Fuck Work.


fw

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

[…]

But, wait, isn’t our present dilemma just a passing phase of the business cycle? What about the job market of the future? Haven’t the doomsayers, those damn Malthusians, always been proved wrong by rising productivity, new fields of enterprise, new economic opportunities? Well, yeah – until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.

For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the bookRace Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.

So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.

This splendid article is at Aeon, and the whole thing is well worth reading. There are hundreds of comments, too, if you feel like reading more. The questions posed by the loss of “what do you do” don’t puzzle me, or pose any problems. Well, they wouldn’t pose problems if we hadn’t been so busy getting much too big for our collective britches. The answer is what Indigenous people keep pointing to, and being ignored by the populations at large: community. When there is a community, all the people in it are invested, and everyone works, they all work to to sustain one another, to make their community a good one. Chores are shared, as are burdens, which makes them lighter. In our current societal pattern, when a person is unduly burdened, the general response of those around is to mutter some half-assed proverbial solace, then flee. There’s always a constant fear too, that if we extend ourselves by helping, we may not keep enough for ourselves, and soon find ourselves in a similar unduly burdened state, with nowhere to turn.

We came up with cities to accommodate industry, and their need for workers. Once the workers showed up, those with capital at their disposal began instilling a lust for goods, and propagating the ‘great story’ – if you just work hard enough, you can climb that social ladder! Too many people spend their lives in a state of unthinking misery, constantly on a treadmill of never being quite satisfied with what they have, it’s important to have more. To have better. What will the neighbours think? There’s gentrification, which does not embrace the richness of an area and find a way to make it work for everyone, no, it’s a way to drive all those people away, so it can be properly upscale, for the right sort of people.

A lot of people have enough – they have shelter, clothing, they can put food on the table, they can get around, they have books, internet access, television, all that. And yet, we are taught to not be content. Everything around us screams “if you can’t afford this, you suck!” If we are content with what we have, but don’t have x amount of income, and all the toys to show it off, we’re dumped into the “lower class” box and dismissed. We need community. We need to learn to share, we need to learn to care about the things which matter, not stuff which advertisers and manufacturers insist we must care about. It’s past time we figure out how to care for one another again, on more than one level.

Fuck Work.

Comments

  1. martha says

    Have you read Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed?
    I changed class down 1 step when I left my parent’s house (in so far as educated white people can change class, which is never totally) and up again about a step and a half when I married and the weirdest thing about that experience is that I noticed more people who seemed to pity me once I was better off, because they were better off still. Among people mostly focused on getting by day to day there’s none of that. It’s bizarre to be pitied when you feel like you have more than enough, as if somehow you’re required to have things you don’t really need just to be real person in other people’s eyes.

  2. says

    Martha:

    Have you read Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed?

    I have.

    It’s bizarre to be pitied when you feel like you have more than enough, as if somehow you’re required to have things you don’t really need just to be real person in other people’s eyes.

    Yes, it is, but that drives the constant quest for more among most people.

  3. says

    “… there’s not enough work to go around,…”

    That is inaccurate, and the reason the jobs discussion never goes anywhere productive is because it is inaccurate. There is plenty of work to go around, especially in white collar industries, but there aren’t enough jobs. Jobs and work are largely divorced from each other these days because employers refuse to hire the number of workers required to do the available work during the standard work week. If they have ten employees’ worth of work to be done in a 40 hour work week, they hire six employees with the expectation that they will continue working outside of normal business hours to complete it. They either put the employees on salary to use some other dodge (legal or illegal) to avoid paying overtime for that work. I don’t know about blue collar workers, but white collar workers don’t even question it anymore. It’s a given that if you are a salaried white collar worker, your employer assumes ownership of your evenings and weekends, not just your weekdays. One expectation nobody has anymore is that of employers hiring enough workers to do the work during standard business hours.

  4. martha says

    re. The Dispossessed. In my other life, when I was maybe just a lttle bit off the rails, I used to read it out loud to friends who hung around the park. I read it to my husband when we were going out. Recently, he read it himself and then said, “Wait, I get it now, you’re like one those moon people.” I said, “And it’s only taken you 20 years to figure this out?” (He’s a good guy, though). Right now I’m playing the audiobook for my teen daughter, but she’s very critical of the language from Shevek’s childhood about not owning own’s body (the hand, not my hand and so on). Probably she has a point.

  5. says

    Constance Reader @ 3:

    Yes, that’s true enough, as is the fact that employers also hire part-timers to avoid having to pay out benefits, and many other dodges. The primary sickness is not to be found in employers though. American society has reached a point where you only have worth if you are worth x amount. The pursuit of work, for most people, is something, anything white collar. No one wants to aspire to a blue collar job anymore, unless they can own their own business, and there aren’t a ton of blue collar jobs going around anymore, as those types of jobs are ending up on different shores. You can’t just walk into a higher type blue collar job anymore either -- you need training to be a plumber, etc.

