I used a pencil to write the due date for my baby in my diary. It was one of those pocket business diaries, with times recorded at hourly intervals. On the page for 5 April I wrote “Baby!” in semi-large letters across a few of the lines. The exclamation mark was a nod to the audacity of timetabling the arrival of a human being in the world. The hour would inevitably be wrong and probably the day too – how was it sane to use a pen?
The pages before that date were dense with appointments typical for a late-stage PhD student, nicely positioned in their designated times: “supervisor”; “submit book review”; “conference”; “seminar”; “teach.” All in ink, obviously. The pages crackled a bit from where the biro had pressed in hard. The pages after the “Baby!” entry were smooth and blank. I was living with my husband in a London council flat, seduced from my Australian home by the promise of a life in the knowledge-worker class. All my experience to date had taught me that ink in my diary meant work. Blank space meant not-work. The ink meant constraint. The blank space meant freedom.
As it turned out, the date of the “Baby!” entry was the least of my delusions. The eight-hour labour I learnt about in National Childbirth Trust antenatal classes went for thirty-five. The birth plan I’d thoughtfully printed out in triplicate to distribute to the midwives at the birth centre (“warm water, no pain relief, Bach cellos, dim light please”) was instead labour in a fluorescent-lit four-bed ward, oxytocin in my arm, metal in my spine. The thesis plan (“revise introduction, rewrite conclusion, fix footnotes, submit in three weeks”) became nine months of tremulous writing in naptime stretches that varied between twenty seconds and two hours. I developed a dread of small domestic sounds: a door click, a plastic shampoo bottle falling over in the bathroom or a glass clinking on the sink all had the devastating power to wake the baby and unceremoniously terminate my working day.
With an awake baby came life lived in the diary’s blank space. It certainly didn’t feel like freedom. It was more like living in a coral reef: beautiful, yes, but slow-moving and lonely, with little opportunity to venture into the wider ocean.
Years later, I would make sense of this time in terms of Hannah Arendt’s division of human activity into categories of “labour,” “work” and “action” in her 1958 book The Human Condition. Life in the blank space was what Arendt termed “labour” – biologically necessary activity that was, in her words, “futile but necessary.” Always consumed at the point of production, labour is unproductive in a literal sense, leaving nothing tangible behind. It differs profoundly from “work,” Arendt’s concept for activity performed in relation to human-made things. The construction of a table, the building of a road, the painting of a house are all work. Work’s logic is instrumental and utilitarian; it can be contained and planned within the time lines of a diary. Arendt proposed “action” as a category for activities by which people disclose themselves to others. It was the sphere of the ancient polis, the domain in which people apprehend and distinguish each other as incommutable and unique creatures. The writing of a play, the composition of a blog and the delivery of a lecture are all action. As a middle-class, able-bodied nascent academic,
I had the good fortune to spend a considerable portion of time before having a baby engaging in action, and a fair bit in work too. My experience of labour had not been much more than a toe dip. It was no wonder that I did not grasp its logic, its splendour, or its strange rhythms in comparison to the worlds of work and action. It is unsurprising, if not excusable, that I had taken it utterly for granted.
Pregnancy and birth might be one of the most inexorably linear experiences on offer in the twenty-first century. Ask any woman who has given birth about the experience and you are likely to hear a story with events that are powerfully placed in narrative sequence, and an ending that doesn’t just punctuate the story but becomes a sort of temporal frame for her entire life.
The major processes shaping the future of work aren’t much like that. The transgression of planetary boundaries and the displacement of human activity by machines are stealthy and incremental processes, hard to fathom on a day-to-day basis and utterly unamenable to diarisation. They have uneven beginnings, moments of great acceleration (the Industrial Revolution; the period from 1950 to the present) and inconceivable end-points, on a scale far larger than a human life. We are perpetually “in them,” yet their full collective impacts defy the senses. Increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere cannot be heard or smelled; a bleached Great Barrier Reef or a fifty-mile crack in West Antarctica can be cheerfully disregarded with a quick scroll through a newsfeed.
