Terminal Labor | pettydesign

“Trade is global, capital is global, and labor too must become global.” – Andy Stern.

When we look at labor in the modern context, globalization has taken over as the new economy. Monotony is the new culture. Nation-state boundaries no longer contain growth, distribution or interaction of economies. Ideas, goods, culture, economy, and politics are integrated with one another at a global scale. Low-wage economies have competed for production possibilities and moved work out of prosperous economies. The assembly line developed by Ford now has workers manufacturing parts in China, assembling them in Mexico, and marketing in America.

In the American context, the language economy transformed the personal workstation from man and machine, to a formal fixed desk, to a new paradigm of the power plug, but only when required. Technology continues to make our required workspace smaller and find new ways to grant us more mobility. Many places have become revolving doors for employees who no longer spend a lifetime with one employer, or even one city.

This workplace described doesn’t include everyone. The lower class has become servants of the upper class via the service industry. For example, the decline of manufacturing jobs and rise in high-tech industries has had vast impacts on the disparity. Each manufacturing job that has been lost in recent years has resulted in 1.6 additional regional service jobs to be lost. On the contrast, each new high-tech position creates an average of 5 new service jobs in the region. While reducing unemployment gives a promising look on the economy, it is merely camouflage of a rising lower class.

Labor Modernity | pettydesign

Debt as an Apparatus

The stability and predictability of Fordism has been replaced with ceaseless anxiety of Neoliberalism. Everyone is now a debtor, guilty before capital. Deregulation and the new political regime gave promise to economic liberalization and emancipation of labor. It was to give people new freedoms of choice, mobility and self-fulfillment. Instead, rights to housing are replaced with real estate loans, tuition with student loans, and pensions with 401k plans. Mortgages, credit cards, student and personal loans have become easier to obtain more than ever. The society as a whole is fused with a new capacity to consume, and to consume at a loss. Consumption becomes a recursive machine to encourage future consumption, paying no head to the future. Home ownership alone is marketed with the aspiration of increase value over time, thus becoming the collateral on future debt. Suddenly the middle class is now the welfare state.

The biggest problem with taking on debt is that the creditor-debtor relationship requires trust and confidence in oneself, in others and in society. Debt is not only personal. Entire nation-states are now in debt. The future must continue to remain as an optimist promise. Our economy is running on speculation and requires us to continue to believe in hope. If the future is compromised, the level of debts will crush the economy. Debt is in thus the origin of guilt. This forces us to work on the self. We must adapt ourselves to be prosperous in the future. All action becomes a form of labor, of work of the self for the future. In this neoliberal frontier, individuals are now responsible for creating themselves: education, self-improvement, liability, accumulation. This becomes evident in some of the latest growing service industries: psychologists, do-it-yourself experts, life coaches and personal trainers.

If people are continuously working on themselves, this equates to the debt state keeping people working 24/7. Everything has become a form of labor. Work no longer occupies a regulated allotment of hours, but entire lives. Material production can be left at the factory. Information production remains constant within the human capital. Social is work. Networking is the new social. It’s not about where you are from, but whom you know. Time away from work is now work on new time. Technology has mobilized the entrepreneur in everyone. We take care of ourselves without the help of others more frequently every day. Orbitz is the new travel agent. Siri is the new personal assistant. Responsibility of failure now lies upon the shoulders of individuals and the security net is long lost.

Labor Modernity | pettydesign

Economy of Passionate Interests

“Once it had been discovered that labor was the source of wealth, it was the task of reason to mine, drain and exploit that source more efficiently than ever before.” – Zygmunt Bauman

A new form of labor has emerged in the new precarious environment in what Richard Florida has universally dubbed the “creative class.” The essence of this class is their high level of education coupled with 24-hour connectivity. They are expended as social capital for their entrepreneurial skills and innovative thinking. Philip Drake refers to this class not as the creative class, but as an evolution of the blue-collar/white-collar work force now known as the “electronic-collar.” If Fordism capital was able to capture people’s bodies, neoliberal capital captures their soul. This class acts according to Gabriel Tarde’s ideology of economy as the science of passionate interest. People are conditioned to labor only for what they are passionate about and use this to justify long hours at low wages and devalue entire industries.

