Inside Story

Workless, or working less?

Books | Are we coming to the end of the relatively brief period in which salaried work dominated the economy?

John Quiggin 30 January 2017 2243 words

Erasing the distinction between “work” and “labour”: a factory worker at C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle upon Tyne during the first world war. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Why the Future Is Workless
By Tim Dunlop | NewSouth | $29.99

Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency has brought to the fore issues that have been simmering for some time. Despite his manifest unfitness, nearly half of American voters supported a candidate who promised to “make America great again,” most obviously by bringing back good jobs. As Trump’s dystopian inauguration speech made clear, good jobs are part of a past to which many Americans aspire.

These hopes raise the obvious question: will jobs of any kind survive in the future? This is the issue addressed by Tim Dunlop in Why the Future Is Workless.

The future (or lack of a future) of work is well-trodden ground. Dunlop surveys the wide variety of views to emerge in recent years and also, more importantly, challenges assumptions about work, labour and jobs that are taken for granted most of the time. As he points out, “jobs” as we understand them didn’t exist in significant numbers before the middle of the nineteenth century. When American politicians were drawing up the US constitution in the late eighteenth century, he writes, they “envisioned a nation of independent yeoman farmers and other forms of self-employed workers, not one of wage slaves who worked for someone else.”

Good jobs – secure and well-paid enough to support a family in reasonable comfort ­– only became a standard expectation in the middle of the twentieth century, and it is these jobs, rather than the facts of work and labour, that are now disappearing.

Dunlop draws heavily on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “work” and “labour,” which she saw as crucial to understanding the thinking of the ancient Greeks. For them, according to Arendt, labour consisted of the repetitive drudgery necessary to maintain life, and was therefore fit only for women or slaves, while “work” was undertaken only by free (male) citizens, in the public sphere, and involved the creation of a shared world in which achievements are durable and socially meaningful.

This distinction between “work” and “labour” has been erased in modern society. All work is judged by whether it produces outputs of marketable value (whatever their usefulness or lack of it), making it “labour” according to Arendt’s distinction. Under such conditions, jobs are essential to our wellbeing and self-respect. The unceasing claims of politicians of all stripes to be the bringers of “jobs, jobs, jobs” responds to, and reinforces, this understanding of ourselves.

Yet it is increasingly unclear whether our economy can continue to generate jobs, or at least enough jobs paying wages sufficient to maintain our current pattern of social organisation. The past few decades have been bad for workers, particularly in the leading industrial economy, the United States. Wages have stagnated and the ratio of employment to population has fallen, particularly for men but more recently for women, too.

More generally, the whole social structure built around the idea of a “job” or “career” has been eroding for decades and is now approaching collapse. While perceptions of short-term job security fluctuate with the business cycle, the idea that anyone can reliably plan a course through his or her working life has essentially disappeared. Any job, anywhere, can disappear because of changes in trade patterns, or budget cuts, or simply because cutting it will boost next quarter’s profits. 

In these circumstances, the claim implicit in Dunlop’s title has a lot of intuitive appeal. The interesting question is: what can and should be done about this? But before we get there, we need an explanation of why things seem to be turning out this way.

Much of the time, the discussion about the future of work is posed as a debate between two competing stories. In the first, the blame is placed on globalisation, usually interpreted narrowly to mean reductions in barriers to trade in goods. This free-market globalisation is blamed for the loss of “good” jobs, commonly understood as those in the manufacturing sector.

The alternative story can be summed up in a single word, “robots.” The associated claim, put in the strongest form by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their recent book, The Second Machine Age, is that advances in information technology have rendered more and more jobs susceptible to automation. The obvious cases include manufacturing and routine clerical jobs, but the claim is that jobs of all kinds will soon be vulnerable. The failure of much-touted “expert systems” in the 1990s casts some doubt on strong versions of this claim, but there is no denying the amazing progress of artificial intelligence, manifested in such wonders as self-driving cars.

Dunlop rejects the dichotomy between globalisation and robots. He begins with a broader view, in which free-market globalisation – known to Australians as “economic rationalism” but more commonly called “neoliberalism” – is merely part of the dominant ideological framework of the past thirty years. The most obvious features of neoliberalism have been policy shifts such as privatisation and the explosive growth of the financial sector produced by “deregulation” (a misnomer, since the financial sector, more than any other, relies on government for its very existence). 

