The Post-modern Ideal: Decline and Fall?

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My post on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), page which should be read before this one, physician traced the rise of a new cultural ideal. Contrary to the sociologist Daniel Bell’s predictions, the progressive, technocratic, gratification-delaying and productivity-oriented nature of the workplace did not prove contradictory to the goal-free, ironic, instantly-gratifying play of the consumer culture. Instead of each undermining the other the two formed a symbiotic relationship and a joint ideal comprising a successful career and of full participation in the post-modern consumer culture. This post traces the severe pressures on that ideal over the last generation and suggest that, although many people will continue to live by it, its influence in the broader culture may fall significantly.

The Decline of the White-Collar Career

A generation whose parents had expected ‘jobs-for-life’ became increasingly subject to redundancies; having treated their job as the primary source of meaning and accomplishment in life, increasing numbers were told that their jobs were without value. Debilitating though such setbacks were, it was possible to weave such setbacks into a redemptive narrative and thus find meaning in it: “losing my job hurt like hell, but if it hadn’t happened I’d have never have started this and I’d never have met you. Looking back on it, in a funny way losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me.” However, there was not only the decline of the job-for-life but also the career-for-life: increasingly, during their working life people may embark upon several different, often unrelated, careers, sometimes having to start each one from entry level. This naturally makes it far more difficult for jobs to provide the required sense of coherent narrative.

Moreover, the nature of the office organisation changed to become less hierarchical; whilst this has much to recommend it, it is worth noting that less hierarchy also means that there is less scope for the recognition of the ‘consecutive, progressive achievements’ of the career. Worse, this flattening of workplace organisation entailed the loss of huge numbers of middle-skill, middle-wage jobs such as those in middle-management, record-keeping, calculations and routine transactions. The eminent MIT economist David Autor notes that a key trend of the last three decades has been the loss of this type of middle-skill, middle-wage job. At the same time, employment growth has occurred in high-wage, high-skill jobs, and — to a far greater extent — in low-wage, low-skill, in-person services. “This pattern is not unique to the United States. In fact, if you look across 16 European economies [1993-2006], for which data are available, you’ll find in all 16 of them that middle-skill, middle-wage occupations are contracting and low- wage low-skill occupations are rising relative to those middle-skill occupations.” Seemingly many people with the habituations or expectations of a middle-skill, middle-wage job will have to take on low-skill, low-wage work without a defined career structure. Quite apart from the personal effects of this, the loss of relevance of the career structure in the lives of so many would surely weaken the career ideal in the culture as a whole.

Furthermore, the scale of unemployment in OECD countries is astounding and likely to be persistent: according to The Economist, “if the 44m people who are unemployed in the mainly rich members of the OECD lived in one country, its population would be similar to Spain’s…Even if growth accelerates, unemployment will remain worryingly high for several years.” Seemingly, economic growth in the OECD will not accelerate for some time… As the article notes, the jobless are disproportionately concentrated amongst the young, whose working culture has obviously yet to be fully-formed. If long-term unemployment becomes a formative experience of their adult lives then this is likely to leave them markedly more cynical about the career ideal than earlier cohorts.

Fourthly, for a generation many older workers, particularly in English-speaking countries, have supplemented the ‘career ladder’ with the ‘property ladder’. The property ladder functions in much the same way as the career ladder, in that it offers defined tasks of home improvement that hopefully increase the value of the home and thus allow the attainment of successively better places to live. It also offers a prospect of delayed gratification — that of owning your own home outright — that can provide succour throughout the bulk of a working life. However, it is increasingly difficult for young adults to ‘get a foot on the ladder’, and this is likely to exacerbate the fragility of the career ideal by leaving it exposed and without support.

Most fundamentally, whole swathes of white-collar jobs may be in the process of disappearing. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, a key feature of capitalism is the raising of productivity through the progressive division of labour. The more specialised each task, the quicker it can be done. A job that originally required the prolonged care of a craftsman is broken down into successively more specialised, routine tasks; at a certain point in this prolonged process, the work becomes sufficiently unskilled and routine that the job may be out-sourced to cheaper labour without impaired quality; at a still further point the process may be completely automated, since all the required algorithms have been deduced and suitable machinery has been installed.

