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The post-work society is already here

Credit: Pixar

March 15, 2018   4 mins

The threat posed by automation to jobs is something UnHerd has covered many times before and will continue to cover because the implications are so far reaching. Yet, for an increasingly influential group of thinkers, the threat is more of a promise.

Writing for the Guardian, Andy Beckett explores the ideas of the ‘post-work’ movement:

“…a loose, transatlantic network of thinkers who advocate a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater…”

“Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.”

But isn’t work an integral part of life? If it seems so, it’s because we’ve been conditioned, say the post-workists:

“One of post-work’s best arguments is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the work ideology is neither natural nor very old. ‘Work as we know it is a recent construct,’ says [Jeremy] Hunnicutt. Like most historians, he identifies the main building blocks of our work culture as 16th-century Protestantism, which saw effortful labour as leading to a good afterlife; 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs; and the 20th-century desires for consumer goods and self-fulfillment.

“The emergence of the modern work ethic from this chain of phenomena was ‘an accident of history,’ Hunnicutt says. Before then, ‘All cultures thought of work as a means to an end, not an end in itself.’”

I think this misrepresents both the present and the past. It may come as a surprise to the cognitive elite, but even today most people work to live, not live to work (though this isn’t the same thing as seeing no value in work). As for the notion of a Protestant/capitalist work ethic, the idea that labour has moral content precedes both Protestantism and capitalism by centuries, even millennia.

Consider the Benedictine motto ora et labora (pray and work), or the alternative version laborare est orare (to work is to pray). Going back yet further there’s plenty in the Old Testament about the necessity and dignity of work, for instance the following passage from the book of Proverbs:

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.”

Thinking about the ant and her having no “guide, overseer, or ruler”, I wonder if what the post-workists truly object to is work itself or its regimentation in modern times?

Industrialisation can be seen as a process in which humanity has been mechanised to serve the literal and organisational machines of the capitalist era. From the smoke-belching factories of the 19th century to the high tech production lines of the 21st, it’s easy to draw an equivalence between capitalism and the dehumanisation of work.

Yet, there’s another story to tell about capitalism, which is the liberation of humanity from work. Marian L Tupy sets out the facts in an article for Reason:

“Between 1870 and 1987, working hours in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States declined from roughly 3,000 hours per year to roughly 1,600 hours per year. That’s a reduction of 47 percent. In Japan, an outlier, they declined by 33 percent.”

Do improvements in health and longevity mean that we’re making up these shorter hours over our longer working lifetimes? Quite the opposite, in fact:

“…in 1856 a British male worked 149,700 hours over the course of his lifetime. By 1981 that number dropped to 88,000 hours. That’s a decline of 41 percent.”

And, of course, those shorter working hours come with a massive increase in living standards. Despite the stagnation of wages in the last couple of decades, it’s important not to lose sight of the long view.

Counting hours is not the only way of looking at the progress we’ve made. Think of all the facets of the human experience that we’ve freed from work:

  • The end of child labour
  • Increasingly long retirements, supported by pensions
  • The expansion of higher and further education (not to mention the ‘gap year’)
  • The two-day weekend
  • Shorter working days and longer holidays

(The entry of women into the paid workforce might seem like a move in the other direction, but it’s beeen enabled by their substantial, if incomplete, liberation from unpaid labour in the home.)

For millions of people, especially the young and the old, the post-work society is already here. For those still in the labour force, work is generally safer and less physically demanding than it was for most people in previous generations.

All of this has been made possible by three things. First, improvements in economic productivity; secondly, the fact that the fruits of this productivity have been widely shared; and, thirdly, people being able to enjoy their additional free time.

Will we be able to sustain these conditions in coming decades?

I’d say we have our work cut out.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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