Algorithms that set the price of labour for digital-platform work are designed to invisibly calculate value from moment to moment, unencumbered by human judgement and without scope for negotiation or appeal. Casualisation and digital scheduling are, in combination, reducing the visibility of structural unemployment and the wounds of shame and despair it can inflict. Throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, unemployed and precariously employed people took up space on the road, forming lines and gatherings that had names like “The Hungry Mile” and “The Bull Pit.” We don’t have a name yet for the experience of sitting alone in a bedroom, in a car or on the toilet in a state of distraction and latent expectation, awaiting a text message that will signal the prospect of work or its absence. Hundreds of thousands of people do this daily. Yet they now do it privately, without ritual or witnesses.
That these non-linear, largely undetectable processes are collectively whittling away at the foundations of “work” as we presently understand it is inarguable. If the Committee for Economic Development of Australia is even partly correct in its prediction that 40 per cent of Australian jobs will be automated by 2025, the changes that the millennial generation will witness to existing patterns of work and education will be epic, and magnified by the imperative to decarbonise the entire system.
Understandably, the first tranche of thinkers who have attempted to grapple with climate change, automation and late capitalism as a joined-up set of challenges have tended to focus on what will be lost, rather than what will stay the same. Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism (2016), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future (2015) and Tim Dunlop’s Why the Future Is Workless (2016), for instance, all overwhelmingly focus on the appropriate psychological and policy responses to the jobs that are set to disappear, leaving the cyclical work of social reproduction – “labour,” in Arendt’s sense of it – as an afterthought. Just as I had done with my pre-baby diary, they contemplate the moment when the dense ink gives way to white space, but can only imagine the latter as lack.
How might our perception of the future of work change if we looked on the “white space” differently? Whether we recognise it or not, the job of maintaining the biological processes of the earth will be a major dimension of human activity in a low-carbon, highly automated world. This applies to the work of looking after human bodies as much as it does to the stewardship of ocean, sky and land. As we rethink and refashion our forms of agriculture, transport, mining, forestry, energy and chemical industries into low-carbon equivalents adequate to sustain life within planetary boundaries, labour will remain a constant. Aged and disability carers, early childhood educators and nurses – low-carbon occupations all – will endure through the thousands of micro-revolutions wrought by automation. No doubt many self-styled innovators will attempt to replace them with robots, tone deaf to how inextricable human relationships are in such jobs. All of us want to be seen and heard by another human being in the moments of vulnerability that constitute the basis for these forms of work. No one wants to die in the company of a robot.
An Arendtian framework can assist us to think through our predicament. Arendt was not a sentimental admirer of labour, although she understood that a life that was structured around a simple dichotomy of “work” and “leisure” risked triviality without it. Unlike many modern theorists, she was not moved by psychoanalytic conceptions of personhood that accorded a pre-eminent role to parents and intimate others in shaping the self of a small child. The low value Arendt attached to labour was, as she readily acknowledged, nothing new. Societies from the ancient Greeks to medieval Christians to patriarchal Victorians all placed it as the degraded partner in a binary with a more exalted form of existence, whether it be the polis, the spirit or the “public sphere.”
While our current age is not alone in taking the maintenance of our physical and social spaces for granted, we have certainly given it a twenty-first-century, neoliberal spin. Many early childhood educators earn so little that they cannot afford to buy a house or have children of their own, despite significant post-secondary qualifications. Aged carers are paid so poorly they risk poverty. People with jobs in the world of work and action who take time away to care for elderly parents or young children are punished for their “choice,” not just once through foregone income but twice as a result of a grotesque superannuation system that magnifies wage gaps in retirement. Through neoliberal goggles, labour is not recognised as the essential foundation for civilisation but rather is seen as a cost burden on the public purse that should rightly be turned into a profit-making opportunity. Treasurer Scott Morrison, speaking at the ACOSS National Conference in 2016, said, “What I am basically saying is that welfare must become a good deal for investors – for private investors. We have to make it a good deal, for the returns to be there.”
