Looking back upon the first-quarter of the 21st Century, future historians may extract much more mileage from two currently salient features that we cannot make even with as much certainty, at least not yet: the peaking of the oil economy and steady jobs before their terminal decline. Correlating them should come as no surprise either: the more inexpensive the oil sold, the more the factory's output. Beyond the nuts and bolts of that co-relationship, the broader contours of the encompassing economy gets exposed.
Ever since oil prices were quadrupled in 1974 (from $3.0 to $12, almost overnight, but still lower than the price of US oil), we have witnessed how both production and consumption spiralled, at times shooting through the ceiling. At different moments, Canada, Kazakhstan, Norway, and Russia joined the OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) suppliers, among others, not as members, but to fuel the expanding global economy. And that economy expanded to a great extent through the large-scale Chinese and Indian entry into the global playground with growing commerce and industries, alongside a string of emerging economies (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, and the likes). Owing to these, oil prices climbed during the 1990s boom, to the point of almost strangulating production financially.
Manufacturing became the engine of this growth, as evident in the sharp climb of metropolitan pollution, typified by Beijing and New Delhi at the worst level, in addition to boosting gross domestic product (GDP), a favourable measurement indicator of jobs production provides. Not just any job, but those boasting longevity: since machines constitute fixed assets, they typically function for the long haul, thus needing a long-term labour supply, with the argument being the more stable each individual worker, the better off the corporation's prospects. It is no wonder that Adam Smith's assembly-line (the underpinning of the capitalist system), eventually compromised with labour stability and unions (the top socialist/communist priority), which, with job-training, became the cardinal 20th Century capitalist features. Largely institutionalised in western industrialised countries during the 1930s, as the recovery response to the onset of a decade-long economic depression, this array of factors spread, in bits and pieces, to the rest of the world. When the neo-liberal turn was taken in the 1990s, it became a global staple, even in countries professing socialist/capitalist strains: China and Vietnam, for example.
Manufacture builds upon technological innovations, but so too the demand for technological improvements upon intensive competition. By the 1990s, when developed countries faced severe competition from hitherto less developed countries, the technological boom spiralled out of control. On the one hand, it accelerated large-scale off-shore production, which had begun in fits and starts during the 1960s (the 1965 US Border Industrialisation Programme exemplifying this development), thereby reinforcing the gap between developed and developing countries. On the other, it galloped into several other directions, feeding less the manufacturing infrastructure than the surging services sector. The Internet highlighted this sector shift, with the resultant need for white-collar workers surpassing their blue-collar counterparts (and widening the income-gap within societies, both developed and developing).
Stability flowed from the workplace to the homestead. Parents could raise their children against the unquestionable prevalence of a life-long blue-collar or white-collar job, even find confidence in a string of other certainties: a steady income, pension, oftentimes healthcare, sturdy savings, education for their children, with whom they could also share breakfast and dinner together.
Idyllic as that setting seems in retrospect, technological breakthroughs would boomerang back to jolt it, and jolt it irrevocably. If the Internet conquered space and time, among the so many other victims, formalising artificial intelligence (AI) sowed the seeds of subjugating fixed assets, like assembly plants and, ultimately, human labour. It took time for us to notice (when it was still too late), but as the fixed machines became portable, even hand-held contraptions, job-requirements spiralled with intellectual replacing the manual in the work setting. Even human labour faces increasing competition from robots and drones, among other new devices, while hiring turning into firing at a rapid rate. As both social security and pension entitlements evaporates, it is becoming clear a different society is at the driving wheel, if not fully, then unravelling too fast for us to join it so automatically.
Inside that society, more time is spent on contraptions than on relations. One study finds the typical US citizen spending four hours, and his/her British counterpart three hours online each day, meaning the family breakfast and dinner must be paying the price, while both school-time or knowledge-harnessing time (beyond the contraption-specific learning), become other casualties. With the workplace either gone or transformed, parents get further destabilised as their college children no longer know what to major in since the steady job-magnets have either shrunk severely in size or demand more skills than can be found in one discipline.
Once upon a time, the Master's of Business Administration (MBA) became the academic kingpin. The degree propelled many financiers, bankers, real-estate developers, investors, marketers, and managers that the burgeoning global economy needed in the initial neo-liberal years (1990s), rose to the pedestal, seemingly salivating with every software released.
Neither could realise they were hastening their own professional demise: the more the MBA payroll increased or the presentation of a new software proliferated, the more certain the shift to robots and the shorter lease of every, even skilled, jobs. This scenario greets every graduate today.
It has been called the 'gig' economy because, very much like musical performers, future workers can depend on only gigs for their employment. Like a gypsy, they will travel to multiple locations for part-time low-paid jobs to meet ends (and marriage and family needs possible). Between their hand-held contraption, travel-time, and work, they will have taken up all the 24 hours of the day and seven days of the week to remain above water. This alternative is beginning to bail countries out of unemployment: instead of a full-time job-quest, workers only find, and increasingly seek, part-time jobs. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, 94 per cent of US citizens sought alternative types of work over the staple full-time option, producing a 'gig' economy, and with it, a gypsy workforce. Though this makes the unemployment indicator irrelevant, it fits survival-mode of a breathtakingly unfolding era of flux.
These features seem set to stay for the long haul, worsening the job market, given the technological advances. Only the desperate will dig oil wells, what with solar energy, refined electricity and hydropower. Technology will be able to reduce pollutants, as they did manual jobs, schools will be too expensive and old-fashioned to attract students, and foreign policy-makers will be erecting all the 20th Century barriers to prevent immigrants from stealing what they have left alongside the technologically-driven search for markets. The 'gig' citizen will have to be super-intellectuals to survive, or plagiarise for as long as it is possible until they are caught and punished for free-riding his/her way through. The twenty-first century will not be for the timid.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.