The end of the middle
Farid Tabarki is a world traveller, self-proclaimed ‘scientist of the present’ and founding director of Studio Zeitgeist, translating changing societal, technological and economic realities into practical advice for organizations and businesses.
In this book, Tabarki describes three major trends that jointly lead to the disappearance of the middle. Think of travel agents and record companies, as middle men in an antiquated production process – but, he claims, the entrepreneur, HR manager, civil servant and school teacher also may see themselves falling into oblivion.
The three trends are, firstly, the surge of online platforms taking over the jobs of the aforementioned middle men. Secondly, technological innovation will make many jobs irrelevant – and these are not low-wage, minimum skill jobs. It may signal the end of middle classes. Lastly, Tabarki foresees the end of the nation state as a center of power – pointing to heightened interest in local and international interests and goals.
These changes are occuring right now, and at a worrying pace. Tabarki does not take a negative view, though, and explains to individuals, organizations and companies how they can reshape themselves to stay relevant in the new ‘liquid society.’
Publisher Atlas Contact
March 10, 2016 – In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the main character finds himself aboard a gigantic spaceship. There he stumbles upon millions of sarcophagi containing the frozen bodies of television producers, insurance agents, HR personnel, telephone cleaners, creative directors, PR advisors and management consultants. These are the people deemed useless to the planet of Golgafrincham. They have been sent off into space by their fellow citizens with some flimsy excuse.
Science fiction is an enjoyable genre that holds up a mirror to all of humanity, making use of a ‘galaxy far far away’ and a healthy dose of techno-babble.
Adams strikes a nerve. These days, middle-skill workers are indeed figuratively being ’shipped off to space’. According to the data collected in sociologist Saskia Sassen’s book ‘Expulsions’, up to 65% of all jobs disappearing in 2008 were middle class jobs, whereas they only make up 25% of all new jobs.
Frans Blom of the Boston Consultancy Group believes that, ultimately, only two types of employees will remain. ‘Those who can keep up with international development’: the technological-creative leaders. And those who offer local, non-tradable services, such as hairdressers, nurses and construction workers. Much of the highly educated workforce will end up not occupying the middle, but the lower segment of the job market.
Does this fact make these people less valuable? As the poet Lucebert stated: “Everything of value is defenceless”. Perhaps we ought to contradict Lucebert and help make everything of value more resilient. The question is: how do we accomplish this?
At the start of the 19th century English Luddites believed the rejection of all technology to be the answer. I would argue the opposite: only by fully embracing technology can we create the jobs of the future. Human beings are at their most inventive when making use of technology, as chess competitions show: it is not the grandmaster or fastest computer that wins these, it is the team made up of both a human being and a computer.
In order to achieve this, we must not try to compete with computers, but remain our human selves. The notion of ‘Bildung’, as introduced by the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) can help us realize this. According to Humboldt, a combination of knowledge, moral judgement and critical thinking should suffice to prepare a young person for his or her future. Modern day advocates of Bildung in education, amongst whom is Minister of Education, Culture and Science Jet Bussemaker, point to the topical interest of the notion: Bildung can serve as a contrast to the ’pigeonholing’ mentality that seems to be predominant in our current educational system and economy.
Problems (and their solutions) of the middle are a fascinating topic. They do not belong to the realm of science fiction, but to that of non-fiction, and serve as material for philosophers to ponder. Robots of the human-loving kind will play a large part in these scenarios.
December 1, 2016 – It may be lonely at the top, but life is hardest in the middle. This has been shown in an amusing research project conducted by the universities of Manchester and Liverpool, which took the academics several trips to Chester Zoo. The object of their study was the great apes living there, and more specifi cally, their expressions of dominance and passiveness. So, what were the researchers’ fi ndings? The apes in the middle of the hierarchy had both their superiors and inferiors to fear, and turned out to be the most stressed out of all of them.
In case you haven’t yet made the connection with human beings, the researchers have. ‘Middle managers’, as they were referred to, have to get along with both those higher and those lower in the hierarchy. Which is stressful. It’s not that pleasant in the middle, and it’s not just the middle that knows it. All of the middle class – the engine fuelling the post-war economy – is experiencing serious oppression.
A related study was published this month, and it’s in equal measures interesting and worrying. According to ’Europe’s Disappearing Middle Class? Evidence from the World of Work’, released by the International Labour Offi ce, the European middle class has decimated by 2,3% in the period between 2004 and 2011. This would be a great feat if it were due to the rise of the upwardly mobiles, but it isn’t. The gap between poor and rich is growing bigger due to the gradual disappearance of the middle. The study states that the middle incomes in Germany and Greece are in the most danger.
