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Is The Full-Time Employee Headed For Extinction?

France lags behind the rest of the industrialized world in facing fundamental changes to the nature of work. The old model dominated by wage labor just can't compete.

On their way out?
On their way out?
Jean-Marc Vittori


PARIS — There they are at the shoreline discussing the best way to allow the seawater to flow while minimizing any potential damages. One wants to build a low wall. Another, instead, wants to widen the crossings. A third one suggests building a temporary canal. A fourth one draws up a system of locks. The fifth, who attended ENA, France’s most prestigious public management school, draws plans for an elaborate mechanism that includes pipes, waterworks, gates, meters.

Time, meanwhile, passes by; and nobody has noticed that a gigantic wave is about to hit.

This is exactly what’s happening right now in France. Unemployment has once again become the population’s main anxiety. The government, the opposition, the trade unions, are debating the best way to kickstart employment.

But the nature of work itself is changing. It is a dramatic change. In the years to come, work will undergo the kind of transformation it hasn't seen since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Looking to combat today's unemployment without taking into account this coming disruption is like planning seawater management without seeing that wave that is on its way.

Ever since Eve ate the apple, sending us out from the Garden of Eden, the human race has been condemned to work, though under different forms as time went by. First with hunting and gathering, then with agriculture that brought slavery, serfdom, tenant farming, and on to craftsmanship and shopkeeping.

From the 19th century, wage labor started to become the norm. This didn’t occur by chance. It is perfectly suited to the demands of industrial production, which became the main source of work in the first half of the 20th century. Laborers were paid to perform a repetitive, determinate task with a fixed wage and fixed hours in a confined space (which, it turned out, also made it easier to organize strikes).

Work thus fell into “employment,” the conditions of which improved with victories of organized labor and social justice, as well as rising productivity — though always subject to deteriorate when crises arrive.

Machines step in

The caveat about rising productivity is that production has completely changed. The proportion of laborers among the working population has dropped by half over the past 50 years, now standing at 20%. Heavy industry barely represents 10% of what it did in the middle of the last century.

More and more, material production and repetitive tasks are being done by machines. And as companies transform their practices, their geographical borders are moving too, as they depend ever more on exterior resources with information technologies, form teams according to their projects, long and short-term, and no longer require all employees to work on location.

In the collective book “Societal 2015,” Denis Pennel, managing director of the International Confederation of Private Employment Agencies, goes as far as asking whether we’re heading towards “the end of wage labor.” The question raised by this astute labor market expert might seem premature, especially in a country that still has 10 times more wage-earning workers than freelance workers (24 million against 2.6 million). But the model is less monolithic that it might seem.

Worker in France — Photo: Pixabay

One in every three wage-earners doesn’t have a permanent contract, long the standard contract of the industrial era. One in every two employees sometimes works on Saturdays. More than 2 million men and women have more than one job. Data from the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research shows that the number of freelance workers grew last year while the number of wage-earners decreased. In the U.S., one-fourth of workers are not wage-earners.

This rise (or rather rebirth) of freelance work is often presented in France as a choice by default, if not a terrifying step backwards in terms of social rights.

“Let the unemployed create their own jobs,” as then French Prime Minister Raymond Barre said in 1978. But many men and women aspire to work differently. Half of them would like to work from home. Two-thirds of part-timers say they’re doing it by choice. And many of those who’ve gone into freelancing claim they wouldn’t change back for the world, even if they often earn less and work more.

Of course, this formidable mutation raises myriad questions. There are, first of all, the abuses. We won’t name a certain former fellow journalist at L’Expansion who used to pontificate his superiors about social rights and now recruits only freelancers.

Then come the difficulties of those with few qualifications to find their place in this new and ever evolving environment, to take their future into their own hands, and the stress that a greater professional instability provokes.

On a collective level, the French welfare state and the social protections it provides rely on everybody being employed full-time in the same framework. For example, changing from the private to the public sector, or from wage labor to freelance work leads to massive losses for an individual's pension.

Another thorny issue is the capability of companies and their leaders to really switch to project-led management, to kindle their worker’s energy and loyalty, to change from requiring means (workers on location) to demanding results (tasks that are really accomplished), to express their recognition of the work done.

Finally, there’s a formidable challenge for our political leaders, who will have to adapt the legal framework to the work environment of tomorrow, like their predecessors did in the past. For now, they’re still discussing it all on the beach, and the wave is getting closer every passing minute.

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