The Financial Express


Birds of the same feather?

| Updated: June 03, 2018 21:45:22

Birds of the same feather?

[This is the first of a two-part article titled “Sustainability versus the 'gig' economy”]

Two independent forces cannot but have an imminent rendezvous: climate-change contextually fuelling a 'sustainability revolution'; and the emergent 'gig' economy, sporadically and spontaneously driven by their unfolding fourth industrial revolution, highlighting artificial intelligence contraptions in workplaces. Will they be compatible or collide is the question we must begin to ruminate, since the consequences will invariably be widespread, deep-rooted, and costly for the unawares.

According to the newly established Generation Investment Management, we are already plunging into a 'sustainability revolution'. Its flagship, Sustainability Trends Report, published in April 2018, reduces the 'sustainability revolution' to three trends (www.wired.co.uk/article/al-gore-sustainability-generation-inve...): new technologies (very often artificially-driven) permitting efficiency search to boost production at lower costs, such as through solar or wind power; another strand, often overlapping the first trend, promoting recycling of their own products to feed the sustainability thrust, for example, car-sharing, room-renting, and so forth; and a third trend finding corporations using micro-satellites, sensors, drones, and the like, to produce new tools to promote every sector, from our oldest industry, agriculture, to new frontiers, such as health.

These are not isolated developments. As the report observes, over 2,000 corporations (labelled 'Certified B' corporations) have sprung up over the past decade alone, while carbon-control gadgets have witnessed an eight-fold increase in sales in this century. What they appeal to most, and benefit immensely from, while also placing long-term costs upon them that remain too invisible currently to make any difference, are citizens either trapped in or voluntarily shifting to a 'gig' economy.

Because of the devastating effects of the 2008-11 Great Recession, particularly in industrialized developed countries where a financial collapse and new technologies uprooted the middle-class and sufficient manufacture workers who were used to life-long jobs, whetted with pensions and a string of other benefits. Technological changes basically forced wages down so that only low-waged labour could be retained, but even then, the advent of robots and other labour-saving devices threatens to eliminate low-waged workers too. They survived, but only by resorting to part-time jobs, often a few jobs just to make ends meet, giving birth to the 'gig' economy. Compounding their plight in hardly finding a full-time, long-term job, as before, was the slow evaporation of benefits that came with social security and other areas: the financial collapse was so severe, corporations began eliminating these, shifting off-shore, and wielding technology-driven threats.

What would sustainability have to do with this? As slowly becomes obvious, most of the affected unemployed are young, willing to economize (or being forced to), and receptive to new technologies (which reduce costs and efforts, for instance, mobile phone connections versus land-line counterparts). In other words, the 'sustainability revolution' might find its most forceful agents right here with the youth than with those already well-established or happen to be habituated garbage-producers or inefficient resource-consumers, such as fast-food addicts or SUV owners. The older this group gets, the more institutionalized 'sustainability' becomes: people already talk about future jobs requiring far fewer hours, even reducing the work-week and promoting travel, with cruise-ships reflecting the upscale growth binge, and classroom curricula training students for part-time or 'gig' jobs, much like community colleges or vocational schools from before, rather than as the 'professionals' they probably intended to once be.

Posing another complication, Bangladesh typifies those less developing countries scrambling up the economic ladder. In a typical developmental race, sustainability is paid the least consideration. The fuller picture awaiting university graduates can be something like this: the professional degree yearned for (and often steeply paid for) depicts less and less what the job market needs, and as 'gig' jobs proliferate, the diminished employment horizon confronting the student is more likely to reduce his/her job enthusiasm, which usually depresses sustainability considerations; and as the reduced sustainability attention-span spreads across the job-market, jobs demanding sustainability (or sustainability producers) may themselves become unsustainable.

Bureaucratic and academic adjustments necessary to make any programme meet sustainable requirements can never keep up with the pace of today's technological progress. As hotchpotch policy-making becomes the norm, entrepreneurs may also take their remedying measures themselves, if only to reduce costs and boost profits. Among the first to be substituted will be human beings, particularly if a new contraption is available: a predicament waiting outside our RMG door even at this very moment.

In other words, we await a worsening economic future, no matter what country, rich or poor, developed or not. As the 'gig' economy trims full-time career jobs, sustainability imposes pressures that a burdened worker's mind cannot fully accommodate or fulfill, while the developmental imperative throws all but the material outputs out of the window since development gets measured by non-material outcomes, such as sustainability only at higher and more comfortable income levels. Then when universities prepare students for the job-market, if the curriculum has not been calibrated, which is more likely than not because it is both expensive and time-consuming, education begins to lose its value.

Economics was not called the 'dismal science' in the 19th Century (as opposed to the 'gay science' built upon poetry at the same time) by Thomas Malthus (for reasons of exploding population) and Thomas Carlyle (owing to the trapped working setting and conditions), for no reason even as it was only just sprouting. Today's 'dismal' ramification means simply that, having catalyzed public education from the 19th Century, it is shedding educational training at the lower-level: unless the job applicant has multiple skills, which means to abandon a professional career, he or she will have to count upon becoming more innovative in climbing the upper levels, or be flexible enough at lower levels, in both instances being dependent on technological changes. Without educational training, flocks bearing the same feather will also get devalued: individualism returning in a different form may become an altogether different beast when sustainability gets prioritized the way it is right now. Our loss in this one area may keep us alive in another more pivotal one. What keeps us all together deserves another appraisal. The next piece looks at human rights amid these changes.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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