Many decades ago world-shaping philosophers and economists pondered what the working world would be for future generations. Considering the gradual decline in working hours that was already then evident, many concluded that by, say, the early 21st century, we would be working even less.
Back during the Great Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes, for one, reckoned we’d all have a 15-hour working week by the end of this decade – the “age of leisure and abundance”, if you hadn’t noticed.
For these thinkers it very much looked to be, inevitably, the stuff of reality. And they were partly right: from 1800 to the 1970s, thanks to unionism and enlightened employers, working hours were gradually eroded until we arrived at the archetypal ’40 hour week’.
And yet, somehow, this trajectory has not only stalled, but tech, corporate culture and an ‘always on’ mindset have extended working hours again for many, with job security and satisfaction, poll after poll suggests, having plummeted. Here we still are, talking of ‘downshifting’ and ‘work-life balance’, yet without the time to devote to our children, or caring for our elderly, or our hobbies, or just doing nothing.
“What is needed,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in ‘In Praise of Idleness’ in 1935, “is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of overwork and the reduction of work to a minimum.” What he could not have foreseen was that it might take a global pandemic to amplify the rebellion. Many people were forced to stop work, giving them the chance to take stock and assess why they felt so burned out.
“The fact is that work is getting worse and worse for workers,” argues Elizabeth Anderson, professor or philosophy at the University of Michigan, author of the forthcoming ‘Hijacked: How Neo-Liberalism Turned the Work Ethic against Workers’. “Neo-liberalism, broadly, has seen corporations acquire the power to extract wealth from workers without adding value. And that’s turned into shareholder capitalism, in which the [key] purpose of a corporation is to dish out money to shareholders. Or a business model that’s all about building brands, and outsourcing all the actual work, which pushes workers to the periphery [of concerns]. In so much work now employees have just been made infinitely replaceable.”
But what if there was something that not long ago would have been considered heretical – a more conscious rejection of work? There is anarchistic talk of ‘anti-work’: a challenge to the economic order that underpins the workplace, that reframes work as fulfilling rather than as mere drudgery, that moves away from a system that sees us having to sell our labour just to survive.
After all, as the late anthropologist David Graeber, noted, this system – in which the value of what is produced per hour worked is inexorably slowing – now appears to be shored up by so many of what he provocatively called “bullshit jobs”. The true function of these seems not to in any way contribute to society, or to the individual’s well-being, but rather merely to fill their time and keep them in their place.
“Remember the ‘essential workers’ of the pandemic?” says Professor Kathi Weeks of Duke University, North Carolina, and author of ‘The Problem With Work’. “That’s an incredibly telling category, because most workers aren’t.”
For the less anarchistic there is talk of ‘post-work’: proposals, mostly from leading academics, to reconfigure our working lives so that we work, if not at all, then at least considerably less. “The pandemic has helped to clarify, magnify and publicise problems with work that are systematic,” argues Weeks. “It’s not just stagnant wages and bad bosses. It’s that people are underpaid relative to the value their create, subordinate to the demands of their employers and work in dramatically undemocratic workplaces. ‘Post’work’ isn’t about moving beyond all productive economic activity, but trying to imagine how we think work could be, about radical changes that would make work more humane.”
Slowly, some governments are responding – last year the UAE, for example, made the bold decision to officially adopt the world’s first four-and-a-half day working week. A four day working week has likewise been trialled by companies in other parts of the world, from Chile to Denmark. Last year a pilot programme in the UK saw 61 employers – in manufacturing, software, recruitment and other sectors – adopt a four day working week for six months, with employees getting full pay for 80% of their normal hours. Remarkably, none reported a drop in productivity and some an actual increase.
There is now more vocal consideration of a universal basic income (UBI) too. Like minimal working hours, this isn’t a new idea – Thomas Paine proposed it back in 1797. It’s that a nation’s collective wealth, from both its natural resources and that passed down through the generations, should not land in the laps of the lucky few but is, in fact, the wealth of the commons and so should be rightfully distributed – by giving every citizen a regular payment that’s enough to cover basic living costs, allowing them to work more or less as they choose. UNESCO recently published a paper arguing that decades of evidence shows that UBIs – which it reframes as “unconditional national dividends” – simplified welfare systems, empowered women, and improved health, among other benefits.
Yet the UBI has been a divisive policy idea for years, often misrepresented as an ineffective way to alleviate poverty. And that’s a consequence of deep-seated ideas about work that will need to challenged before a post-work society might be achieved.
