Arguably the most important was the increase in labour mobility and the fluid nature of the very concept of work and the workplace. The transitions from agricultural to industrial, then to the services and now to the information and knowledge societies, each, in turn, increased the mobility of the workforce. A farmer is the least mobile. His means of production are fixed, his produce was mostly consumed locally because of lack of proper refrigeration, preservation and transportation methods. A marginal group of people became nomad-traders. This group exploded in size with the advent of the industrial revolution. True, the bulk of the workforce was still immobile and affixed to the production floor. But raw materials and the finished products travelled long distances to faraway markets. Professional services were needed and the professional manager, the lawyer, the accountant, the consultant, the trader, the broker – all emerged as both the parasites of the production processes and the indispensable oil on its cogs.
Then came the services industry. Its protagonists were no longer geographically dependent. They rendered their services to a host of “employers” in a variety of ways and geographically spread. This trend accelerated today, at the beginning of the information and knowledge revolution. Knowledge is not locale-bound. It is easily transferable across boundaries. Its ephemeral quality gives it a-temporal and non-spatial qualities. The location of the participants in the economic interactions of this new age are geographically transparent.
These trends converged with an increase of mobility of people, goods and data (voice, visual, textual and other). The twin revolutions of transportation and of telecommunications really reduced the world to a global village. Phenomena like commuting to work and multinationals were first made possible. Facsimile messages, electronic mail, other modem data transfers, the Internet broke not only physical barriers – but also temporal ones. Today, virtual offices are not only spatially virtual – but also temporally so. This means that workers can collaborate not only across continents but also across time zones. They can leave their work for someone else to continue in an electronic mailbox, for instance.
These last technological advances precipitated the fragmentation of the very concepts of “work” and “workplace”. No longer the three Aristotelian dramatic unities. Work could be carried out in different places, not simultaneously, by workers who worked part time whenever it suited them best, Flexitime and work from home replaced commuting as the preferred venue (much moreso in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but they have always been the pioneering harbingers of change). This fitted squarely into the social fragmentation which characterizes today’s world: the disintegration of previously cohesive social structures, such as the nuclear (not to mention the extended) family. This was all neatly wrapped in the ideology of individualism which was presented as a private case of capitalism and liberalism. People were encouraged to feel and behave as distinct, autonomous units. The perception of individuals as islands replaced the former perception of humans as cells in an organism.
This trend was coupled with – and enhanced by – the unprecedented successive annual rises in productivity and increases in world trade. These trends were brought about by new management techniques, new production technology, innovative inventory control methods, automatization, robotization, plant modernization, telecommunications (which facilitates more efficient transfers of information), even new design concepts. But productivity gains made humans redundant. No amount of retraining could cope with the incredible rate of technological change. he more technologically advanced the country – the higher its structural unemployment (attributable to changes in the very structure of the market) went.
In Western Europe, it shot up from 5-6% of the workforce to 9% in one decade. One way to manage this flood of ejected humans was to cut the workweek. Another was to support a large population of unemployed. The third, more tacit, way was to legitimize leisure time. Whereas the Jewish and Protestant work ethics condemned idleness in the past – they now started encouraging people to “self fulfil”, pursue habits and non-work related interests and express the whole of their personality.