Of ‘jobless recoveries’ and anti-social science

We need to build upon, not bury, our historical knowledge of the social world if we want to understand the politics of the recovery

Stephanie Mudge
Stephanie Mudge

For most of us, the phrase ‘economic recovery’ might generate images of ‘help wanted’ ads, the unemployed happily returning to work, families thriving, and food on the table. But if you look at news on unemployment since the financial crisis, you’re apt to find the following disconcerting phrase: ‘jobless recovery’. This term – apparently an important topic of conversation at the 2012 World Economic Forum at Davos – refers to the distressing fact that the ‘recovery’ has been marked by rising profits, but not by a matching increase in employment, particularly for certain groups (like those under 30).

If it were the case that rising profits were a harbinger of good things to come – more money in employers’ pockets, with part of it going into productivity investments and part of it going into hiring more people, or paying current employees more, or both – then of course there wouldn’t be much need to worry. But it turns out that the ‘jobless recovery’, a number of people (economists and journalists in the US, especially) have recently argued, is the new normal, largely because technological changes tend to gut the economy of solid middle-class jobs, leaving a few highly skilled, highly paid jobs at the top, and a lot of low-skilled, badly paid jobs at the bottom (see, for instance, this recent article in the New York Times’ “Great Divide” series).

The bad news, so the argument goes, is that this is just how the world is. And since we are helpless in the face of the technological displacement of the middle class, the only thing left to do is to look at the numbers on what kinds of jobs do still exist, which skills and occupations are dying or are likely to, and then aim to get training and skills for whichever sorts of jobs might have some longevity (or tell our kids to) and hope for the best.  In short: predict the future, and adapt to it.

I’m all for being sensible, adaptable, and informed, but this might strike some as a bit divorced from reality, not to mention the profoundly political implications of the elimination of the middle class. As I will explain further below, it is also strangely in denial of insights that have been around in the social sciences since (at least) the mid-nineteenth century. All of these issues point to a larger problem, which is the presentation of social scientific knowledge without much awareness of the ‘social’ part of it.

Meanwhile, the world out there is well aware. Of the many comments left by readers (over 700, last I checked) a good number correct, qualify, or rebut, the arguments in the NYT article, based on readers’ own knowledge of economics. Some responses question, mock, or even condemn economists and economics as a profession. One reader sarcastically comments, for instance: ‘But as long as professors of economics aren’t being made redundant, who cares?’

It may be, of course, that the assumption that academic jobs are immune to technological eclipse is quite wrong – that is, if we take seriously heated debates in the academic world about online education and the rise of the ‘MOOC’. But for me debates over the so-called ‘jobless recovery’, as well as this NYT article and responses to it, raise a different issue: economics, like all the social sciences, is part of the world it claims to stand back and observe.  And people know it.

Do the economists who wrote that article know it? I’m not so sure. If they did, it might have been written differently, with some acknowledgment that the permanent technological elimination of the middle class, if this is indeed inevitable (which I don’t think is at all clear), would amount to the undoing of one of the most impressive achievements of Western societies in the last century.

They might also acknowledge that the argument that technology tends to alter the labor process in ways that eliminate and ‘de-skill’ jobs predates the modern social sciences (Marx isn’t very popular these days, but he did have some insights); that one of the bases of middle class growth between the wartime period and the 1960s was, in fact, technology (in other words, technological advancements seemed to be producing the middle class instead of destroying it); and that by the time Harry Braverman published Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century in 1974 -arguing that technology, along with other tools and techniques of management, tends to de-skill most workers – the social sciences were rediscovering that technology could be very much a double-edged sword.

Why do we seem to be ‘discovering’, yet again, something that Marx knew in 1848? And why, if we know that technology has boosted the middle class in some times and places and gutted it in others, are some among us more interested in asserting a false universal than in understanding well-documented historical variation in the relationship between technology and work? The fact that the very mention of Marx’s name, not to mention use of terms like ‘labour’ and ‘workers’, is barely acceptable in a lot of circles is part of the answer. The more general point, of course, is that social science is inherently normative and deeply political.

Rather than shrugging our shoulders and moving on, I think social scientists should be troubled by the many ways in which politics – by which I mean our own politics, the more general political contexts in which we live, and the politics which are internal to the social sciences and the academic world – limit our ability to build on existing knowledge, to ask good questions and to engage with the public in informative ways.

Unless we are OK with ever-more scepticism and dismissal from our various audiences, we should think hard about finding ways of dealing with the problem – for instance, as I argued in my last post, by staying grounded in history and human experience, regardless of the kind of work we do. If we fail to do this, then, as Max Weber argued, rather than informing the world, we’re trying to form it.