Making Bad Jobs Good

More on the jobless future. In the FT yesterday, Richard Florida of creative-class fame had an op-ed called "America needs to make its bad jobs better". By bad jobs, Florida doesn't mean non-creative ones; he means low-paying ones. The gist of the editorial is that we need to make the low-skill, service-sector jobs that still get created by the U.S. economy pay better.

The problem is that on average, service workers earn only half of what factory workers make – and only a third of what professional, technical and knowledge workers are paid. The key is to upgrade these jobs and turn them into adequate replacements for the higher-paying blue-collar jobs that have been destroyed.

It would seem that the obvious way to achieve that goal is with unions, but Florida is hesitant to call for a new round of labor unrest. Instead, he asserts that when it came to manufacturing jobs becoming "good" jobs, "most of it was because of the enormous improvements in productivity wrought by improved technologies and management techniques." So better bosses and magic machines, not worker organization and struggle, made manufacturing jobs "good." Once bosses decide to do the same for the service sector and pass along all the "benefits" of improved productivity to the squeezed and harassed workers, everything will be hunky dory again. "Service jobs are the last frontier of inefficiency," Florida writes, "providing abundant low-hanging fruit for the innovation and productivity improvements that can undergird higher wages." Feeding and cleaning the elderly, for example, will be a great job once it it is more efficient. (Perhaps they can be placed on a conveyor belt that will usher them through a mechanized bathing apparatus run by well-paid knowledge workers?)

Setting aside the fact that efficiency doesn't make jobs "good" in the sense of their becoming more intrinsically rewarding, bosses haven't been passing along productivity gains to workers in the form of higher wages like they should in theory. In fact, wages have been stagnant for decades. As Felix Salmon notes in his response to the op-ed, "productivity improvements don’t necessarily result in higher wages for the less-skilled: they’re just as likely to result in greater returns to capital, as owners extract more profits from the business, or else to result in the jobs going to better-educated workers instead."

It seems that service workers need to unionize to secure their share of any productivity gains, but the general idea of bargaining on equal terms may hamper part of what service workers are selling with the labor time, that is, the creation of a certain affect for their clients, that of their being the master. Service work is often a matter of selling an experience (it's "immaterial labor"), and often the experience includes a feeling of superiority at commanding the labor of others with your money. Unionizing would rightfully mitigate that but may make some less interested in their services, particularly if they can be construed as luxuries. Also, as service work becomes more and more of creating types of emotions in a very specific context, it may become less amenable to the kinds of cooperation among workers that generate solidarity. There may even be a refusal on the part of the worker to recognize that they are part of an affect-manufacturing process. And certain service work, in becoming more "productive" may become more autonomous and voluntary, conducted in the midst of everyday life processes that have become networked and dispersed and can be harvested after the fact by companies seeking to profit from it. Such laborers in the social factory don't even know they are working, let alone have the impetus to unionize. In other words, it's worth wondering whether the structural shift to a service economy rooted in immaterial commodities and ad hoc work spaces requires a different definition of "job".

Michael Hardt argues (pdf) that immaterial labor is becoming "hegemonic" -- that its "qualities tend today to be imposed over other sectors of the economy and over society as a whole. Industry has to informationalize; knowledge, code, and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production; and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorization process." This, he claims, leads to a shift in emphasis on "immaterial property" -- ideas -- which are harder to monopolize and extract profits from.

If you have an idea, sharing it with me does not reduce its utility to you, but usually increases it. In fact, in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images, and affects must be common and shared. When they are privatized their productivity reduces dramatically – and, I would add, making the common into public property, that is, subjecting it to state control or management, similarly reduces productivity. Property is becoming a fetter on the capitalist mode of production.

His point is that the economy increasingly consists of ideas made from other ideas, and these ideas (nonrival goods) need to be widely shared or networked together in order to fulfill their potential to create value.

But a shift toward the common as the basis for production would not only upset capitalist assumptions about property, it would disrupt our assumptions about jobs, which would increasingly cease to "belong" to anyone but could be autonomously performed by whoever feels qualified and entitled to do it. This is what seems to be happening to journalists and reporters right now.

A good deal of service work may be too contingent on local circumstances to ever be generalized in that way (e.g., you need to be there to cut someone's hair), but those are the sorts of things that will remain resistant to productivity enhancement. The manufacturing of meanings and affects and entertainment and so on may become more productive mainly by becoming more a product of the common -- produced by a flexible, dispersed nonlabor force of volunteers in a near-realtime response to evolving trends and dispositions. This essay (pdf) by Adam Arvidsson illustrates this tendency: He argues that the creative class "are not the primary producers of creativity. Rather they owe their class position to their ability to poach and appropriate creativity produced elsewhere, in networks of (mostly) unsalaried immaterial production that unfold in the urban environment." He thus "emphasizes the contribution of the unpaid ‘mass intellectuality’ of the urban arts, design, music and fashion scenes."

As the networked economy continues to flourish, productivity gains can be had by eliminating the poacher middlemen, poaching the ideas directly from the "creative proletariat". So it seems that the more these immaterial products (which tend to be the output, ironically enough, of the creative class Florida extols) constitute the U.S.'s slice of the global economy, the more our future here appears jobless.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.