Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Fungible MPs


The advert suggesting that ballerinas could retrain as cyber security experts has been widely and justifiably mocked, largely because of the belief that it reveals an underlying attitude by the current government towards the arts in general. But it also highlights two other aspects of the government’s attitude towards the labour market more generally.

The first is a dehumanising ideological belief that people are simply ‘resources’ whose main function is to serve the needs of the labour market, to which end they should be willing to learn whatever skills are required and to move to wherever those skills are required. From that perspective, people’s aspirations should be limited to what the market requires in order to serve the needs of capital (unless, of course, they are part of the capitalist class, in which case other people are there to serve them). The surprising thing is how generally accepted this assumption is, but then getting ‘buy-in’ to an ideological perspective is a highly effective method of controlling the masses by turning them on each other.

The second is the underlying high-level assumption of what economists call ‘fungibility’ – in this case, the ability of an available labour resource to fill a labour vacancy with just a bit of retraining. It’s a hopelessly oversimplistic assumption, but it’s one that many people make regularly. Another example is the assumption that eastern European fruit pickers can be easily replaced from the ranks of the UK unemployed. In the real world, things aren’t that simple; 1,000 vacancies for cyber security experts in Aberdeen can’t easily be filled by 1,000 unemployed ballerinas in Exeter. (Although, in practice, it’s probably easier to retrain ballerinas as cyber security experts than to retrain cyber security experts as ballerinas: adjusting people’s skills and knowledge to turn them into IT experts is considerably more straightforward than adjusting their body shape, gender and physical flexibility to turn them into ballerinas.)

It should be obvious why fungibility is a silly assumption to be making, but I suppose I can understand why it’s one which ministers and MPs might make. After all, there are few occupations in the UK which are more fungible than that of MP. This is a job which requires no special training, no particular skills, and no relevant experience. Anyone can get the job, and the only traditional barriers are membership of the House of Lords, bankruptcy, and insanity (although empirical evidence suggests the last of those is hard to define and impossible to enforce). And people who have been an MP (even those whom the cynical might suggest would be unemployable elsewhere) drift effortlessly into other jobs afterwards. (They assume it’s because of their skills and experience, but generally their list of contacts and assumed ability to open doors are more highly valued by their new employers.) If one’s personal experience suggests that transfer into another role is that easy, why wouldn’t they assume that it’s equally so for everyone else? After all, understanding the real world is another qualification which is not required to become an MP.


dafis said...

You omit any reference to the "attitude" of individual workers. While the politician adopts an over simplistic view of labour flexibility (given a spot of training) individual workers often display considerable inflexibility when confronted by the need for change. Much of that may be attributable to a person's inner confidence, that capacity to pursue new learning without fear of showing lack of knowledge, after all training is about overcoming that lack of knowledge. Hand in hand with this is the aversion to new environments as many of us become comfortable with where we know as well as what we know. We could go on to list a number of other factors which may affect how individuals address the need to make serious changes to careers.

If Boris and Co had much real life experience they would be aware that management of change is one of our great challenges. Over the last 20-30 years or more we have seen our employment landscape shaken by globalisation, technology and social changes. Normally those changes have happened at a slightly lower steady pace although the people affected might argue differently. A flippant "on yer bike" throwaway line just won't do. Our economy will need an allocation of resources(yes, money spent!)to enable a joined up strategic and tactical response to these challenges. Much of the "career change support"infrastructure exists already after a fashion but it will need bolstering and given a sharper focus to enable people to get from A to Z without feeling that a whole life time is slipping away. Whether Boris and his team have serious commitment beyond the soundbite stage is a matter of doubt to me.

Spirit of BME said...

In national or personal emergencies – and I think we are heading fast in that direction for many people, there has been a case that proves people can retrain and another where it was a disaster.
I speak of the last little unpleasantness with Germany, where the battle of the factories was won by Britain, who called -up mainly women to work and sent them all over the place. It was not perfect, but production was increased, and the battle was won. However, under National Socialism those called in where slave labourers who were not committed to the cause and (purposely) produced substandard products and production took a dive.
As Darwin’s Law states those that are adaptable survive and those who are waiting for the phone to ring, sadly do not.

John Dixon said...


I don't doubt that, as a general rule, people can retrain into other fields. The problem is when the politicians assume that something which is true 'in general' is universally true - that's when economic theory meets practical reality. Fungibility is not 0% but neither is it 100%. I don't know where in that range it actually sits, but I do know that government ministers seem to act and speak as though it were 100%, which is patently nonsense. With the exception of MPs, of course, where it is probably close to 100%. But that's not the real world most of us inhabit.