more undergone than voluntary, is not the proof of a particular dynamism of the societal model in force, let us not misunderstand. In such a context, the rate of business creation in a country shows how precarious it is, which makes survival attempts compulsory.
THE CREATIVE UNEMPLOYMENT REVOLUTION
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that a society whose decency is based on work and wage-earning must be prepared for bad times when working peacefully for a decent wage becomes impossible for a growing number of people. It is therefore appropriate to shoot point-blank at the commonplaces we are constantly told: the society of full employment is dead, and unemployment has become a reality as powerful and (de)structuring as salaried work. Faced with this, it is up to us to learn how to turn lead into gold.
Developed throughout history since the industrial revolution, the wage and labor constraint has found compensations: regularity of wages and negotiated benefits, paid vacations, financed pensions, social security. Thus, under the aegis of the famous « work value », our lives have been organized according to a double temporality. Indeed, work time is no longer conceivable without the so-called « free » time, the time we enthusiastically dedicate to what we call our « leisure ». On the one hand the constraint, on the other its temporary slackening, one financing the other and, even more, authorizing it, because free time is always considered as the reward, a bit guilt-ridden, that one must deserve.
Strangely enough, being unemployed is never synonymous with the chance to reach a lasting freedom where one could decide on one’s schedule and the content of one’s activities without any professional pressure. On the contrary, being unemployed means losing the chance to buy your free time without the shadow of guilt or fear. In a system based on the inbred duality of work and leisure, labor constraint has become, against all odds, an advantage. Indeed, just as it seems difficult to measure one’s happiness without having experienced pain, one can, it seems, only savor one’s freedom if one has felt the weight of constraint up close. Immersed in the beautiful couple of work and leisure, unemployment plays the spoilsport. It is the net of insecurity that recovers the excluded of this delicate and fragile romance.
It is as if, from now on, we only have the choice between a chore and a misfortune. This is where the problem lies. It is placed on the spine of the citizen by a system that destroys decent jobs without offering any alternative, except for a few crumbs, social income and unemployment benefits for a fixed period. In a world governed by the morality of work and leisure, the big sister of the schoolroom and playground morality, one must have a really twisted mind to enjoy unemployment as a liberation.
But why on earth not reverse the perspective? It is indeed in the folds of this twisted mind that a dissident strategy comes into play: to consider one’s life as a creation rather than a weekend or end-of-life recreation, including cultivating, as the opportunity arises, a form of philosophical unemployment. Why bother to treat unemployment — and administer it — as a burden? In the name of what sadistic convention? Changing unemployment into a value that we could consent to without coercion is the only way to make it fruitful. The only way to free up spaces that aspiring workers could take. Giving the choice of work and the choice of unemployment throughout one’s life, this is the solution that leaves all the room for initiative, pushing back the fatality that weighs down the existence of the hard-working worker as much as that of the unwilling unemployed. The whole of life could prove to be creative, emancipated from the agendas of our supposedly useful productive activities on the sole condition of being credited with a minimum of economic profitability.
Unemployment could be a happy thing if it were not constantly threatened by the precariousness of the benefits for which, while working, you may have contributed. This fragile balance is threatened by a system that no longer keeps its promises, imposing impossible conditions on its citizens. To get out of such a fool’s game requires a utopia, that is to say the non-place of a present that will become the project of a future. We must decouple income from work. Indeed, in order to free work from the coercion that burdens it, to free free time from its constraints, to extract unemployment from fear, we will soon have to change our imagination and strategy, or else chaos will set in. Only then can work become an attractive activity, and no longer an imposed fate that has fallen from the sky of history. Making work attractive also means making unemployment attractive, so that one is no longer a deterrent to the other. This is why the allocation of a living wage is the condition for creative and contributory unemployment, for an unemployed person freed from the guilt of uselessness and the fear of lack. It would be a matter of having the opportunity, during one’s life, to move according to one’s opportunities, needs, desires, and projects from remunerative activities to activities without economic objectives. Pushing back the fear of being deprived of resources and employment would even free up a host of initiatives, generate social creativity, and give free rein to various activities, which could even give rise to businesses.
To continue along the opposite path, when work has become a condition that can no longer be generalized, is to administer misery, which is the opposite of living well in common. Beyond a certain threshold, blindness takes on the appearance of cynicism. Especially when work is so scarce and unemployment so common. It is becoming urgent to jump out of the pressure cooker of which our leisure activities are the wobbly valve. Unemployment must become creative and, dare I say, socially productive. Then working conditions can be profoundly rethought, so as to make work satisfying — socially, ecologically, economically.
Let us therefore rediscover an alchemist’s intelligence, the kind that converts the lead of unemployment into gold for the unemployed.
author of L’horreur managériale (Ed. L’Echappée, 2011)