More on the Future of Work

by Rob Horning

23 March 2011

If a disposition for creativity and symbolic-meaning making is the new valuable skill set, can it be differentiated from social and cultural capital that stems from class?

Following up on the themes of my previous post (and untold dozens of others—maybe I should start using a tagging system?): the P2P Foundation blog linked to a write-up (pdf) of a round table symposium put on by the Aspen Institute on the future of work. Among the participants were analysts from McKinsey and Deloitte and executives from Microsoft, IBM and Infosys, along with a bunch of other Silicon Valley think-tank types. It delineates how business elites would like to put across increasing precarity for workers as “freedom” and details some of the ideological resistance they expect to encounter.

The participants identify the emergence of the “post-Sloanist” worker (that is, the worker who exceeds the constraints of 20th century “scientific management” and organization engineering):

Every worker will have to become a continuous learner, he said, and will likely hold multiple jobs over the course of his or her lifetime, if not multiple careers. Many workers will need to work at part-time jobs and perhaps hold down multiple jobs simultaneously, he added. The ability to multitask and deal with interruptions to work will become mandatory skills.

And eventually, ADD will cease to be regarded as a disorder and will instead be an institutionalized educational outcome. The report continues, “a great deal of work is likely to become less routine and more exception-based, especially in knowledge-based jobs.” It will be reactive; workers will perform triage as information pours in rather than initiate work processes.
Lots of the round table’s conclusions are similar to ideas I’ve been harping about in previous posts about how changes in how we regard work augment the mounting stressfulness of neoliberal subjectivity. To list some of the changes: that work organization is becoming less directed and hierarchical and more a matter of “crowdsourcing” and post hoc capture; that the fixed workplace is being dispersed into a “social factory”; that firms are being supplanted by “platforms” (think Facebook); that work and leisure are becoming indistinguishable; that identity construction is merging with work, that consumption skills are increasingly regarded as productive and innovative in their own right and are being incorporated into manufacturing processes; that what constitutes work skills is also becoming more nebulous and hazily linked to education. Now, some of the participants suggested, the importance of discrete skills is being supplanted by the significance of “disposition”—a rough analogue for what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called habitus.

Employers must recognize that they are not just hiring a set of skills, they are hiring people based on their personal temperaments. “In a world of continual and rapid change, maybe the most important things are dispositions that allow you to embrace change,” said John Seely Brown, Independent Co-Chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge…. “You can’t teach dispositions,” said Brown. “You cultivate them.” Employers cannot simply communicate information to workers; they must provide a hospitable, immersive environment for workers to satisfy their dispositions and talents.

So we are enjoined to always be cultivating an identity that will justify our worth to employers, and this perpetual process of becoming our better selves is expected to constantly throw off value. The disposition becomes our job; producing ourselves becomes mandatory, and linked to our economic survival. As a result, being “yourself” has never been more stressful. “Workers will regard their work lives as an experience, a lifestyle and an identity—not just a paycheck,” the report suggests, and that is supposed to be a good thing: For some in the creative-class vanguard, work seems to be increasingly unalienated (these people are entrepreneurs of their personal brand and reaping a livelihood from it) and indistinguishable from the process of just living life. And this may be the model of the workplace of the future generally. But this sort of “freedom” comes at the expense of other forms, mainly the freedom from having to capitalize on every aspect of one’s selfhood.

To paraphrase from Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society, which repeatedly makes the point that our needs are not autonomous and not our own invention, the need to engage in conspicuous self-fashioning has become systemic; it’s no longer the product of what individuals actually want, if it ever was so. Identity has been made productive in and of itself, and thus has been subsumed, integrated into the capitalist system. Again, to recast Baudrillard, the strenuously defended right to a unique self actually betokens the loss of such lived uniqueness, its transition to an exchangeable commodity, a form of abstracted labor.

The shift away from specific job skills to dispositions raises many other issues as well: If a disposition for creativity and symbolic-meaning making is the new valuable skill set, can it be differentiated from social and cultural capital that stems from class? Can a person be taught how to make distinction (in Bourdieu’s sense of the word) if one lacks the proper class distinctions to begin with, or would the fact that you needed to learn them automatically disqualify you? How do you teach flexibility and a willingness to bend rules as well as follow them, depending on the situation? How do you teach an instinct for design and cultural trends? Can there be a school that teaches hipsterism? And how much hipsterism can the economy support? (Will Davies says not as much as many aspiring bohemians would like; he advises they drop aesthetic consumption for political organizing—good luck with that!)

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