Sunday, August 4, 2019


The middle class is an ambiguous social construct inhabited by people best described as possessing “significant human capital.” Their accrued potential places them a cut above the rank-and-file, but not in the same league as the privileged class. Typically, the middle class encompasses managers, salaried bureaucratssmall business-owners, and professionals who occupy the engine room of a modern economy. Decades-long access to skills training and knowledge resources led to unprecedented value-addition, wealth-creation, and improvements in living standards. Essentially, knowledge workers represent an indispensable backbone of civilised societies, with the tacit promise of upward mobility and a much-prized social status.

Although a thriving middle class is not an absolute precondition for a stable polity, it can serve as a bulwark against chaos. Also, it is undeniable that the health of a society can often be estimated by gauging the barometer of middle-class contentment or dissatisfaction. By that logic, it could be inferred that the the middle class in many parts of the world is being buffeted from all sides by technological change, demographic flux, wage stagnation tied to globalisation, the effects of offshoring, and the capricious nature of international financial markets.

Consequently, the employment market is slowly shape-shifting into a hourglass configuration of a squeezed middle. Over time, this plasticity portends grave danger, with individual, national and global repercussions. Strong evidence of the structural transformation of labour markets means that a slew of skill sets that were perfectly relevant in the 20th century are becoming redundant in a post-industrial world.

With specific focus on the impact of technology on employment opportunities, the historical trend swung from agriculture and artisan labour, to manufacturing and management, and then service and virtuality. The automation of routine manual tasks in manufacturing, sales, marketing, and administrative support functions started the displacement of relatively low-paid, low-skilled workers through the substitution of human labour with machines and robots. Even the construction industry, which has sustained generations of workers, is moving towards prefabrication under controlled factory conditions. Increasingly, work-from-anywhere (or virtualisation), contract employment and uberisation are changing the work environment. The rare exceptions are the services provided by repairmen such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians, who perform irregular, non-routine tasks.

Recently, the computerisation of basic cognitive tasks like bookkeeping, data-processing, paralegal research, and several rules-based processes, using computer algorithms, has led to the gradual erosion of previously safe mid-range, white-collar job domains. As such, many middle-class employees are being pushed down to the lower rungs where they are now competing with low-paid workers in the service industry, often caricatured as generating retail and burger-flipping jobs.

Due to the current limitations of artificial intelligence, data analytics and robotics technology to replicate high-cognitive perception and manipulation tasks, certain mid-level jobs are largely exempt from automation. Such jobs comprise creative intelligence tasks like generating ideas, formulating scientific theories, writing poetry, and telling jokes. In this same category are social intelligence tasks that require persuasion, negotiation and human care skills.

Studies estimate that over 40% of mainstream employment is classified in the high-risk category, hence susceptible to automation over the next two decades. And as long as multinational companies continue to benefit from globalisation, capital will inevitably seek cheaper labour and more automation, thereby piling more pressure on middle-class wages.

With a hint of a smirk, at the top of the hourglass are jobs that demand sophisticated analytical, communication and problem-solving skills. As the hollowing-out of the middle class unfolds, only a fraction of well-educated but threatened workers will successfully move up the ladder. In addition, not everyone has the aptitude to slip into jobs that demand creative and social intelligence. Still, no one can predict the opportunities that a technology like additive manufacturing or 3D printing might engender, or the types of jobs that the build-out and maintenance of autonomous systems infrastructure would entail. While this technological makeover intensifies, are there any obvious solutions to the continuing polarisation of the labour market?

Progressively, workers should expect to work on multi-skilled, cross-disciplinary hybrid projects in interconnected and network-oriented mode. Furthermore, a seemingly implausible response may lie in the provision of often-overlooked vocational and technical training, championed by Germany, Austria, and a handful of other countries. Though much of what lies ahead is indecipherable, the apprenticeship model, with its emphasis on the acquisition of practical skills, may offer the flexibility to adapt and reposition for the future world of work.

To mitigate social pressure and fend off the rising tide of national populism, politicians need to pay urgent attention to the plight of the middle class. Inaction could precipitate disorder.

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