Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Get a Job, Get Married

What links gay marriage and full employment? Though we never lack for people who interpret variations in marriage practice as evidence of fluctuating morality, there has always been a firmer relationship between the institution and the hard facts of class and economy. Marriage in law remains largely a matter of property rights and inheritance, which is why it has always been more popular among the middle class than the working class. Gay marriage is already looking almost stereotypically "middle Britain" in its emphasis on common sense, good humour and mawkish sentimentality.

When we marry depends largely on our economic circumstances. Where once heterosexual marriage was the precursor to childbearing, it now typically follows it. In other words, women often seek the "security" of marriage once their economic independence is diminished or made vulnerable. Likewise, working class women increasingly eschew marriage not because they want to live off the state but because working class men increasingly bring insufficient economic value to make formalising a relationship worthwhile. Tax-breaks for married couples are small beer in comparison.

George Osborne's commitment to "fight for full employment" is opaque, but given the recent record on job creation and the absence of any credible plans to alter the composition of the economy (aka "rebalancing"), it will most likely be achieved, if it is achieved at all, through the expansion of low wage roles in the service sector. As the total workforce participation rate has barely changed over time, beyond women substituting for men (i.e. men have dropped out of the labour market altogether as women have entered it), it is also obvious that this will require some degree of workfare-style coercion. The Tories criticism of Labour's "jobs guarantee" is essentially semantic. Both are committed to the state direction of unskilled labour and the subsidising of low-wage employers.

The consequence will be to depress median wages and productivity further. It will also expand the already large number on the statutory minimum wage, which since its introduction has inched towards becoming the norm rather than staying an outside boundary. It is noteworthy that Germany is now thinking of introducing a minimum wage, presumably because they have seen how "beneficial" it can be in acting as drag on median wage growth. In their defence, increased profitability due to wage restraint since the mid-00s has led to higher levels of investment and thus better productivity growth, though this in turn reflects a larger, export-oriented manufacturing sector. In contrast, wage restraint in the UK has not stimulated investment but led to labour-capital substitution - i.e. employing more cheap workers instead of better equipment.

But low investment and poor productivity growth will not continue indefinitely. Despite the techno-pessimists, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we're in the middle of a radical economic transformation, the start of which can be dated to the post-dotcom bubble recovery in 2003. The coincidence of the "war on terror" should also be noted, as the hegemony of the information economy is as much a product of political will as commercial innovation. Martin Wolf contrasts this new turn with the industrial revolution: "The machines of the first age replaced and multiplied the physical labour of humans and animals. The machines of the second age will replace and multiply our intelligence". That ambiguous word covers both business insight and the "intel" of state surveillance.

But this is not human intelligence, except in a narrow and reductive sense. It is a mistake to assume that "robots" replacing white-collar jobs is about technology carrying out cognitive tasks. Very few white collar jobs entail any real cognitive independence or improvisation. You are usually following a script of some sort, and the impact of process engineering and lean manufacturing, which maximise algorithmic control and minimise human agency, has been to proceduralise more and more jobs (the bureaucracy of targets in the public sector serves the same purpose). Of course, some are better at adapting to this than others. Thus in finance the tendency towards automation and complexity is partly driven by obfuscation, which provides excellent cover for abuse.

The Economist attempts to put a positive spin on this: "leaps in machine intelligence could create space for people to specialise in more emotive occupations, as yet unsuited to machines: a world of artists and therapists, love counsellors and yoga instructors. Such emotional and relational work could be as critical to the future as metal-bashing was in the past, even if it gets little respect at first". To this list you can now add wedding planners, choristers and pre-nuptial agreement lawyers. The problem, as hinted at by George Osborne's new-found determination, is that these fulfilling roles will, like marriage, bias towards the better-off. The future equivalent of metal-bashers can expect bit parts as personal waiters and synchronised forelock-tuggers, not to mention the joys of cohabitation and permanent renting.

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