work

In my first post I discussed curent UN initiatives to develop the SDGs – or sustainable development goals – for the coming decades. One goal, receiving a great deal of attention, is how to combat poverty and inequality. In this post I will discuss some of my own thoughts on this topic.

We live in a world where most of us must work in order to earn the means to buy food, housing and other necessities of life. This world seems so natural to us that we cannot imagine living in a world without work.

But most scholars’ personal views of work have caused us to overlook structural transformations that are likely to lead to the end of work and to massive unemployment for most people. These transformations will compel us to dramatically rethink on what grounds the basics of life are distributed. If, say, 50% of people lack formal employment due to increasing efficiencies in industry and services (see, for example, Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work), can we still require people to work in order to eat? If we do not change our thinking, increases in inequality and poverty will result.

Let me tell a personal story to illustrate how work is being restructured. As a young college graduate in the early 1980s, I was a social worker charged with finding jobs for unemployed Chicago youth in poor neighborhoods. This was during the Ronald Reagan years, when many non-poor Americans were told poverty was caused by lazy people unwilling to work. My year’s experience in Chicago readily challenged this view. As I looked for jobs in de-industrialised neighbourhoods, I could easily see that many jobs were no longer there. At one site I was told 200 people had been employed full-time at a shampoo factory the previous year. The year of my visit there was only one worker, to control the new machines and computers running the factory.

This is a familiar story. But what shocks me is that I rarely hear anyone think about or discuss the situation clearly. A usual way of dismissing the obvious reduction in the number of jobs is to say, ‘Well, there will be work in the new economy, work that requires more skills’, but if a central goal of the new economy is to produce more with fewer workers—indeed isn’t increased efficiency a central goal of industrial capitalism?—then there can’t be, and shouldn’t be, as many jobs in the new economy as in the old one. If in the example above, 200 full-time employees were needed to build and run the computers and machines now making shampoo, then the switch to machines would clearly have been a disaster for the industry owner. We must accept that increased efficiency should, and will, lead to fewer jobs.

It is at this point that panic often sets in among policymakers.  Fewer jobs? Then how will people make a living? To me, the solution seems simple. Just as agricultural efficiencies freed up so many in previous generations to move away from hard farm labour into jobs that were more desirable and enjoyable (at least in principle), so should new efficiencies allow us a new freedom: freedom from the obligation to work to live.

I am not anti-work. Humans have a great desire to create. But the obligation to work often interferes with our freedom to create. Obligation often decreases the pleasure we feel in doing something, especially if that obligation takes the form of ‘work or you won’t eat’. To me one of the true dividends of the new economy is reduced drudgery giving us more time for meaningful endeavors. We can take more time to write poetry, or do whatever creative activity pleases us, as we spend less time at supposedly obligatory jobs that are unsatisfying.

But of course, this dividend can only accrue if we also institute redistribution. To many on the right, providing food and housing to everyone is a troublesome idea. I will not argue here with their objections but rather point out a truth: whether or not we want distribution, the relentless increasing efficiencies of much of capitalist industrialisation will make a redistributive economy a necessity. Such change is inevitable. Our only choice would be whether to embrace it so that the tremendous liberating potential it confers is fully realised.

Poverty and inequality can be solved in a world of productive plenty and the lives of all of us, poor and non-poor, can likewise be immeasurably enriched. We just need to think creatively to make it happen.

Leave a comment