The nature of the labour market has completely changed in the last decade. The faith people once held in the modernization of capitalist or communist economies to provide the world with stable wages and regular employment have subsided and new fears have emerged (Tsing 3). The twentieth century offered a dream of progress and economic stability promised by countries modernizing during postwar development.
Anthropologist Anna Tsing describes in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) the conditions of precarity that we find ourselves living in today’s global economy as life without the promise of stability (2). Precarity seemed to only affect the few unlucky to find stable jobs, but now most of us live with a daily sense of precarity (Tsing 2). Standard employment, being regular work with stable wages and benefits, is rare for most workers who now depend on irregular livelihoods like contract work, part-time work or self-employment (Tsing 3).
Ironically, we continue to imagine the ideal life with regular steady income although the nature of our economy is rapidly changing. Shifting demographics have caused major labour shortages in certain countries like Japan, whose aging population has resulted in outsourcing to fill jobs (Prising). Globalization has facilitated outsourcing by compressing time and space, which has drastically decreased the distance between countries. This compression has allowed companies to create precarious conditions for workers who work for low or no stable wages and in unsafe conditions (Tsing 110). The technological revolution has seriously increased competition for companies, and labour markets have subsequently been racing to the bottom by deregulating production and bringing wages dangerously low to entice companies to do business with them (Prising). In 2013, an eight-storey Bangladesh garment factory for Walmart and JCPenney collapsed killing 1,133 garment workers. This is just one example of the many that have emerged signalling the terrible working conditions sustaining our consumerist culture (Smith 9). Many workers did not have any alternatives sources of income and this represented the most stable work available, despite the conditions and the low wages (Smith 10).
At the same time, the rise of individual choice has increased as white-collar jobs become more specialized, requiring higher levels of training, skill and talent (Prising). Millennials now shop around for work with a simple click of a button (Prising). Most people entering the workforce today will not work for the same employer until retirement but rather, they will have multiple careers in their lifetime (Prising). The freedom of choice and flexibility young workers cherish adds to the precarity of an already precarious labour market.
In Oregon, a community of Japanese-Americans depend on the precarious trade of commercial wild-mushroom picking. These workers are at the bottom of the matsutake global supply chain. These foragers depend on the uncontrollable lives of the matsutake to gain their livelihood (Tsing 2). Intertwined with the history of matsutake picking is the idea of freedom that initially allowed Japanese-Americans and Southeast Asians to become citizens in the United States (Tsing 100). The mushrooms are sold at high prices to Japan, where matsutake can no longer be found in deforested areas where red pine once grew. (Tsing 4) Although, mushroom picking is considered labour in the sense that energy and effort is being expended and invested in these activities, most of the pickers do not consider themselves labourers since they have chosen to live in the forests and pick without the stability of wages or benefits (Tsing 4). They see their contributions to the gift economy of the mushroom as a reciprocal exchange in the global economy. The mushrooms are offered as gifts to foster relationships between people.
The precarity inherent in the matsutake market has turned many capitalists’ heads on what it means to accumulate wealth despite its instability. Precarity has marked a shift in the nature of the economy that is in turn having major repercussions on the labour force. Yet the American Dream persists in our capitalist economy and remains the aspiration of many young people entering the workforce, who hope to achieve a stable livelihood and accumulate wealth. The reality of the revolution in the workforce is one of technology, outsourcing, individual freedom and choice, which are all contingent on the precariousness of the economy. How will new generations of workers reconcile these tensions between freedom, precarity, and livelihood? These are pressing questions that students, workers and leaders are having to come to terms with. They must evaluate the conditions of precarity that our economy is based upon for development and progress to occur.
Prising, Jonas. “Four Changes Shaping the Labour Market.” World Economic Forum. Manpower
Group. 19 Jan. 2016. Web.
Smith, John. “Global Commodity.” In Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century:
Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis. NYU Press, 2016.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in
Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015. ProQuest.
Image Works Cited
Dylag, Jacek. “People Crossing Street in Vienna.” Unsplash. Photography. 4 Feb. 2018.