In successive ages, workers have been displaced by automation from types of jobs that have become stultifying and found more fulfilling jobs in other sectors. A century ago working on farms was a mass occupation; farming having become sufficiently automated, manufacturing absorbed millions of displaced farmers. A generation ago, manufacturing, having become sufficiently automated, ceased to be a mass occupation, and millions of displaced factory-workers moved to white-collar office work. These days white-collar work such as middle-management, record-keeping, calculation and routine transactions, encompasses many millions of jobs; a huge number of these are sufficiently routine that they are now under threat from software. David Autor, in the work cited earlier, mainly attributes the loss of middle-wage, middle-skill jobs — this ‘hollowing of the middle’ — to the development of computing power and its application. In the last fifty years, according to Autor, the price of computing power has fallen by a factor of two trillion; the price of labour has not. The occupations which have grown in size have been the ones that computers are very bad at such as analytical problem solving and manual work that requires flexibility and dexterity, for example low-skilled medical work and cleaning. Whilst Autor believes that other factors, such as off-shoring and the decline of trade unions, are also important, it seems that once again automation will displace millions of workers to hopefully be absorbed into a new and more fulfilling sector.

It should be stressed that, although past performance is no guarantee of future returns, in similar previous situations new or much expanded sectors have indeed opened up to absorb the millions of displaced workers. Yet even assuming this happens again it seems that any such transition will be an unusually painful one, for software that approximates an expert’s workflow can be installed and be up running in a fraction of the time it takes to train an employee to become merely competent, and such software, once produced, can quickly go viral within the relevant industry. Moreover, this often would not involve expensive and time-consuming retooling processes, since in many cases there is probably sufficient excess processing power already sitting on office desks. As with much that is affected by the digital revolution, the speed of automation may be unusually swift, therefore, yet as far as I can see (for what that’s worth) there currently seems to be no sector which seems to be ready, willing and able to take on so many people, let alone be able to provide jobs with a career path. Traditionally, where a type of goods becomes much cheaper then you might expect increased employment in that industry as a result of increased demand; when you consider how many newspaper industry jobs are threatened by the rise of free classified ad sites such as Craigslist, and that Craigslist can serve “over 20 billion page views a month” whilst employing “about thirty people” then it gives some pause for thought. Irrespective of whether or not these workers are eventually absorbed, it looks like the transition will be a long and painful one, and this of itself would make long-term changes to our culture.

Wabi-sabi © Chris Haile

The End of Post-modernity?

Concurrently with the decline of the career culture, the post-modern leisure culture also started to decline.

If there is any common denominator to post-modernism then it is the reaction against modernism, and more specifically the reaction of the baby-boomer generation against the world of their parents. More specifically, it was a reaction against the failures of Marxism and other ‘grand narratives’, a reaction against a Fordist manufacturing economy that apparently cultivated a stultifying conformity, and a reaction against a modernist culture that reduced objects to their functional attributes and permitted no frivolity or fun. This year the oldest baby-boomers hit retirement age, and over the next decade huge numbers of them will withdraw from positions of power and influence. Although due to their numbers and their influence in creating the world their children grew up in, the generation will continue to be culturally significant, we should expect a decline in the appeal of post-modern culture unless there are reasons for its appeal independent of the biographies of baby-boomers.

I argue that there are not. Firstly, the post-modernist claim that, to give one example, there are no absolute truths also, of course, makes a claim to absolute truth: ‘it’s the truth there’s no such thing as truth’. On the one hand, then, the notion that such traditional ideas as ‘truth’ can have any content is denied; on the other, only the traditional definitions of ‘truth’ are considered as being potentially viable, so that if the traditional ideas are discredited then nothing substantive could replace it. The more the old ideas were declared useless, the more the assumptions they were based on were clung to. A more intellectually curious movement would have said ‘right, well we agree that the traditional ways of thinking don’t have a future; let’s develop new ways of thinking that are not dependent on the old intellectual frameworks.’ This was not done (with the honourable yet arguably partial exception of Richard Rorty) and post-modernism became more and more a pose of revolt; shock for the sake of shock, irony for the sake of irony, and a quixotic tilting against grand narratives in an age where grand narratives were conspicuously absent.

