Addressing the crisis of work

This article was first published by Arc Digital on December 10th 2018.

There are few ideals as central to the life of liberal democracies as that of stable and rewarding work. Political parties of every stripe make promises and boasts about job creation; even Donald Trump is not so eccentric that he does not brag about falling rates of unemployment. Preparing individuals for the job market is seen as the main purpose of education, and a major responsibility of parents too.

But all of this is starting to ring hollow. Today it is an open secret that, whatever the headline employment figures say, the future of work is beset by uncertainty.

Since the 1980s, the share of national income going to wages has declined in almost every advanced economy (the socially democratic Nordic countries are the exception). The decade since the financial crisis of 2007–8 has seen a stubborn rise in youth unemployment, and an increase in “alternative arrangements” characteristic of the gig economy: short-term contracts, freelancing and part-time work. Graduates struggle to find jobs to match their expectations. In many places the salaried middle-class is shrinking, leaving a workforce increasingly polarized between low- and high-earners.

Nor do we particularly enjoy our work. A 2013 Gallup survey found that in Western countries only a fifth of people say they are “engaged” at work, with the rest “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.”

The net result is an uptick of resentment, apathy, and despair. Various studies suggest that younger generations are less likely to identify with their career, or profess loyalty to their employer. In the United States, a worrying number of young men have dropped out of work altogether, with many apparently devoting their time to video games or taking prescription medication. And that’s without mentioning the ongoing automation revolution, which will exacerbate these trends. Robotics and artificial intelligence will likely wipe-out whole echelons of the current employment structure.

So what to do? Given the complexity of these problems — social, cultural, and economic — we should not expect any single, perfect solution. Yet it would be reckless to hope that, as the economy changes, it will reinvent a model of employment resembling what we have known in the past.

We should be thinking in broad terms about two related questions: in the short term, how could we reduce the strains of precarious or unfulfilling employment? And in the long term, what will we do if work grows increasingly scarce?

One answer involves a limited intervention by the state, aimed at revitalizing the habits of a free-market society — encouraging individuals to be independent, mobile, and entrepreneurial. American entrepreneur Andrew Yang proposes a Universal Basic Income (UBI) paid to all citizens, a policy he dubs “the freedom dividend.” Alternatively, Harvard economist Lawrence Katz suggests improving labor rights for part-time and contracted workers, while encouraging a middle-class “artisan economy” of creative entrepreneurs, whose greatest asset is their “personal flair.”

There are valid intuitions here about what many of us desire from work — namely, autonomy, and useful productivity. We want some control over how our labor is employed, and ideally to derive some personal fulfillment from its results. These values are captured in what political scientist Ian Shapiro has termed “the workmanship ideal”: the tendency, remarkably persistent in Western thought since the Enlightenment, to recognize “the sense of subjective satisfaction that attaches to the idea of making something that one can subsequently call one’s own.”

But if technology becomes as disruptive as many foresee, then independence may come at a steep price in terms of unpredictability and stress. For your labor — or, for that matter, your artisan products — to be worth anything in a constantly evolving market, you will need to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to retraining. According to some upbeat advice from the World Economic Forum, individuals should now be aiming to “skill, reskill, and reskill again,” perhaps as often as every 2–3 years.

Is it time, then, for more radical solutions? There is a strand of thinking on the left which sees the demise of stable employment very differently. It argues that by harnessing technological efficiency in an egalitarian way, we could all work much less and still have the means to lead more fulfilling lives.

This “post-work” vision, as it is now called, has been gaining traction in the United Kingdom especially. Its advocates — a motley group of Marx-inspired journalists and academics — found an unexpected political platform in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which has recently proposed cutting the working week to four days. It has also established a presence in mainstream progressive publications such as The Guardian and New Statesman.

To be sure, there is no coherent, long-term program here. Rather, there is a great deal of blind faith in the prospects of automation, common ownership and cultural revolution. Many in the post-work camp see liberation from employment, usually accompanied by UBI, as the first step in an ill-defined plan to transcend capitalism. Typical in that respect are Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. This blueprint includes open borders and a pervasive propaganda network, and flirts with the possibility of “synthetic forms of biological reproduction” to enable “a newfound equality between the sexes.”

We don’t need to buy into any of this, though, to appreciate the appeal of enabling people to work less. Various thinkers, including Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, took this to be an obvious goal of technological development. And since employment does not provide many of us with the promised goods of autonomy, fulfillment, productive satisfaction and so on, why shouldn’t we make the time to pursue them elsewhere?

Now, one could say that even this proposition is based on an unrealistic view of human nature. Arguably the real value of work is not enjoyment or even wealth, but purpose: people need routine, structure, a reason to get up in the morning, otherwise they would be adrift in a sea of aimlessness. Or at least some of them would – for another thing employment currently provides is a relatively civilized way for ambitious individuals to compete for resources and social status. Nothing in human history suggests that, even in conditions of superabundance, that competition would stop.

According to this pessimistic view, freedom and fulfillment are secondary concerns. The real question is, in the absence of employment, what belief systems, political mechanisms, and social institutions would make work for all of those idle thumbs?

But the way things are headed, it looks like we are going to need to face that question anyway, in which case our work-centric culture is a profound obstacle to generating good solutions. With so much energy committed to long hours and career success (the former being increasingly necessary for the latter), there is no space for other sources of purpose, recognition, or indeed fulfilment to emerge in an organic way.

The same goes for the economic side of the problem. I am no supporter of UBI – a policy whose potential benefits are dwarfed by the implications of a society where every individual is a client of the state. But if we want to avoid that future, it would be better to explore other arrangements now than to cling to our current habits until we end up there by default. Thus, if for no other reason than to create room for such experiments, the idea of working less is worth rescuing from the margins of the debate.

More to the point, there needs to be a proper debate. Given how deeply rooted our current ideas about employment are, politicians will continue appealing to them. We shouldn’t accept such sedatives. Addressing this problem will likely be a messy and imperfect process however we go about it, and the sooner we acknowledge that the better.