The sticking power of false narrative

Real shifts are staring us in the face — they just tend not to be the ones we so often hear about.

Gavin Kelly
10 May 2017

The onward sweep of the machine process, published by Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago, c.1917. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Work is being revolutionised. The era of the career is over. Robots will increasingly render humans redundant — half of today’s jobs are likely to go over the next decade. The transformation of working lives means we’re all destined to become multiple-jobbers and portfolio-jugglers capable of continually reinventing ourselves as we adapt to the winds of economic change.

I could go on — and on. There is an endless river of reports, summits and policy commissions flowing forward with a hyperbolic account of the unprecedented disruption we are living through. The trouble is that some of these claims are demonstrably untrue, while others are merely highly questionable.

Typical job tenure, for instance, is much the same as it was a generation ago (it’s actually risen slightly). Job-hopping has fallen sharply. We move around for work less than we used to in the 1990s. The assumptions underpinning doomy projections about tech and jobs are very suspect. We’ve never had more work yet in important respects our jobs market has become less, not more, dynamic (Tyler Cowen has set out a version of this argument with some vim for the US, and Tim Harford distilled it nicely recently). Sure, many things are changing and there will doubtless be shifts in how we work not least due to technology. But when, you might ask, wasn’t that the case?

These counterpoints may not be contentious among those who spend their time poring over the data. But mention them in a room of politicos, tech-enthusiasts or business leaders and you will be looked at askance. That just can’t be right: didn’t you hear what they were all saying at Davos?

Zombie narratives

This isn’t mere pedantry — it matters. It’s hard to get traction on what’s really going on in the here and now, never mind the immediate future, if you are facing a constant gale of grandiose claims. It distracts attention away from very real problems and steers it towards frothier issues. It’s how, for example, serious people, in serious outlets, end up debating not-so-serious ideas like a tax on robots.

An under-examined question is how these zombie-narratives acquire such sticking power — why are they so hard to shift? Part of the answer is that a number of influential groups have a shared attachment to neophilia. Incentives and interests produce an overstatement of ‘change’ and understatement of ‘continuity’.

The predictable group to point the finger at is, of course, the media who need to break news and attract clicks. And it’s true that even some supposedly high-end outlets are happy to provide space for a study if it involves a scary number and a top-line about ‘robots’. Meanwhile painstakingly put together research that debunks exaggerated claims struggles to get covered. There are, of course, fine journalists well known for their myth-slaying prowess. But, in a media world of fewer subject-specialists — not least labour correspondents — they are thinner on the ground.

Change-analysts occupy the middle future

Yet to pin it all on the media would be infantile. After all they don’t initiate this stuff. We also need to look at an industry of what we might call ‘change-analysts’ of one sort or another. Management-consultancy is an industry that in part survives by telling others that they’ve glimpsed the land beyond the horizon and, inevitably, the terrain is of a very different nature.

For too many consultancies the default setting is that we are, always, on the cusp of ‘transformational change’. Likewise, the big tech companies are themselves a constant source of faddish futurology that receives reams of coverage. In a culture where the TED-talk is king, ‘newness’ will trump accuracy just as the perma-claim that the ‘pace of change is quickening’ becomes the established wisdom regardless of the facts. (As The Economist put it ‘business people feel time is accelerating — but the figures suggest they are largely talking guff’).

Elements of the academy, no doubt spurred on by the pressure to demonstrate ‘impact’, are also increasingly a source of overblown assertions about what the future of work holds. Indeed, it’s a characteristic of our times that this turn co-exists alongside a very different shift towards higher standards of rigour, evaluation and data-analysis across a wider range of academic fields. Think-tanks, too, can be part of this tendency (doubtless I’ve been a sinner at one time or another). There will always be a temptation to make a name for yourself in a congested market via strident predictions about the middle-future rather than the less-reportable but more arduous work of understanding existing trends and policy responses.

Political runes

Alongside the media and change-analysts there is another group with an appetite for narratives about why the future will be very different from the past: politicians. Some of our smartest representatives see themselves as navigators of the shifting social and economic tides that carry us forward. Back in the 1990s the role of politician as guide-to-the-future was performed with some élan by the young Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. They, too, may have been guilty of hyperbole (and the underlying assumption about the inevitably of the forward march of globalisation is looking shakier than it used to) but there was a genuine depth of insight to their reading of the runes.

A generation later and the big speech or essay setting out the scale of the social change we are on the cusp of is an increasingly jaded ritual for both established leaders and emerging contenders. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with politicians seeking to decipher the big challenges of tomorrow: we need more, not less, focus on slow-burn problems. But in today’s politics all too often the formulaic result is a stitching together of the most eye-catching claims and projections currently doing the rounds, embroidered by anecdotes of cutting edge techno-wizardry, resulting in the conclusion that the nation now faces a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ political choice.

If this is a charge that can be levelled at some so-called reformist-centrists then it also applies to those situated further out on the left and right. Those convinced that only ground-clearing policy change will put a society back on the right track — whether that be a universal basic income or an end to immigration — are often quick to latch onto arresting claims about the future that they think help demonstrate that their radicalism will, one day, place them on the right side of history.

Big-change scepticism

Together these different forces mean that a healthy scepticism about big-change rhetoric — whether about the future of work or other issues — is essential.

But it also needs to be measured. It’s all too easy to become a reflexive contrarian, expending all your energies puncturing myths and constantly seeking them out — even when they don’t exist. And when it comes to the world of work there are some very real shifts — whether the surge in older-working, self-employment and male part-time working or tech-driven reshaping of specific white-collar occupations.

Far from this being a call for complacency, it’s a plea to focus on the very real challenges we do face. Overblown accounts of the ‘revolution’ we are living through tend to get in the way of this task. Real shifts are staring us in the face — they just tend not to be the ones we so often hear about.

This article was originally published on Gavin Kelly's blog on May 10, 2017. He writes there in his personal capacity.

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