Secondly, post-modernism as a broad and unified cultural force depended on the rigidities of class, gender, race, sexuality etc. that it sought to undermine: the more oppressive cultural structures were weakened, the greater diversity of cultures blossomed, which, by lessening the amount people had in common, undermined the solidarity that broad and unified cultural forces require. Whilst few would deny there is still much work to do on combatting sexism, racism, intolerance of homosexuality, and snobbery in all their infinite variations, the sheer diversity of today’s culture make it difficult for post-modernism to marshal the same cultural power it once had. Furthermore, the much-diversified causes to which post-modernism lends its name blur the movement’s boundaries enough that few people have a clear idea of what post-modernism is or why it might be worth defending.

Thirdly, although in theory post-modernism’s dismantling of cultural hierarchies would lead to a greater equality amongst different cultures, in practice the lack of valid criteria for judging cultural worth placed ultimate value into the criteria of popularity/fame and of how much people were prepared to pay. Whilst the celebrity culture that is the result of the former shows little sign of diminishing, the idea that one’s wealth is an ultimate criterion of value is likely to be increasingly questioned given public dissatisfaction with wealthy folk such as financiers, and the decreasing frequency of people feeling rich themselves.

Dividing line on fields outside Chesham © Chris Haile

The gravediggers of a cultural ideal?

If these posts’ analysis is correct, then young adults today face an unenviable situation: socialised into a culture that has relied upon the career and property ladders in order to find a sense of meaning that deliberately cannot be found in post-modern consumer culture, they’ve emerged from the cocoon of full-time education to find that these ladders have been kicked away. To the extent that their culture is post-modern then the situation is very grave — and combustible. However, this situation is also likely to lead to considerable cultural innovation in order to cope, and for the above reasons post-modernism is unlikely to be able to mount much of a defence.

It is also likely that many will make redoubled efforts to live the old ideal, both due to the competitiveness of such jobs and due to the jobs many will see their peers forced into. It is likely that the ideal will continue to be a viable one for a significant portion of the workforce, and that as a result the ideal will still be seen by the broader culture as a desirable and widely-viable goal. However, there may be reasons to believe that the current child generation may attempt a break with the cultural ideal. A UNICEF report found that the two nations that have perhaps embraced the career/post-modern ideal most whole-heartedly, Britain and the USA, are bottom and second-bottom respectively among OECD nations in terms of the well-being of their children. According to the BBC,

The report argues that the pressure of the working environment and rampant materialism combine to damage the well-being of our children. They want our attention but we give them our money. “All children interviewed said that material goods did not make them happy, but materialism in the UK seems to be just as much of a problem for parents as children,” the research concludes. “Parents in the UK often feel compelled to purchase consumer goods which are often neither wanted or treasured.”

Seemingly, key formative experiences of many of the youngest generation in these countries will be that their parents neglected them in favour of jobs from which they were periodically discarded, and that consumer goods failed to make them happy. A key observation of their adolescence is likely to be that those half-a-generation older than them both struggle to build careers and struggle to get sufficient disposable income to fully participate in consumerism. Given this background, there is a significant chance that this generation will both associate the career/post-modern ideal with childhood misery and consider it an unviable ideal for themselves. It would not be surprising if this generation were to reject in some significant ways the cultural ideals by which we have been living.

However, by the time this generation grows to adulthood the economy may be booming again and new and exciting fields of work may be opening up to unprecedented numbers. To be young at this time may well offer significant advantages over the jaded cohort half-a-generation older, and the young might seize career opportunities with both hands. The last couple of paragraphs may be as off-beam as Daniel Bell’s analysis was.

So as for What Comes Next culturally, I can’t say. But keep an ear open for your closest twelve-year-old. In a few years the kid might have some interesting ideas…

© Chris Haile

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