What to worry about in 2018: The End of Work

It’s the 300th anniversary of the Industrial Revolution


For 300 years people have been raising the red flag. Technology will put humans out of work and we have to do something about it.


Were they wrong?


Or just premature?


Alex Colville’s Horse and Train

Today automation and algorithms have changed the world fundamentally.


The change is so fundamental the very meaning of words is changing.


Very little of what we do today would be recognized by our grandparents as “work” in the traditional sense.


The end has come… and gone…


Since 2016 countless magazines, news, books, and online writers have fretted about the end of work.


I argue that the end of work has already happened and because of language, hubris, politics, and bias we just didn’t notice it. There’s an old economics joke that if one has a job there is full employment, and if one is out of work there’s an unemployment crisis.


Today those without work, the working poor, the young, and the job precarious, have little or no voice or influence on our economic outlook.


It’s not the end of work itself, it’s what to do about it now that it’s happened that we have to worry about in 2018.


It’s a problem that’s hidden in plain sight by historically low unemployment numbers that belie the issue that every household knows well. The unemployment stats enable the government to keep the issue out of the mainstream news. Complex and uncertain ideas rarely make good six o’clock news rating. But you can easily learn more about this fundamental change in the world if you know where to look.


It’s a modern problem. Many people hate their jobs and know in their hearts they add nothing to the future except the next paycheck to cover the minimum credit card payment. Through all of human history, work was the fundamental way we connect to the natural world and the other people around us. As work changes, this connection is lost.


And it’s not like people aren’t trying to get it back. The Harvard Business Review recently reported that over 44 million Americans are working at what has become known as a side hustle, a job you do after your regular job.


What IS work?


Work once meant creating or adding value to something – like farmers, masons, carpenters and artificers of metal.


Leisure meant time spent in intellectual or spiritual pursuits.


Now many of us live in a digital netherworld caught between wakefulness and sleep, neither creating anything nor contemplating anything. Just being and consuming.


That’s the lucky ones.


Work is really three things, says Peter Frase, the author of Four Futures, a forthcoming book about how automation will change America:


1/ the means by which the economy produces goods,


2/ the means by which people earn income, and


3/ an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives.


Frase belongs to a small group of writers, academics, and economists—they have been called “post-workists”—who welcome, even root for, the end of labour. American society has “an irrational belief in work for work’s sake,” says Benjamin Hunnicutt, another post-workist and a historian at the University of Iowa, even though most jobs aren’t so uplifting. A 2014 Gallup report of worker satisfaction found that as many as 70 percent of Americans don’t feel engaged by their current job.


Could we be living in an era that historians will one day call The End Of Work and we are so deluded we don’t even notice?


To visualize how this all ends imagine the story of the horse. 100 years ago few could conceive of a world without the work of horses. And though we still talk how horsepower today as a measure of work, few can even imagine what the work of horses might have been.


Traditional jobs are constantly changed by technology.


How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? That was the question that worried the economist John Maynard Keynes when he wrote his short essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930. Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive through technological advance that people would barely need to work at all. He imagined we would devote ourselves to leisure. He didn’t mean lying in the sun. 100 years ago leisure meant the pursuit of new ideas, creativity, spirituality, shared social experiences.


So what happened?


For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39.


But then something changed. Instead of continuing to decline, the duration of the workweek stayed put; it’s hovered just below 40 hours for nearly five decades.


Now what? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?


Why has increased productivity has not translated into increased leisure time? There are three ideas:


1/ Perhaps people just never feel materially satisfied, always wanting more money for the next new thing. “This argument is, at best, far from sufficient,” he writes. If that were the case, why did the duration of the workweek decline in the first place?


2/ Maybe people just like the socializing and routines of ‘work’ better than the opportunities of home life, creativity, and spiritual pursuits. Controversially this could account for the preference of work outside the home from most modern women.


3/ A third possibility proves more convincing: Inequality. Inequality means that the gains of increasing productivity are not widely shared. In other words, most people are too poor to work less. Unlike the other two explanations Friedman considers, this one fits chronologically: Inequality declined in during the post-war period (along with the duration of the workweek), but since the early 1970s it’s risen dramatically.


Keynes’s prediction rests on the idea that “standard of life” would continue rising for everyone. But Friedman says that’s not what has happened: Although Keynes’s eight-fold figure holds up for the economy in aggregate, it’s not at all the case for the average worker. The average worker’s household has fewer savings, fewer investments, less to give and relatively less to spend now than it did before. Therefore, less time for leisure for the whole household.



Why this is a problem


Each of us needs to feel, sometimes in life, that their services are important enough so that someone other than their parents or welfare department is willing to pay to keep them alive. Those who have never proved their usefulness remain forever at a disadvantage because work is the basic way which most of us relate to the world.


What does The future of work look like?


The Good


What Keynes predicted was a broadly shared prosperity for all that freed us to be our best selves – the most creative, artistic, inventive, spiritual, and educated world ever imagined was inevitably in our future. Peace, love and understanding would surely be the hallmarks of our future.



The Bad


The economy as a whole has grown even more brilliantly than he expected. But for most people, that prosperity is nowhere to be seen—and, as a result, neither are those shorter workweeks.


For half of hourly workers, their top concern isn’t that they work too much but that they work too little—not, presumably, because they like their jobs so much, but because they need the money.


The Ugly


What happens when work is gone?


We’re experiencing a rise of the “precariat”—a working class that swings from task to task in order to make ends meet and suffers a loss of labour rights, bargaining rights, and job security.



Is any job truly safe?


Futurists and science-fiction writers have at times looked forward to the rise of the machines with a kind of giddy excitement, imagining the banishment of drudgery and its replacement by expansive leisure and almost limitless personal freedom. If things keep going as they are many of life’s necessities and luxuries will become ever cheaper, and it will mean great wealth—at least when aggregated up to the level of the national economy.


The disappearance of work will usher in a social transformation unlike any we’ve seen. Work is at the heart of our politics, economics, and social interactions. What happens when work is gone? How do people get paid? How do we connect with each other? How is wealth distributed?


Maybe none of this matters at all


Decades from now maybe this will seem silly. Up until 100 years ago most people were farmers and created wealth within their families and small communities with little worry about the world.   Today’s devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, the abandonment of family and community in pursuit of career has, for many, drifted from life’s purpose.


The meaning of work could continue to evolve.


The post-work society may look at today’s economy as the darkest and most misguided of times. Our notion of work could return to the home and household and what we can do for each other In other words the problem of the end of work may be entirely made up. It reflects the false norms of the corporations, governments, finance, marketers and industrialists. The admired artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the work to be done looking after each other, improving our own households and protecting our environment, is boundless and without measure.


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