Perhaps sadly, the slump the German middle class is going through is – for once – not due to the economic crisis, as is evident from a slightly older report by the Bertelsmann Stiftung. According to their research, the middle class has been shrinking from 65 to 58% during 1997 and 2010. Germany’s working classes have since grown by four million people, while another half million people entered into the German upper class.
Something similar is happening in France, with the rise in rent for apartments in Paris being a harrowing example. You may be able to book a cheap Airbnb in the popular neighbourhood Marais, but living there for a reasonable price is nigh on impossible. It’s not unusual for Parisians to have to travel 60 or 70 kilometers to work every day. Are you a resident of Zoetermeer? Refer to your hometown as ‘a suburb of Amsterdam’ the next time you’re speaking to a Frenchman, and you’ll fi t right in.
The demise of Joe (or Jane) Lunchbucket may well also be the demise of our current political economy. The optimism has been short-lived: only one generation could count on upward mobility and the white picket fence that goes along with it. So what do we have to offer to the next generation? This is something to think about long and hard.
April 21, 2016 – When I happen to be just walking past a pond and picking up on a drowning child’s cry for help, I will leap into the water and save the child without giving it a second thought. It is, after all, my moral duty. Do I have a similar duty to help people that are in trouble, but happen to be elsewhere on the globe? Quite a pressing matter, given the hundreds of refugees that drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this week. American philosopher Peter Singer believes so. In his 2009 book ‘The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty’ he defends utilitarianism, a theory in ethics that measures the moral value of an action by judging whether it maximises utility.
Challenging inequality is not just a duty, however: it is also very much in our own self-interest. In last week’s issue of this newspaper, Kim Putters, director of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (‘Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau’), stated that when wealth leads to an increase in polarisation between those with a high level of education and those with little or no education, the mutual distrust will also increase. This is why Putters advocates a ‘new social contract for our society’.
Putters does have a point. In an article in the American Economic Review three authors, amongst which the Dutch Maarten Goos, professor in ‘Institutions and Economics’ at Utrecht University, discuss the ‘job polarisation’ occurring in three sections of the job market. In the years between 1993 and 2010 the number of work hours in high and low salary incomes developed quite differently from those in medium level salary incomes.
While the high and low incomes noticed an increase in work hours, the hours in middle income jobs decreased with a total of 7%. The white collar worker, at one point the economy’s propellingforce, was left behind. Due to robotisation and artificial intelligence the middle class’s position will likely only deteriorate further.
The middle of the job market is a very dangerous place to be at the moment. As Margaret Thatcher once said: ‘Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous: you’ll get knocked down by traffic on both sides.’
There is some good news, too: we have plenty of money to fix this. Just a few pages from Putters’ plea the newspaper announced that the state made a sum of 875 million euros in just seven minutes’ time by reopening the thirty year loan, including an effective profit of 0.99%. Those are the types of opportunities I would like to see in the campaign programs that are now being composed.
The government needs to invest in making the middle classes more futureproof by educating future generations and reeducating current generations in new skills and knowledge, including selfknowledge and the capability to change. The effects should be such that the costs will turn out to be negligible. An investment like this is a fantastic opportunity to construct a new societal balance. Both Kim Putters and Peter Singer should be pleased.
October 11, 2014 – There is a funny clip on YouTube of a young man throwing boiling water from his seventh floor balcony. Nobody gets hurt; before the water hits the ground is has turned into snow. We are in Siberia after all and drs. P’s Deadman’s ride is very apt. While his protagonist races towards Omsk in his troika, drs. P sings: ‘It’s about thirty below, it’s winter and kinda cold’. From the seventh down to the ground floor, the water changes state; fluid becomes solid; transparency makes way to white crystals.
The reverse is happening in our society; our rigid structures make way to a new order in which us humans move much more freely. As if we are molecules in a cup of tea. More about that later. First we go back to Siberia.
I, too, have travelled through Siberia albeit not in a troika but by way of the trans Siberian railways. This is where the ‘kondoektorsja’ serves tea from a large samovar; your fellow travellers most probably serve vodka. I never made it to Omsk, but I did manage to visit Novosibirsk, only one stop away, extensively. It is a sprawling concrete built Russian industrial city with little that stands out, except extremely cold winters and the existence of a local variety of Silicon Valley: Akademgorodok.
