Dreadful foolishness

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?

Sigh.

14 comments on “Dreadful foolishness

  1. 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”.

    How did that work out? Have we had an update yet?

    Claiming that wages are lower today than they were in the 1970s?

    They must be, as our roads are crammed with nice cars, everyone walks around with iPhones, people are allegedly so well fed the government is considering banning them from eating certain foods.

  2. So it is basically a hymn to idleness and socialist bullshit.

    Who gives a flying fuck about what cockrot Karl– POS– Marx said about how wonderful his workers paradise fantasy was going to be? 150 million corpses and eating your own pets give the lie to his vomited nonsense a 150 million times over.

    As for all the robo-bollocks, well you get there first mate and then start shouting. Draw up for work in your driverless shitwagon and then go on about what the future might turn out to be.

  3. Good heavens, it’s the Guardian, most of whose employees will be in a post-work situation before long. Maybe they could report back.

  4. The 1970s era of manufacturing the Guardian pines for, having no idea what it was as they are all upper middle class – what sort of jobs do they think people were doing then? Concert pianists?

  5. Socialist drivel. Used to beat the ignorant over the head.

    Relative poverty, a tool used to generate guilt. Inequality, a tool used to incite envy. Racism, a tool to enable the import of Labour voters.

    All a crock of shit.

  6. ‘In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households.’

    More Guardian ambiguity.

  7. As for the slower productivity growth, somebody needs to start measuring the growth in pointless and never read equality policies, risk assessments, method statements, data protection audits and all the other paraphernalia you will get fined for the lack of. How much highly-paid staff time goes into that productivity black hole?

  8. Good point, AGN.

    Before I retired in 2009, I got 3 Sarbanes-Oxley audits a year.

    BWTM . . . security is a non productive expense. Dealing with terrorism is money down the toilet. Government plays at it, rather than stopping it.

  9. 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”

    Late night pizza… “eeewww”, says the anthropologist.

    What is it with lefties and their obvious snobbishness? The biggest snobs I know are (well-off, relative to the people they are being snobby about) lefties. Cunts.

  10. “In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that … employees should work only “four hours a day”.”

    Four hours a day; six day week back then; 24 hours a week.

    Yes, you could work 24 hours a week now, at average pay, and be better off than most people in 1884.

    Would be interesting to see some statistics as to how far you could push that, but I expect you could work 24 hours a day at minimum wage today, and still be better off than pretty much everyone below William Morris was in 1884.

  11. Relative poverty does lead to misery. I’m confident I’m worth more than most of the ludicrous cunts who post on here, and that makes me feel contented. But then I compare myself with people who are less worthy, yet more wealthy, than myself, and it makes me feel less happy.

    It definitely matters

  12. I’m confident I’m worth more than most of the ludicrous cunts who post on here, and that makes me feel contented. But then I compare myself with people who are less worthy, yet more wealthy, than myself, and it makes me feel less happy.

    Good spoof 🙂

    (On the basis that no one genuinely ‘worth’ tuppence could mean that!)

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