Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 24/06/2014

Has digital technology changed the value of work ?

A common refrain in political speeches and polls, the value of "work" seems to be the leading concern among French people. The concept is actually frequently cited when talking about the effects of the financial crisis, all the more so because it is in the grips of the digital revolution. But let's begin by explaining the three very different perceptions of the value of "work."

Economists refer to the concept put forth by Adam Smith in 1843 whereby work is the actual measure of the trading value of any good. The value of "work" is itself an ideological perception of the tasks that we perform, one that has been around for ages by really took hold starting in the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. The concept purports that work is a means of personal achievement, but also a way to become part of society. First and foremost, it is a moral construct that gives work meaning and one that sparks more allegiance in France than any other European country. This has not stopped the French people originating a well-known paradox that says work is the second most important value, after family, we share – but there must be a limit on how much it invades our personal lives. The third definition comes in support of rights and includes all the financial benefits that work provides, from wages to the right to retirement and health insurance. This view of value, however, is less regarded by the French people since they lean more toward moral and social value. While the first two concepts are different, they are closely related and digital technology is evidently calling them into question.

Productivity and creativity

On the corporate side, the concept of the economic value of work was developed through the steady rise in productivity and the ever-pervasive use of worker-generated data. Managers in some companies mainly focus on numbered objectives and results, but quantification methods tend to overlook mental and physical effort, not to mention time.
Yet, the fact remains that the number of tasks is starting to diminish while the intellectual work, previously reserved for the executive class, is now being done by all employees. While this work may appear more abstract, it requires learning new computer skills not included in the job description. However, the increased workloads, faster pace and task standardisation induced by digital technology have a tendency to curtail employee creativity and can deprive work of all meaning. Recent polls also show there is a certain degree of uneasiness among French workers, who bemoan the race for profitability and productivity as they wax nostalgic for a more or less fictional time when a job "well done" was par for the course.

Giving meaning

And so once a company's management policy and information system, which is the backbone of work, are no longer viewed as helpful implements but rather as constraints, employees feel that work has lost its meaning and therefore its value. This is happening as much to executives dealing with unending reporting tasks and enforcing contradictory orders as it is to manual labourers grappling with software and no longer actually doing the work, but prescribing it. In both cases, managing by force has the effect of quashing the emotional side of work where everyone can express themselves and build relationships within a group, a side that the French overwhelmingly appreciate.
At the same time, more value is being placed on actions individuals take outside the corporate framework. The arrival of a new generation highly invested in the Internet and social networks is providing many more situations where a leisure activity is given meaning. Although working in a company is still considered a factor of well-being and social mobility, sharing information on forums, designing videos on YouTube or participating in a collaborative project "for fun" (i.e. subtitling a TV series as a hobby) are also opportunities to recover this celebrated emotional side outside of the context of income-generating work.


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