Global judgements and ideas.
The quantified self at work phenomenon is linked to the rise in precarity and in my forthcoming book I ask, how does the incorporation of self- and other-tracking devices into workplaces and labour processes and the rise of platform management interface systems challenge the meaning of self and ‘employability’? This is an important question because the promises of the knowledge-based economy seen in the early part of the 2000s have been largely unmet. Policymakers and management theorists recognised and invested in this new world of work with recommendations for education and work design (Moore, 2006, 2009, 2010; Warhurst and Thompson, 2006). The production-based economy had increasingly become an ‘informational’ based economy (Castells, 2000) and entrepreneurs and other types of knowledge workers were predicted to become champions of the working world. The much-cited ‘creative class’ was seen to hold the golden key to change workplace relationships. We were all going to become our own bosses and teamwork was going to overcome the dominant model of production, effectively eliminating controlling employment relationships and ultimately democratising workplaces.
However, this renaissance has not happened. Rather than successes from the overhaul of control based workplaces or reduced workloads afforded in the knowledge based economy, we now hear about the ‘seven-day weekend’ which amounts to hyper-employment, or working too much; the supposed luxuries of working ‘anywhere’ in the same breath as the ‘gig economy’; accelerated expectations of how much work can be done and where, as time and space become apparently nebulous (Wajcman, 2015); glamorisation of being always on and always connected as synonymous with digital macho ‘dev’ cultures where sleep and food are not seen as essentials; and distributed work, which introduces hyper-flexibilised working conditions within complementary zero-hour contracts. Quantifying and datafying the working self is part of this trend.
In 2017, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the main rise in employment figures was in self-employment in the UK. Comparing estimates to the same quarter for the previous year, the ONS reported in early 2017 that the number of self-employed people increased by 125,000 to 4.80 million for the period October to December 2016 (ONS, 2017). The reasons Parliament offers for this rise are interesting, stating that ‘most people who are self-employed have chosen to be so voluntarily and many value the freedom it provides’ (Parliamentary business, 2015). There are no data offered to support this claim, but in following paragraphs reasons are listed as being due to ‘the economic cycle’, reflecting on the downturn in 2008 where job opportunities fell until 2013. ‘Technological change’ is the next reason identified, where going ‘freelance’ is cheaper and easier with apps such as Uber, eBay and AirBnB which ‘matches self-employed workers with consumers demanding their services’ (Ibid.). The report goes on to state that the Family Resources Survey shows that in 2012/13, the average income from self-employment had fallen by 22 percent from 2008/9, and in 2012/13 was around £11,000 (Ibid.). About 80 percent earn less than £15,000 a year which is 2/3 of the median wage. The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) indicates that the UK is an ‘outlier’, because self-employment is the main driver for total employment (Hatfield, 2015). In southern and eastern European countries, high rates of self-employment have not fed into job recovery, and where employment is growing in northern and western European economies, self-employment is not also rising. Entrepreneurship and self-employment are considered key economic growth drivers, but the downside is that ‘living standards of self-employed have fallen further than for employees’ (33).
‘Bogus self-employment’ refers to cases where people who meet all legal criteria for employment, are registered as self-employed. There are significant down sides to being self-employed as listed above. It is a stretch to say an Uber taxi driver has no boss when they can be fired, or ‘deactivated’, for low customer ratings, promoting a competitor, cancelling rides too often or for speaking out against Uber publicly. Most Uber workers across the world have no right to sick pay or holidays given their ‘self-employed’ status. However, in October 2016, Uber drivers in England and Wales won a landmark employment tribunal backed by GMB that gave them the right to be classified as workers, meaning they should be entitled to paid rest breaks, a national minimum wage and holiday pay. (Uber is in the process of appeal at the time of writing.) The judge stated that the ‘notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common “platform” is to our mind faintly ridiculous’. This victory reveals the drudgery of the day to day experiences of the supposed entrepreneurial ‘heroes’ driving economic growth and contributing to employment statistics that have been much celebrated by British politicians. The first budget published by Philip Hammond in March 2017 proposed increased taxes for self-employed workers, ignoring the realities of precarity for nearly one million of those who work in the gig economy, their struggle with debt, pay falling an average by £100 a week between 2006/7 and 2013/4 and the impact on women and pensioners. What these people ‘are not is a new wave of entrepreneurs about the relaunch the British economy’ (Hutton, 2017). Hutton states that the supposed entrepreneurial ‘heroism is restricted to a minority and most self-employed are more victims of the system than its exemplars’ (Ibid.)
While UK productivity was a bit better in the first half of 2016 than in years preceding, it was worse than all G7 countries except Japan in 2014. So, UK companies with regular employees could argue that the intensification of workplace quantification is happening to improve the country’s productivity scores. From a labour process perspective (Knights and Willmott, 1998), the corporate use of technology to intensify and control work is not itself new. Just as implementation of Taylor’s scientific management strategies in the late 1800s led to interwar experiments with the Bedaux system and Gilbreth’s time-motion study, and similar to swipe cards and the intricate divisions of labour in the factory, technologies have, for a long time, been used to identify the ideal ways of working and define the ‘one best way’ as named by the Gilbreths, to carry out work (outlined in Chapter 2 of my book). To be ‘employable’ in these conditions would mean that physically, a person can demonstrate efficient bodily movements in the construction or manufacturing context. Now, tracking devices that measure personal as well as work related activities are leading to a new type of relationship to a market where being self-employed has little to do with being employable. The new version of employability individualises and places increased responsibility and accountability onto workers and potentially will be replaced by the term ‘hireability’ with the rise of precarious, unstable, temporary work and self-employment. Automation of both work and management is underway and intensification of such technologies further puts responsibility on workers for their ability to compete in a world with less and less work for humans.
Workers have experienced the effects of austerity policies as governments seek to make savings in public services to attempt to increase growth whilst removing its accountability to citizens and intense competition for incomes. While some may see self-employment as allowing more autonomy and self-management, as I indicate in Chapters 3 and 4 of my book, the machine itself is rapidly becoming a manager of work. This phenomenon feeds into anxieties about the replacement of labour-power with robots and other machines, as well as our individual selves being replaceable by other humans in a digitalised race to the bottom. We have begun to internalise the imperative to perform in new ways to become ‘hire-able’. We go through a subjectification process, effectively becoming observing, entrepreneurial subjects, simultaneous to being constantly observed, whilst remaining objectified, working bodies. Indeed, the rise in attempts to quantify work is a symptom of rising precarity.