Jobless recovery

by Rob Horning

21 July 2009


At The Week Brad DeLong has an essay about the current jobless recovery, which appears to be a repeat of the denouement of the previous few downturns. Why jobless recoveries all of a sudden? DeLong argues that it has to do with a change in how employers regard labor as more fungible now.

Manufacturing firms used to think that their most important asset was skilled workers. Hence they hung onto them, “hoarding labor” in recessions. And they especially did not want to let go of their prime productive asset when the recovery began. Skilled workers were the franchise. Now, by contrast, it looks as though firms think that their workers are much more disposable—that it’s their brands or their machines or their procedures and organizations that are key assets. They still want to keep their workers happy in general, they just don’t care as much about these particular workers.

A few thoughts on this:

1. This would seem to fly in the face of the various paeans to the “skill-biased technological change” that is presumed to responsible for growing income inequality. That thesis presumes that changes in technology have made an individual’s skills more valuable and capable of being leveraged more efficiently. What if technological change in the aggregate disempowers labor by deskilling it (as Marx generally assumed)? As a result, it’s easier to find and train workers capable of filling positions, and easier to offer them only part-time work. If workers are wise, they will start hoarding information about the procedures in their office and try to make themselves indispensable, even though this is sure to gum up productivity. Perhaps this is the form modern labor actions will take—employee resistance to codifying their function, to standardizing procedures, to training others, to cooperating with the process of making themselves replaceable.

2. No wonder people have suddenly begun worrying so much about their “personal brand”—brand equity has become more important to a firm, conceptually, than loyalty to employees. Employees, to make themselves less expendable, may also need to work to integrate themselves with a company’s brand, to merge the personal with corporate brand if possible, make them inseparable. The personal brand becomes far more important, too, in a labor market full of otherwise interchangeable parts. And with globalization and companies emphasizing their own flexibility rather than a paternalistic approach to workers—no more company men, or lifelong job security—we all can expect to be returned to the labor market repeatedly. So we will begin to need something more than a resume, something more comprehensive, like a personal brand. Depressing.

3. (added on 23 July) If this weren’t already the case before, we now have more incentive to work on polishing our personal brand than improving our skills.

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