Akademgorodok (‘little academic city’) originated in the fifties during a period of ‘thaw’ under Nikita Khruschev who believed in aerospace and other forms of innovation. Here he put geniuses at work to think out new things in relative freedom. For example, they came up with a network of computers that could automate the Soviet Union’s planned economy. The idea was an internet avant la letter that would replace the rigid economic mechanics with fluid change.
You can guess: that Soviet-internet never came to be. Khruschev was deposed and his ‘thaw’ was replaced with a new frost in the person of the strict Brezjnjev, who didn’t favour all the novelties. These days, after a major dip when the Soviet Union collapsed, big boys like IBM and Schlumberger have made camp in Akademgorodok. The Russian government will invest 10 billion rubles (€ 200 million) in the next three years. It is expected that private parties will triple this. This should lead to twenty R&D centres (there were still only 4 in 2011) and dozens of start-ups. All over the world computers and their interconnectedness have fundamentally changed society. Speaking with my earlier metaphor: They have become fluid. These development input so much energy into our system that we started to shake considerably.
In organising people and knowledge the traditionally rigid form of an institution or organisation gives more and more often way to the fluidity and transparency of a network. This is exactly what happens to molecules when they are heated up. Antarctica knows what this means; The ice there is changing into water at an alarming rate.
Ford and Taylor’s industial era with their conveyer belt and rigidly planned companies is definitively over. We have to get out of our offices and other boxes and put the strict hierarchical thinking in the bin.
The good thing about the fluid society, which Zygmunt Bauman the polishbritish sociologist and philosopher also calls Liquid Modernity, is that you don’t need to be Ford or Taylor to change the world. Everybody can do it from behind his or her own computer and within his or her own network. This has already led to companies becoming worth billions with only 12 employees (Instagram) and turn sectors on their head with a flexible platform. (Airbnb in the hospitality world and Uber for taxis)
Politics and governance can also thaw out and become fluid. In Europe, the rise of pirate parties wanting to introduce the ‘flowing democracy’ through citizen’s forums and online panels has been an interesting development in recent years. These developments are hard to swallow for the established institutions. But swallow they must. They can wash them down on the train which speeds inexorably towards the future; with a cup of tea or a good shot of vodka, as they wish. Na zdorovje!
April 7, 2016 – Back in the day, corrupt politicians and drug lords stored away their billions on the Cayman or Virgin Islands. The man in the street had not a clue. Nowadays, it appears to be as easy to come up with some dubious financial construction as it is for an amateur investigator to uncover scams like these. So prove the Panama Papers. Former football player Clarence Seedorf turns out to have been rather creative with this money, and churned out a sum of 6k. Not a particularly shocking amount, and yet all of us are up to date on all the ins and outs of this particular case.
Much the same happened when the nail bombings in Zaventem, Belgium occurred on 22 March 2016. It took a long time for both CNN and Belgian national television to broadcast footage of the terminal. When they finally did, it was shot from the outside, making it hard to even make out anything, and repeated endlessly. Through the app Periscope, however, one was able to log into the live streams broadcast by people inside the terminal, who were recording with their mobile telephones.
The old state of affairs, in which the few hold the means to control the many, is akin to the panopticon devised by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In its essence, the panopticon is a prison. It is a circular structure, with prisoners’ cells stationed all around its perimeter. At its centre is the prison guard’s inspection house: he watches (-opticon) over all (pan-).
French philosopher Michel Foucault describes the panopticon as a metaphor for power, with video surveillance in public spaces being a notable example. In Edinburgh one might even be reprimanded through a speaker by a police officer noticing your criminal offence via such a camera.
Both the Panama Papers and Periscope expose the panopticon’s weakness. More and more often, the many can see the many: a new arrangement I would like to call the ‘diopticon’. The ancient Greek prefix ‘dia-‘ means ‘through’ or ‘across’ and emphasizes the importance of connections between individuals. These are quicker to emerge as we are becoming less dependent on time and place, mostly due to technological innovation. On Instagram, Timbuktu is no further away than Dordrecht. A freelancer working on his or her laptop in Amsterdam, may in fact be operating on a European and global scale at the same time.
The diopticon presents a challenge for the government. Systems devised to dispense work permits no longer serve their purpose, millions of freelance workers manage to work without relying on collective agreements, while companies (including small scale ones) look all across the globe to score the optimal deal.
According to the annual report released by the Council of State the Dutch government is quick to look for public support before even considering what is possible and permissible. This is a threat to the constitutional state. In the diopticon, on the other hand, citizens are able to model society to their own wishes. The government is more suited to upholding regulations. If the many watch the many, the government has to return to its roots.