    Then there are all the jobs complaining Americans do not want to do, no matter what. They do not want to clean other peoples’ houses. They do not want to pick fruit. They do not want to clean toilets. They do not want to dig ditches. Traditionally, so to speak, for at least the time the colonists got here, those types of jobs have gone to whoever happens to be considered the dregs of society at any given time. Americans have now been promised that the current dregs will be forcibly removed. I guess we’ll see how many white Americans rush in to fill those jobs.

  6. says

    I have recently surprised a few of my colleagues.

    I have got a very interesting and probably good job offer which I declined, politely, because it would mean I would have less free time. Everyone told me I should have at least ascertained if that would not be compensated by a significantly higher pay (it probably would, because I have been asked whether I did not change my mind multiple times over a period of time, so I could probably dictate my terms).

    My answer that I make enough money to be content and that more money is essentialy of no use to me if I have no free time to use it got every single person with whom I spoke very confused. One flat out said that he never ever heard someone say that they are satisfied with their paycheck.

    If I had more money, I could maybe buy myself some higher quality materials for my hobbies, or better equipment -- but what would be the point if it meant I have no time to do use it? People seem too invested in the idea of just having a lot of money, but to me money is only worth the things I can buy for it or do with it -- and I mean things to use, not things to show off.

  7. says

    I see the same thing in my job, Charly. Early this year I accepted a significant pay cut to take a job that has minimal travel, after ten years as a road warrior. I have my life back and do not regret the pay cut at all. But my department is having a very difficult time staffing up because so few are willing/able to take the pay cut I did. I don’t have two-legged dependents or own a house, so I have the luxury of taking that pay cut.

  8. says

    Charly @ 6:

    My answer that I make enough money to be content and that more money is essentialy of no use to me if I have no free time to use it got every single person with whom I spoke very confused. One flat out said that he never ever heard someone say that they are satisfied with their paycheck.

    The key word being content. This idea that we must always be restless, always be longing, yearning, for something, the need for relentless ambition is instilled in people from the time they are tiny. Compete! Be somebody! Accomplish! Have this, this, this, this, this, to show off, to show you are somebody!

    The whole mess may have worked well enough some hundreds of years ago, not so much now. You have people who have no ability to channel their energies and abilities into things which are not the pursuit of money and status. People who are always discontent and disconnected. We see the horrific damage this disconnection has done when we look to our earth; all those who view it as product, rather than our source of life which we have a relationship to and with. It’s a pointless trap, people stuck on a hamster wheel, and even those who want off, the disapproval they face if they do is often enough to keep them there.

  9. Dunc says

    I’m very fortunate in that my job is well enough paid that I can afford to only work 4 days (30 hours) a week. When I tell people about this, many of them agree that it sounds like a good idea, but they all say that they can’t afford it… But affording it is a matter of choices you make. I don’t own a car, I don’t take foreign holidays, I live in a cheap apartment, and generally live a fairly frugal life. Sure, I have my small luxuries, and my hobbies, but I live within my means. There’s a lot to be said for it…

    As for the worry about automation… I notice people are only starting to really worry about it now that its coming for the white-collar jobs. Back when it was destroying blue-collar communities most people were just fine with it, because it made their toys cheaper…

  10. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    “The Midas Plague” is a story by Fred Pohl.
    Looooong time ago but it addressed the problem of too many robots doing all the work.

  11. says

    That whole thing would be a great chance for us to allow all of us to actually live a human existence. It would be a great chance for us to save the climate. I remember in our discussions back then that I brought up time as a crucial factor. When people work 6 hours instead of 8 they can spend more time using public transport instead of cars. They can prepare fresh food instead of having to rely on heavily packed convenience food.
    But of course we’re going to use it to make rich people richer and more people poor.

  12. says

    I think this article is relevant to the whole work problem, too: https://aeon.co/essays/why-theres-no-place-like-home-for-anyone-any-more

    Equally, the progressive Left will renew itself only if it comes up with a more optimistic, pluralistic and democratic account of how people can create a shared sense of home together. Perhaps the lead will come from places such as Canada and Denmark; or from cities that grow and yet remain liveable; even from new approaches to caring for the elderly, from shared housing and from new technologies for building homes cheaply using 3D printing.

    We need a new kind of shared home economics, of home-making and building. The route to power to change society starts at home.

  13. says

    even from new approaches to caring for the elderly, from shared housing

    I know there are approaches like that here. Multi generation homes that are a kind of substitute for the loss of closely knit family structures. They acknowledge that different phases of life have their advantages and disadvantages. The pensioner may have time to pick up a kid after school or look after them in the afternoon but lack the physical strength to go shopping for potatoes while the young parent can easily transport those things but needs childcare.
    I think they’re very cool things but I don’t think they’ll solve the problem of caring for the elderly who really cannot look after themselves anymore. My BFF recently took in her ageing mum and though the mother doesn’t need much care in terms of helping with her body routine stuff, my friend is practically a saint for putting up with all of this.

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