2.1. Changes in the Structure of Employment
The Marxist thesis of the degradation of labor was developed as an explicit critique of liberal claims of a progressive upgrading of employment. It would, however, seem fair to say that in this respect it is Marxists rather than liberals who have been forced onto the defensive whenever the issue between them has been treated on an empirical basis. The major difficulty for the Marxist position has come form trends displayed in the official employment statistics of the more advanced industrial nations. These show—with considerable regularity—that the greatest increases in nonmanual employment over recent decades have occurred not in relatively low-level clerical, sales, and personal service grades but rather in professional, administrative, and managerial occupations. Furthermore,
the major decreases in manual employment have been in the less-skilled rather than the more-skilled categories. Such statistics create in themselves a strong prima facie case against the degrading thesis and have thus forced Marxists into attempting counterarguments. These have taken two main lines.
First, some Marxists point out (see especially Wright and Singelmann 1982) that the discrepancy between the claims of the degrading thesis and the trends apparent in employment statistics could arise through changes taking place in occupational distributions at the societal level that are independent of changes in the organization of production within particular enterprises. Such changes could result simply from shifts in the division of total employment among different industries and sectors that themselves possess different occupational structures. In other words, it is possible that the increase in professionals, administrators, and managers is the consequence largely—or entirely—of the growth of the services sector, within which such occupations have always been more prominent than within, say, the heavy industries, which are now typically in decline. But, it may then be maintained, the effect of degrading are in this way only masked by countervailing tendencies that cannot continue indefinitely; and, as the "service economy" reaches its full development and shift effects on the structure of employment fall off, the reality of degrading will be made increasingly apparent.
However, while this line of argument is analytically sound, it does not of course follow that it is empirically valid, and in fact evidence has of late mounted strongly against it. Although Wright and Singelmann (1982) were able to produce some supportive results for the United States in the 1960s (Singelmann and Browning 1980), later analyses for the United States in the 1970s reported by Singelmann and Tienda (1985) and analyses for a number of European nations (Gershuny 1983) have all yielded results that run in a clearly contrary direction. What is here shown is that the major trends evident in national employment statistics persist even when all interindustry shifts are allowed for. That is to say, net upgrading tendencies must be seen as resulting not only from such shifts but further from technological, organizational, and other changes determining the actual occupational mix at the level of production units.
The second way in which exponents of the degrading thesis have sought to overcome the problem posed by the data on occupational distributions is to claim that the thesis relates not simply to shifts of workers among occupations but further to changes occurring within occupations themselves—that is, to changes in their specific technical and social content. This arguments is difficult to either confirm or refute in any direct way. Detailed investigation of work-tasks and roles of the kind that is
called for is scarcely feasible on an economywide basis and has in fact been limited to case studies—the results of which, not surprisingly perhaps, have proved quite inconclusive. However, one unique data set has afforded the opportunity for an indirect test of the degrading thesis, understood in the way in question and in the context of a national society. In each of the three "rounds" of the Swedish Level of Living Survey, carried out in 1968, 1974, and 1981, a sample of the Swedish population was asked a range of questions on their work and working conditions. These results have recently been analyzed in the light of expectations derived from the degrading thesis (Åberg 1984a, 1984b). Little or no support emerges for the idea that the Swedish labor force experienced degrading over the period covered. For example, levels of work-related training and education generally increased, fewer employees reported a boring routine or a serious lack of autonomy in their jobs, and more found their work mentally (but not physically) demanding.
Efforts to reconcile the degrading thesis with the dominant trends apparent in employment statistics are thus scarcely convincing, and it is notable that some former adherents of the thesis now appear ready to abandon it (see Singelmann and Tienda 1985). It is not of course in question that at any one time in a technologically and economically dynamic society some kinds of work will be in the process of deskilling or degrading in some sense (even if not necessarily for reasons that Marxists would advance). But neither would there seem grounds for questioning the thesis that as old skills, autonomies, and responsibilities disappear, they are replaced—and indeed more than replaced—by new ones, as liberal theorists would maintain.
Does it then follow that in rejecting the degrading thesis, one is at the same time required by the empirical evidence to accept the liberal argument that labor forces are being progressively upgraded? Much depends
on what exactly this argument is taken to imply. The declined of manual wageworkers and the expansion of the professional, administrative, and managerial salariat could plausibly be regarded as generic processes of advanced industrial societies. But other developments have of late become apparent in such societies that do not accord well with the more optimistic liberal scenarios that developed in the postwar years of the "long boom," which saw upgrading in effect at all levels of the occupational structure and as leading toward the eventual "professionalization of everyone." Most obviously, one may point to the return since the mid-1970s of large-scale and long-term unemployment to most (though not all) Western societies. This means that even though the balance of change may be in favor of upgrading among jobs that exist, job loss is for many communities, families, and individuals now the central economic reality. The fact that unemployment remains, as in the past, heavily concentrated among those who were previously wageworkers brings out the persisting differentiation in economic life-chances between this group and the those employees who enjoy the much greater security typically afforded by the "conditions of service" of bureaucratic personnel (Goldthorpe 1985b; Goldthorpe and Payne 1986).
Moreover, alongside unemployment, tendencies have appeared in most Western societies—though in widely varying form and degree—toward what is aptly described by a term arising from the French experience: la précarisation du travail (see Michon 1981). A growth has occurred of diversed forms of employment of a "nonstandard" kind—part-time work, temporary work, home-work, labor-only subcontracting, etc.—that creates a "secondary" labor force that is highly exposed to both market fluctuations and managerial authority. One could say that this is a labor force that is highly flexible and disponible , chiefly because its members lack the protection that "primary" workers possess, whether through organization, legislation, or mere custom and practice (Berger and Piore 1980; Goldthorpe 1984). Recognition of an emerging dualism in this sense need not entail an acceptance of current theories—Marxist or otherwise—of dual or segmented labor markets that are systematically differentiated by levels of skill, pay, or mobility. But it does underline the error of supposing that at the stage of advanced industrialism upgrading proceeds uniformly in all aspects of employment alike.