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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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