Arendt would not, I suspect, exactly have leapt to advance the status of our modern practitioners of labour, but she probably would have considered Morrison’s comments pretty strange. The extraction of “returns” is work logic rather than labour logic. It is what we do to coal when we take it out of the earth, and wool when we shear it off the sheep. The framing of relationships of care and attention as profit-making opportunities is, in Arendt’s schema, a category error.
Bringing labour to the foreground highlights the extent to which developments in technology amplify, rather than diminish, the urgency of asking old and familiar questions about power, collective action and institutional design in the way our society organises care work. Who should own and design the technology? How should the work be shared out across classes and genders? What role should profit-making play? Who should set the mechanisms for measuring, monitoring and communicating “quality”? Do we fundamentally see the recipients of care as customers or citizens? If these questions are not asked democratically, and with the explicit involvement of the present and future workers who will do this labour, then they will continue to be implicitly answered for us by the owners of capital.
The last instance of a societal shift on anything like the scale that is currently required occurred at the end of the second world war. The intellects that shaped that change, from William Beveridge to H.C. Coombs, faced the immense challenge of working in wartime conditions, with an infrastructure almost wholly devoted to militarisation and a population wracked by privation and grief. The war also presented them with some key advantages, though, not least an acceptance of centralised government planning and authority, a society-wide willingness to make individual sacrifices for collective aims, and an acknowledged legitimacy in protecting and promoting forms of work on the basis of their usefulness rather than their profit-making capacity. Such thinkers and policy-makers arguably had an imaginative advantage over our age too: a vivid sense of the society they were moving away from – a planned wartime economy – and of the one they were moving towards – a peacetime society not afflicted with the hardships of the Depression.
The current generation of the left, by contrast, shares no such consensus. The backdrop of nationalism that provided a common teleological framework to its citizens has been dismantled – a matter for celebration, without question, given its bloody legacy. But we must also recognise that erosion of nationalist (and, before them, religious) structures of meaning has also resulted in diminished conceptual tools for conducting a public democratic conversation about where we are, and where we must go in a climate-altered and highly automated planet. Young people must work in a landscape of political communication that fosters presentism, virtue signalling, impatience with and suspicion of institutional authority, and an overdeveloped sense that individual “feelings” are an adequate proxy for political action.
Like the baby boomers, millennials are also shaped by a deep, post-imperial anxiety about the morality of imposing visions of a collective good onto others. This did not afflict the planners of the 1940s, for better and for worse. Beveridge, for instance, inherited a worldview that stretched back to Comte and the positivist tradition. He passed through Oxford, Toynbee Hall, the British civil service and the LSE – all institutions that emphasised, albeit in very different ways, the subordination of private interests to the common good. Today, by contrast, the political left must repeatedly make the case for collective action and argue for the principles that underpin a flourishing society, in a public realm that is chronically afflicted by amnesia and distraction.
In the absence of societal consensus, it can be easy to resort to despair in the face of an ailing system. But we’re far from empty-handed. We can start with the givens, the timeless things that will inevitably be present in the future, rather than an overwhelming focus on what we are going to lack. We know that there will be children, and they will crave belonging, love and learning. Citizens of all ages will all seek togetherness, connection to each other and to the generations before and after. We will express ourselves through culture, endeavouring to make sense of our uniqueness as human beings and our shared cultural inheritance. Some of our bodies will work imperfectly from birth, some will become diseased. All of them will get old. We will need sources of energy that are generated in ways that don’t violate any of the planetary boundaries for existence.
