Teleworking, « rural migration » and « urban migration »: demographic impact of industrial revolutions, end of geographical distance as a key factor of labor or channel of individual and territorial inequalities?

By Deborah Liebart. First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2652438


Last week, I spoke briefly about what an industrial revolution is, from an economic point of view, insisting on the Schumpeterian definition of the concept1. Today, let us have a look at the human and geographical implications of the phenomenon and in particular the question of internal demographic migration. If the industrial concentration has promoted demographic concentration and the phenomenom of “metropolisation”, the revolution 4.0, with its decentralized models and the development of teleworking, (almost impossible for crafts skills that requires a physical presence and physical structure), could transformed, in the short or medium term, the labour market and the human geography of the territories, but also the systems of solidarity in their globalities

  Even if one can observe scattered phenomena of individuals migrations between countryside and city in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, traditional historiography causally links internal migration and industrial revolution. This movement of geographical migration occurring during the eighteenth century in England, and nineteenth centuries in France and Germany, is related to the development of new patterns of production and the economic model of the century. Both progressive development of mechanization and improvement of techniques in large farms, the concentration of land in some regions, added to the advent of the model of the factory, the development of the primary sector…, increase urban population. A lot of rural people find housing in new suburbs, (« fauxbourgs », outside the historic limits of the city) the movement redesigning the city as much as it reshapes the sociological foundations of the family.

  Internal migration, rural exodus2, is a massive phenomenon in which it is found that the number of migrants added to the number of deaths in a specific place is higher than the births, thus leading to depopulation of the countryside. Although there are other incentives that are unrelated to the development of techniques that drive people to flee rurality3, the term « rural exodus » has a nineteenth-century connotation. If in « departure zones », this causes, (in the nineteenth century), problems of sustainability of local solidarity systems, in « arrival zones », this implies questions in terms of housing crisis, “rurbanisation” and urban sprawl, and a systemic reshaping of labour discipline through competition between local labor (the « urban » natives) and external labor (rural newly arrived). In the nineteenth century, the world population still largely rural, grows.

   From 1860s, there is an important migratory movement in France, industrialization absorbing the unemployed labor force in rural areas, workers being indispensable for the development of the factory. It is the beginning, the birth, the advent, of the « working classes », of the « dangerous classes », of the working proletariat, (the work forces grouped together in the walls of the factory), highlighted by realistic and naturalistic literatures of Hugo and Zola etc … From the point of view of techniques and industrial scheme, it is the « programmed end » of the « apiéceur » performing piecework at home and his incorporation into collective structures, requiring a large investment in capital and infrastructure.

   If for decades the campaign emptied when in the same time city grew (perhaps partly because of the hope of a better life, whether true or fantasized, especially after Popular Front in France, supervising factory work, but leaving isolated rural workers a little to one side), over the past decade, opinion polls have revealed a strong desire on the part of workers to move from large urban centers to medium-sized towns and / or rural areas.

   Attractiveness of the great outdoors or difficulty to live decently in the big metropolises? No doubt a mixture of the two, while the major European capitals, in the era of Airbnb4, and of the deregulation of the rents reach records of price per square meter and no longer allow somes populations to live close to employment, especially poor workers and middle classes. Will the global decentralization promises of Industry 4.0 models create the necessary conditions for a redefinition of urban and rural housing by inducing « urban migration », a migration from cities to countryside ? A real movement of population causing an imbalance between active and non-active, leaving metropolitan hypercentres to pensioners who had the opportunity to buy their homes before the episode of concentration, the wealthiest workers and tourists?

   Such changes lead to logistical issues in the management of public services and local taxation, both in urban centers and in arrival areas, and should, to a certain extent, invite a rethinking about reshaping of local public services in rural areas, which are currently in deficit but which could, in the short or medium term, experience a new development linked to the demographic influx…

   Will teleworking as a tool of revolution 4.0 change pendular migrations (home / work journeys daily made by workers)? Ecologically, this could help to “decongest” urban centers and have a positive impact in terms of air pollution and public health. It could also be a way to fight the « spatial divide », the societal gap, provided however that the « digital divide » is resolved: the mapping of the fractures is often superimposed and highlighting the need to rethink the territories and the relationship of the center to the suburbs.

   In societies where the tertiary sector is developed, it appears that teleworking and NTIC can really change the scale of communicating and the actual places of residence, leading to a tax redesign. If the benefits of teleworking exist, it raises many questions such as the cost of development and maintenance of communication networks essential to the functioning of the system and the potential participation of companies in these expenses on the principle of user / payer (?), the cost of the negative externalities previously assumed by the materialized company but which in an exploded context refer to the homeworker.

   These management issues are crucial because it is likely that large-scale development of teleworking will lead to a downward trend in the cost of labor, while at the same time reducing costs for “companies decentralized” without dedicated buildings (thus without local taxes on buildings) … One can clearly observe disparities between wages in the big cities and in the average cities in which the “buying power” can be higher for a lower salary due to the reduced costs of housing, food …

  Ecologically interesting, perhaps, strategically attractive for companies in terms of investment and minimization of wage and socio-fiscal costs, no doubt, teleworking as an exploded, decentralized model poses intrinsically the question of national and territorial taxation.

   By shifting the tax levy at the territorial scale, by increasing the local levy against the national one, by transferring charges and skills… one deconstructs national systems of solidarity, transferring from the State to the territories the responsibility and the risk … high-risk transfer of national solidarities to local and territorial ones, fragmented and subject to competition… 

2Rosental P-A. L’exode rural. Mise à l’épreuve d’un modèle. In: Politix, vol. 7, n°25, Premier trimestre 1994. L’imagination statistique, sous la direction de Loïc Blondiaux et Bastien François. pp. 59-72.

3For example, the anachoresis caused by an excessive fiscal pressure, during the Lagides dynasty which created peasant desertions and problems in terms of maintenance and development of agriculture. C.f.,Mélèze-Modrzejewski, J., « Papyrologie et histoire des droits de l’antiquité », EPHE, 4° section, Sciences historiques et philologiques, Annuaire 1977-1978, 1978, pp. 351-372.