Russell, again, argued that we’re stuck on the idea that work is some kind of moral good, that “work will make you better,” as he put it. “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work”, underpinned as it is by religion and the pervasive Protestant work ethic. To this we can add what might be called the self-help/time management industrial complex and its insistence that we should feel guilty whenever we’re not being productive. Work is central to our politics, economics and social lives.
No wonder some might prefer the status quo: “Work is a faith many hold dear. It’s this modern religion [and] belief system that we go to in order to find our identity, our purpose, our meaning,” argues Benjamin Hunnicutt, professor of history at the University of Iowa, and author of ‘Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream’. “But it’s counter-balanced by the doubt that there’s anything else: without work what is there but a great vacuum? It’s been so long it’s hard to imagine a realistic moral alternative to work. So there’s a fear of leisure. Yet more free time was once equated with progress.”
“The ideology of work is still just so strong. Work holds this cultural kudos: if you work you’re a ‘good citizen’, a ‘contributor to society’. But as the need to work becomes less it becomes dangerous for the ruling elites to insist on that idea, to up the ante on the moralism,” argues Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming, author of ‘The Death of Homo Economicus’. “Sometimes it seems [those in power] would rather keep the current system until it crashes and burns, rather than make changes. But clearly the narrative of work as we’ve known it is in big trouble.”
Perhaps the first step is a more widespread awareness of the big trouble that work is in. Karl Marx outlined the fundamental contradiction of capitalism – that it could provide the organisation and production systems to abolish what he called “alienated” work, and give us all so much more free time, yet it clings to work as if it was the only possible organising principle both for society and people’s lives.
Might now, asks Hunnicutt, more of us finally be coming to openly acknowledge, as an existential challenge, that much work is repetitive and boring? If, he says, a cashier’s job was a video game – find the barcode, scan, slide, repeat – it would be called mindless. Yet politicians still pitch such a job as intrinsic to that person’s dignity. Of course, there is that rough third of the working population said to love what they do. For the majority, polls suggest, those things we might hope for from a job – autonomy, fulfilment and so on – are sorely lacking.
“The idea that work is a belief system to which we go in order to find our identity, our purpose, our meaning, is increasingly shaky,” says Hunnicutt, who, less than a decade ago, faced death threats in response to writing an article proposing the introduction of a UBI in the US. “People are beginning to lose faith, if you like. We’re thinking more of work as a means to an end, as we used to, rather than as an end in itself, and that’s especially true of younger generations.”
Indeed, that work is an unalloyed good, in and of itself, is such a prevalent idea that those institutions that oppose the introduction of a UBI often do so on the judgement that it would only encourage people to slide into laziness and dissolution (while typically not seeing the lack of labour in the rich as similarly problematic). There’s a lack of trust that individuals can find the best way to spend their own time. There’s also the concern that a UBI would decrease economic participation – governments largely want us to keep spending, remember – even though evidence suggests it actually increases it.
Russell reckoned that the most meaningful, and impactful, work one could choose to do comes from our leisure time – it’s in leisure that humans are the most prone to invention and creativity. The decline in paid work might spark a resurgence in both.
Yes, it’s hard to change an operating system. But imagine an alternative we must. And that, reckons Tom Juravich, professor of labour studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will require big business to lead by example.
“I don’t think policy people have understood how big this shift in thinking about work is yet and I don’t see effective change coming one small business at a time,” he argues. “What it will take are major employers – an Amazon, a Google – to make a bold experiment in changing working hours, and so far they seem to be doing very little to set new standards. We need these kinds of big businesses to question if we can re-work the rules so people can still be seen as good employees while working less, without them being expected to be ‘all in’ for the company. And that’s a big cultural shift.”
But one that may be coming, like it or not. Serious consideration of a world in which we all work much less may well be forced, argues independent future of work research organisation Autonomy, given both environmental challenges and an ageing population. And, what’s more, the exponentially rising capabilities of ever cheaper automation – from self-service checkouts to self-driving cars and drone deliveries – and artificial intelligence. New industries already here just don’t require human labour like they used to either.
“That’s the elephant in the room for all of this discussion about moving to a post-work society,” says Peter Fleming. “The demand for labour just isn’t there anymore, which is why you see service workers needing two or three jobs to stay afloat. And a service economy just doesn’t make jobs as manufacturing once did. But nobody in power ever admits as much. Elections are all about job, jobs, jobs, not how we need to change our approach to work.”
No wonder there’s a glut of over-qualified, debt-burdened young workers using their degrees to wait tables and stack shelves. They must be wondering where the dream careers they were sold on went. And whether they, as the next generation, need to rethink the place of work in their lives at a more profound level.