The future of work is consumption

One hears a lot of exuberant talk these days about the futures of work. Offices will go away, we’re told, or be significantly scaled back as employees work from home or the networked coffee-shop of their choosing. Work will be parceled into micro-units that can be outsourced to hyper-specialists, thus producing a micro-task economy. Mobility and freelancing will become the dominant metaphors of our multi-tasking flex-ruled times—a fallback for conventional job instabilities and a route to more fine-tuned control over life, leisure, and employment choices. Crowdsourcing and outsourcing together will mean that work can be done by lots of dispersed people in lots of dispersed places. Workforces will become 3D: ‘distributed, discontinuous and decentralized.‘ Peer-to-peer networks will replace old hierarchies. The distinction between ‘work’ and ‘social’ will blur, networked collaboration having long since displaced isolated concentration. We will demand of our work and our employers more than we ever did before; we’ll even teach them a thing or two about what gadgets and technologies make work more efficient and enjoyable. In general, millennial sensibilities will rule.

As I suggested in my last post, however, it’s unclear whose futures these are. Only a few forecasts are ever localized for India, but global enthusiasm reverberates disproportionately and faith in the capacity of technology to widen work futures is immensely strong. While it is true that some younger office crowds in the big Indian metros can contemplate and even demand flex-futures shot through with millennial whimsy, bare laboring realities still exert themselves, and forcefully. The contrasts are especially hard to ignore in India, where, all around is also ‘work’ of a very different sort: running in parallel to the more prized but no less regimented office work, there is casual work, self-employment (a category which includes street vendors and domestic workers among others), un- or semi-skilled labor, daily-wage labor on construction sites, agricultural labor that leads nowhere and is seasonal besides, factory work, service work, specialized artisanal work that has long since been downgraded to manual labor and more—all of it low-wage, and apparently bereft of any real possibility of reinvention.

Or is it? I’d like to consider the case of the Nokia manufacturing plant, which operated from the Sriperumbudur SEZ near Chennai from 2005-2014—and to use that as a context from which to consider how forms of work, increasingly imbricated with forms of consumption, strengthen what Appadurai calls the “capacity to aspire” and set the parameters for the imagination of the good life among the poor in the near-term.

Nokia began operations in Sriperumbudur’s SEZ in 2005. The Finnish phone giant soon employed 8,000 people from in and around the area, and supported 20,000 more in component manufacturing companies tightly clustered around: Aspocomp, Perlos, Salcomp, Foxconn, Flextronics, Sanmina-SCI, Laird and Wintek. Many of these employees were first generation industrial workers from agricultural backgrounds, who were just out of school or had even quit their educations to jump on the Nokia bandwagon, enthusiastic about the reputations of foreign companies as ‘good employers’ who would pay high salaries with solid benefits. Nine years later, as of April 2014, a just-completed acquisition by Microsoft reduced the plant to contract-status—thanks in no small measure to an extended battle with the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments over taxation revenues. Just before May Day 2014, the news was that 6,000 employees had been offered a voluntary retirement scheme, and all others a mandatory retirement option.

There are two configurations of work that are discernible from the Nokia case, one at first more visible than the other: work as consumption, and work as a political arrangement. I’ll consider the first here, and the second in my next post.

Do any sort of google search on the Nokia factory, and you’ll come upon the exuberance of the early years. Particularly telling is how the presence of trousers, cutlery, camera phones, televisions, shops selling fruits (more expensive than vegetables), and these days “pencil pants” (the local equivalent of “skinny” jeans) marked critical stages of development. For those who had thrown their lot in with Nokia, these were the very signs of India’s promised prosperous future, now finally filtering down to lower castes, and rural and lower-income communities, just like they had for other groups with the BPO boom. Here at last was the right brand to buy into: Nokia, known locally as the brand that dominated the mobile market until even the late 2000s; Nokia, the brand which released a series of low-cost dual-SIM phones for the India/Asia market starting in 2011—named “Asha,” which is Sanskrit for hope. In interviews done by the Nokia India Employee Union for a documentary called “Dis-connecting People” made and released on Mayday 2014, respondents talk about their ability to purchase other services like healthcare, or defray marriage costs on the strengths of their salaries. They speak repeatedly about the job reducing hardships [kashtam], and delivering the accoutrements of a middle-class life. The company’s culture was “open, transparent, performance- and development-focused,” one official cited traits not easily found in other manufacturing companies. It conducted large recruitment drives in neighboring villages, actively promoting the Nokia brand, pushing prospective employees to understand quality in terms of brand recognition and trust. The company hired more women than men; it bussed its employees from nearby villages to production facilities, distributed glass engraved awards to high-performers, provided lunches and free camera phones, celebrated the company’s founding anniversary in a huge celebration each year, and conferred the pride of high volume production to its growing workforce in purple embossed handsets with the words “500 million [handsets manufactured], 5 years.” It was not long before Nokia employment became a status symbol with intimately local significance, enough to distinguish families from each-other based on who had a Nokia employee, and who didn’t.

If all that wasn’t enough, the phone manufacturing company acted as a service delivery platform for its workers, enabling or providing services as families couldn’t and government wouldn’t. Remarking on the fact that the Tamil Nadu government provided water, electricity and other facilities to the MNCs but not to local communities: ‘I think it balances out because we get employment opportunities,’ one Foxconn employee, Sathiya, is quoted in a feature in the South China Morning Post (January 22, 2012). Nokia, along with the other component manufacturing companies clustered in the SEZ, represented a work-around, if not to clean water and sanitation, then at least to the products and services that a salary could buy, and the prestige of working for a recognized global brand.

