And yet work is not working, for ever more people, in ever more ways. We resist acknowledging these as more than isolated problems – such is work’s centrality to our belief systems – but the evidence of its failures is all around us.
As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households.
That definition of poverty is relative – less than 60% of median household income. That’s not something that has any relationship with subsistence, is it?
As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as “working in a non-graduate role”.
Maybe sending 50% of the age group to university isn’t a good idea then?
Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.
Yeah, the division and specialisation of labour is such a silly concept, isn’t it?
The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world – despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.
Productivity is value of output divided by hours worked. Much output these days is valuable in human utility but has no market value – all that free stuff from the digital economy. As Hal Varian points out, GDP doesn’t deal well with free. And GDP is where we get out output number from….
And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations. “The crisis of work is also a crisis of home,” declared the social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in a paper last year. This neglect will only get worse as the population grows and ages.
Looking after children or relatives is work. Unpaid, household, work to be sure, but it’s still work. And anyone analysing work without knowing that is being an idiot.
But not quite all. The idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed – and mocked and suppressed – for as long as modern capitalism has existed. Repeatedly, the promise of less work has been prominent in visions of the future. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that in “beautiful” factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only “four hours a day”.
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an “age of leisure and abundance”, in which people might work 15 hours a week.
Quite so, you twat. And it has happened, too. For it is those household, unpaid, hours which have shrunk. See what I mean about not ,being able to get it right if you don’t note those household hours?
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.” From urban ancient Greece to agrarian societies, work was either something to be outsourced to others – often slaves – or something to be done as quickly as possible so that the rest of life could happen.
Even once the new work ethic was established, working patterns continued to shift and be challenged. Between 1800 and 1900, the average working week in the west shrank from about 80 hours to about 60 hours. From 1900 to the 1970s, it shrank steadily further: to roughly 40 hours in the US and the UK. Trade union pressure, technological change, enlightened employers, and government legislation all progressively eroded the dominance of work.
If you don’t include household hours you’re never going to get it right.
Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In today’s lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell.
Seriously? Claiming that wages are lower today than they were in the 1970s?