Many of these people have turned to freelancing as a means to a wage. The rise of technology and the neoliberal regime has encouraged a freelance society. The same debt state which has trained this class on work of the self has developed into true entrepreneurs. The economic downturn of 2008 created widespread uncertainty. As new work was generated after the apex of the collapse, businesses used freelance contracts to employ new staff as a tool to equip them in the event of a second recession. This has fueled the amount of people in a freelance society. There are now an estimated 42 million freelancers in the United States. They have developed into an entire society without the regulated safety nets of health insurance, retirement plans, or certainty of work.

The freelance society is fighting for many of the rights that full-time employees had to fight for decades prior. These workers fall through the cracks of legislation and opportunity. The Freelancers Union is one organization trying to expand the rights of this class primarily through legislation and providing affordable health insurance. They have gained momentum with over 200,000 members nationwide to use as a collective bargaining chip. They are gaining momentum through the collectivism which has grown substantially in the previous few years as the workplace of the freelance worker has developed from coffee shops to co-work offices.

Labor Modernity | pettydesign

Labor Geography

The new co-work environments are creating opportunities for the freelance class to collect and grow. It is giving relevant workspace to a class that once worked in seclusion. This empowers a workers feeling of legitimacy and creates new social networks. These environments allow for the potential of knowledge spillover, provide an economic and support business structure, and proliferates the social multiplier effect. The latter being the theory that people tend to absorb the lifestyles of those they surround themselves with. Huddling the creative class together will increase the innovation of individuals as they interact and feed off one another.

These work spaces are generally made up of open desks for laptops, stationary, kitchenettes and meeting rooms. These spaces can be reserved and rented out on a monthly, daily or ad-hoc basis. There are currently over 80 co-work environments in New York City and more popping up all over the world. Each one is finding its own identity and providing an identity to the workplace of a generation. They are becoming places of working, collaborating and learning. Many of the co-work environments include a lecture series, workshops and drink nights. All the perks of established companies are now being offered at a daily desk rate.

Large creative companies are using new ways to attract lucrative workers. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple are creating work environments to encourage collaboration, fun, relaxation and leisure. This lifestyle package entices in new talent, and at the same time further blurs the boundary between what is work, and what is freedom. In many ways, they are extorting the idea of a 24/7 worker. Not only is collaboration counted as work, but life is now work.

Labor Modernity | pettydesign

Labor Modernity

The ramifications of the American flight to suburbia in the decades past are beginning to be reversed as members of the creative class lead the return to inner-city districts throughout the country. This renewed interest in central business districts have aided in the urban renewal of many metropolitan cities as the creative class is thus exploited as leverage towards gentrification. As the centers of cities capture people’s attentions and wallets, outlying areas are beginning to see a new trend of decline. As an illustration, the last new enclosed shopping mall to open in the United States was in 2006, and there are no current plans for any to be built.

Manufacturing is returning to the United States, but labor is not returning with it. We must accept the idea that jobs will be lost to technology. Our efforts to increase efficiency through manufacturing methods and technology have seen a rise in manufacturing while job positions continue to decline. Enrico Moretti calls this the productivity paradox. In 2011, the American steel industry employed 95,000 steelworkers who produced 10% more steel than the 400,000 workers in 1980 were able to. The manufacturing industry and related possible jobs continue to play a role in the media and political stage. It must be accepted that jobs now being created by manufacturers are for a handful of educated workers, and not the lower class.

The future of labor in the United States cannot be projected far. If we continue on the path we are currently on, our generation may see the end of companies as we know it. Risk will transferred from employers to employees. Commitments and obligations will be kept light and superficial to foster future opportunities. People will learn to live and travel light. ‘Now’ is the new life strategy. Social bonds are transitioning from ‘till death do us part’ to ‘until gratification lasts.’ Employees of a company will be a collection of workers on short term contracts, working for a period and then moving on. This will have vast effects on our building industry. Corporate building stock constitutes a vast quantity and capital of our built landscape. As we begin to question the role of labor, we must begin to postulate on the role of the workspace.

Labor Modernity | pettydesign

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Dray, Philip. 2010. There is power in a union: the epic story of labor in America. New York: Doubleday.

Latour, Bruno, and Vincent Antonin Lépinay. 2009. The science of passionate interests: an introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s economic anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2012. The making of the indebted man: An essay on the neoliberal condition. Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e).

Moretti, Enrico. 2012. The new geography of jobs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

About pettydesign

James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.