As many of us continue to find ourselves working from home, some consider their future as a result and wider demographics inexorably change, by chance two documentary series from different countries, on different mediums yet with remarkably complementary subjects both played out this week. Together they explore some genuinely profound issues and you must seek them out.
From television channel PBS America comes Future of Work, a beautifully made three-part analysis of how work is changing and the implications of that. Its foundational concept is the decline of the American dream of graduation, career and retirement as a life path. The impact of globalisation on single-employer towns, the massive growth of the digital economy and improved health have all contributed, so how workers can adapt and respond to these threats, and how can and should society help? A useful selection of commentators including economists, writers and entrepreneurs provide thoughtful intelligence but the real power of the series comes from workers themselves.
The very first scene is striking: a middle-aged man who is now one of Amazon’s ‘camper force’, itinerant workers who drive between fulfilment centres and live on site. Later we meet an engineer who left the army for an oil company, was made redundant and now trains people in wind farm maintenance; a woman working remotely for a white-collar corporation whilst also living in trailer parks she and her husband manage; and a British photographer who has created a successful computer-generated black fashion model. Other, equally different models of education and employment, the worries of the ‘precariat’ (other new-to-me terms included co-bot, a robot that works with a human, and re-shoring or the return of an industry to its original country) and the controversy around universal basic income are also explored in a mix made even richer given the pandemic hit during filming and was thus incorporated.
Meanwhile BBC Radio Four’s Rethink: Population challenged its own set of assumptions around whether there really are too many people in the world, given some countries are currently on course to have too few. In five panel discussions, experts look at the socio-political factors around this, not least on education and pensions. Reflections on Britain included single women concerned that embarking on a career and having a family are incompatible (the average age of a woman’s first child has increased dramatically in the past couple of decades), but more engaging to me were the sections focusing on Africa, China and other countries where population control has traditionally been thought of as a positive.
In fact such policies are now yielding unforeseen consequences, as there are too few young people to generate wealth. Changing modes of health and social care were also looked at, with for example Japan’s custom of in-family care for the elderly being contested by the young. The ‘right’ age of retirement (itself a relatively new phenomenon, dating back only to the last century) was also debated with the ‘100-year life’ becoming shorthand for the fact that, in other advanced countries, life expectancy is steadily increasing.
There was of course much more on offer across both series, and I’d urge you to track them down.