In all these quotidian ways, Nokia lived up to worker expectations of how a ‘big company,’ at that a foreign MNC like Nokia, would operate in liberalized India, and actively nurtured employee identification as simultaneously producers and consumers of its product. In so doing, it refigured what workers were able to consume: that is, not just what their wages enabled, but the idea of the ‘good brand’ that Nokia represented, the brand in whose image workers constituted themselves, by which they marked their own material progress, claimed the value of their work, and charted their futures.

In exchange for such new-world visions of affluence, Nokia bought over the old-world loyalties of its employees who then counted themselves in so many kin-metaphors as members of the extended ‘Nokia family’–for whom they sacrificed to the point of trading in their employment futures, and who in turn supported their very real extended families. When the factory closed, many workers found themselves with no employment future to speak of, having dedicated themselves to the one company and one skill set for years in an environment which privileges “freshers,” In seeking job security and assurance in the wake of the Microsoft merger and the uncertain future of the plant, these workers invoke also the relationships of moral obligation, responsibility, and patronage that a patriarch in traditional Indian society or the welfare state could be held to provide. Except that there is no patriarch or (functioning) welfare state here. There is just the good brand: Nokia one day, and Microsoft the next.

It may well be, as Ghassan Hage has argued, that “capitalism hegemonises the ideological content of hope so it becomes almost universally equated with dreams of better-paid jobs, better life-styles, more commodities, etc.” and that the “power of these hopes is such that most people will live their lives believing in the possibility of upward social mobility without actually experiencing it” (13-14). The Nokia case bears poignant testimony to this insight, no doubt, and to the ironies replete in capitalist forms of hoping. At the same time, the fact these very hopes frame one sort of capacity to aspire against a historical context that seemed to deny entirely the value of material progress necessarily I think counters any too-easy critique, and balances some of our more typical academic cynicisms (a theme I’ll pick up a bit more in my final post in this series).

My next post will round off discussion of the Nokia factory case, by examining what political arrangements are made with the state precisely to deliver such capacities to aspire.

[Some parts of this post are part of a longer argument developed for an essay soon to appear in the journal ephemera special issue on the “Consumption of Work and the Work of Consumption,” and are presented here in modified form with grateful thanks. A much earlier version of this and the coming post were presented in a 2014 SCA panel on “Finding, Organizing, and Liberating work” organized by Melissa Cefkin. Grateful thanks to Melissa for the initial prompt to write, and to Ilana Gershon for much encouragement along the way.]

Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on paticheri.com.

5 thoughts on “The future of work is consumption

  1. Thanks for writing, Deepa. As I read this, though, I couldn’t help but feel that the title you chose is misleading: I felt it was less about the future of work than a reiteration of what we already know of MNC capitalism in the flesh. This is fine, but I was really hoping to glean some new, unique insights that I’d not considered before – work as consumerism, mainly! Am I missing something? Thanks for writing!

  2. Jim, Thanks for the comment. While it’s true that much of this is reiteration of what we know about how capital works, two things: first, this is a short version of what’s soon to appear in the journal ephemera. Stay tuned and see that version for more perhaps? Also, second, I think what’s often not accounted for enough is that these old insights have very new value for the communities I’m writing about. We’re past it all, and tend to want to move beyond. We’re living in their far futures, so to speak, but it is still a future to come, and one that carries with it immense hope, a framework of possibility. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about it in an already overlong post, but for me that point is critical: critiques of what we know about capital already cannot so easily dismiss this fact, or try to replace it with revitalized ideas from the (largely failed) left, or try to deny what matters about this future to those who see it now as a sign of progress that must trickle down–the effects of it all on the biosphere notwithstanding. If we know it all already and yet can see its logics invariably playing out, what do we do? is somewhere the question I’m toying with. I’m also building toward an argument that’s developed more in the next post about the political infrastructures of such aspirational frameworks.. So all in a way of saying, there’s more to come — though you’ll have to tell me whether any of that satisfies, or not 🙂

  3. Hi Deepa, yes that definitely helps! It’s a matter of perspective it would seem. The title makes much more sense in the light of your explanation. Look forward to the next post!

  4. Deepa, interesting article here. Do you see this consumption/consumer-orientation toward work and employment impacting other dimensions or domains of life in this fieldsite? You make mention, for example, of “the presence of trousers, cutlery, camera phones, televisions, shops selling fruits (more expensive than vegetables), and these days “pencil pants” (the local equivalent of “skinny” jeans)” — all of which are consumer goods and products. I’m thinking about how one trend among younger workers in America seems to be an expectation that “customer service” be applied to other domains, such as education, and I hear professors complain about this a lot–“students” want to be treated like “customers”. Are there any parallels here?

  5. Michael, thanks for that thoughtful comment. The “customer service” demand and consumer identities are still not as generalized across classes and domains in a place like India as they might be in the United States, I think. The reverence toward educators and education in general, for example, means that domains such as those are still comprised of fairly traditional guru-student and/or patron-client relationships. That said, changing expectations of how governance should happen, technologically mediated in forms of eGovernance, or how relationships with government agencies should be forged, or even how corruption should be addressed—as we saw in the protests over the Lokpal Bill in 2011, about which Aalok Khandekar and I have written—suggest clear parallels, yes. Although these are quite middle-class-specific, still. Workers in the Nokia case were largely returned to a state of being non-customers with the factory closure–and their recourse to leveraging political patronage to address their condition would appear to underscore their distance from the consumerist identities and modes of operation that had been so far within reach. Though of course it’s also very much the case that the status of “consumer” and “customer” across classes delivers a qualitatively different sort of equalizing empowerment from what decades of reservations (affirmative action-type reforms) have attempted to, and that’s an immensely attractive ideal that does not disappear just because a job does and purchasing power reduces. So, if I could claim to peer into the future somewhat :), I suspect there’ll be other parallels that emerge for other classes before long.

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