We will need a grasp on all three of Arendt’s categories of “labour,” “work” and “action” in this impending world. But more than this, we need to acknowledge that their relative proportions will change, and work won’t simply disappear. If a larger share of human activity is to be taken up by labour – by the maintenance of our physical, social and intimate worlds – then perhaps it should be shared around a bit more fairly. And perhaps it should be handled with a set of conceptual tools that are more apt. Words such as “efficiency” and “competition” and “choice” have been deployed far too widely – well beyond the bounds of the domain of work, where they rightly belong (and even then, in far more limited circumstances than is standard). They are alien to labour and corrode the foundations of trust, continuity and judgement that enable its proper performance. We need to develop a public vocabulary that gives value and space to labour and action on their own terms, as foundations for our common human flourishing.
I followed the birth plan for the early stages of labour. The contractions of the first morning did involve white pillows, a red balloon visualisation I’d read about in a hypnobirthing book and a sort of figure-eight swaying of the hips I’d learnt in prenatal yoga. They also included the use of a contraction-timing app that seemed ingenious the week before but that, in practice, required the irritating re-entry of my pin number every few minutes. I ditched it a few hours in, submitting to the more reliable “are you in so much pain you cannot talk to the midwife on the phone” test as a measure for when the moment was right to go to the hospital.
I let my hair fall entirely in front of my face as I shuffled with my husband from our ground-floor council flat through the common area to the black cab on the street. It was mid-morning, and the space was like a theatre in the round, observable from five levels of balconies. Given the deep guttural sounds I was making, I suppose more than a few people would have come out to watch me, but from behind the veil of hair, I could not see them. Remarkably, the only witnesses I could perceive were three ginger cats, all residents in our block, lined up near the door in a sort of guard of honour to mark the passage of a fellow animal.
I brayed on the floor of the black cab, through slow traffic and sharp turns, desperate to reach experienced hands at St Mary’s Paddington. A thick paper file was exchanged on arrival (credit card details were not) and a miraculous system of science, planning and institutional design invisibly pulsed into life. Dozens of professionals seamlessly co-ordinated their time and attention, wordlessly sharing scientific knowledge derived from 200 years of research and experience, enmeshed with the particular and specific observations that had been made about me and my baby over the past nine months. I met some of the midwives twice over twenty-eight hours, once at the end of their shift and again at the start of the next. They spoke a common language in accents from Ireland, Australia, Wales, India, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Jamaica. After more than an hour of pushing, I was politely asked if I would consent to being in an Imperial College university study about a novel episiotomy technique, and play my tiny part in nudging the scientific frontier forward for others. Yes, God, please, please do it. I signed the paper with a biro and turned my eyes away from the scissors. Then hands on thighs, feet braced, and a deep Jamaican voice of the latest midwife roaring, “Puuuuuuuuush.”
If my daughter is to give birth to a child at the same age, it will be 2040. Her ride to the place she delivers her baby will be, I suppose, a driverless and smoother affair than mine was; the monitoring of heartbeats, effacement and contractions “smarter,” more accurate and less invasive. I’m confident she won’t be required to enter a pin number at any stage. Perhaps the whole thing will happen at her home, with medication and medical-examination cameras alighting to the scene by solar-powered drone. If such technology is useful for keeping her safe, I hope she gets it all, and that her entitlement to do so has nothing to do with her status or income (or mine).
Please let there be people with her, though, no matter what. Let them be experienced, and kind. Let them have chosen this work because they want to do it, and because it is recognised as crucial in a low-carbon world, and not because they cannot find anything else to do. Let them give her their attention, free from concern for ratings or efficiency measures, from worry about where their next job is going to be or how they are going to care for their own children. If something goes wrong, please let there be someone to hold her and help her and calm her, and not just a beeping machine. And when my daughter first hears her baby’s cry, please let there be someone there to meet her gaze, to lift her new child up, and to pass her on with eyes shining. •
This essay first appeared in Griffith Review 52: Millennials Strike Back, edited by Julianne Schultz and Jareth Head.