Equally important, but more subtle, has been the relentless focus on work and the production of marketable goods and services as the measure of all things. Dunlop quotes some particularly egregious statements from Julia Gillard, whose exhortation to workers to “set the alarm clock early” contrasted sharply with more than a century of union struggle against excessive working hours. But Gillard was merely echoing the assumptions that saturate the entire political class and have seeped into the thinking of just about everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The idea that one could live a good life without a central role for paid work has become just about unthinkable.

Yet, at least since the global financial crisis, the neoliberal economy has been in a state of crisis. It is still delivering huge benefits to the very rich, but it is failing everyone else. And this is why technological progress, which has mostly benefited society, is having such disruptive and negative effects today.

What, if anything, can be done about this? Or will the market economy take care of it? The latter is certainly the view of proponents of the “sharing economy,” such as the young American philosopher Cory Massimino, who welcomes a new, liberated economy that is slowly but surely transcending government shackles.

Dunlop is appropriately scathing about this idea. Drawing on the work of Harvard scholar Yochai Benkler, he explains how the free ride-sharing and house-minding practices that emerged in the early days of the internet have been thoroughly commercialised – under the label of the “sharing economy” – by the likes of Uber and Airbnb.

We don’t need a new term here. The practice of sharing our vehicles and houses for money has been around since the dawn of civilisation. It’s called renting, hiring or leasing. The only difference today is that the internet enables Uber and Airbnb to get around licensing requirements and other restrictions faced by traditional taxi companies and hoteliers. That has both good and bad effects. Mostly, though, it’s part of the general reshaping of the regulatory state to serve corporate interests at the core of neoliberalism.

This is most obvious in apps like TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, which enable people to bid competitively for small jobs. Again, apart from the use of the internet, the markets here are no different from practices in the past – the way workers were hired on the waterfront in the 1930s or, for that matter, are still hired on the street corners of American cities where casual (often undocumented) workers wait to see if they will be picked out for labouring and construction jobs. And once the legal obstacles can be negotiated, that kind of hiring will presumably go online as well.

As Dunlop says, a better description of these developments is the “on-demand economy,” a term that encapsulates the “flexibility” Australia’s economic reformers have been pushing for decades. “Flexibility” sounds very nice, but workers figured out long ago that flexibility is, most of the time, a zero-sum good. The more flexibility employers have in calling workers in and sending them home, the less flexibility those workers have in managing their own lives.

If the on-demand version of the workless future is dystopian, what is the alternative? Dunlop puts forward two linked ideas: reductions in working hours and a universal basic income. Both imply that the benefits of technological progress would be taken increasingly in the form of greater leisure and less through increased (and more unequal) consumption of goods and services.

Although a reduction in working hours seems radical, in Australia, as in most developed economies, it would represent nothing more than a return to the historical norm. For more than a century, beginning with the achievement of the eight-hour day (or forty-eight hours a week over six days) by Victorian stonemasons in 1856, workers have struggled to claim more leisure, and that claim has consistently been resisted by employers.

For much of the time since then, the workers had the best of it. The standard working week of forty-eight hours, universal in Australia by the early twentieth century, was reduced to forty-four, to forty, and finally, in 1983, to thirty-eight hours. Along with sick leave and long-service leave, annual leave became a standard condition, and by 1973 had been expanded to four weeks a year. Maternity leave for public servants was introduced at the same time, and had been extended on an unpaid basis to the entire workforce by 1979.

Since the rise of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, the movement has gone entirely in the other direction. Standard working hours have remained unchanged in most respects, but the majority of full-time workers have ended up working additional (often unpaid) hours. The trend towards earlier retirement, which persisted into the 1990s, has been reversed, to the extent that workers in their forties today can expect that they will be seventy or older before they become eligible for the pension. 

Critics of the case for increased leisure claim that long working hours reflect the insatiability of human demands for goods and services. But the history described above tells a different story. Even more than paying higher wages, employers resent and resist paying the same wage for fewer hours of work. As long as unions were powerful, employers had no choice but to do so. But ever since they regained the upper hand in the 1980s, employers have pushed relentlessly for longer hours and harder work.

The second and more radical part of Dunlop’s proposal is a universal basic income, or UBI. The general idea is to provide an unconditional income, sufficient to live on, to everyone, regardless of employment status. By removing the necessity to work, a UBI would pull society in the direction of both greater leisure and more enjoyable and satisfying work.

Proposals for a UBI raise quite a few technical problems, particularly in the purist form proposed by Dunlop, according to which the minimum income is paid even to those whose income is already high. Although there are ways to resolve these problems, Dunlop tends to understate their significance by implying that a UBI could be achieved in the short term and with relatively modest adjustments to taxing and spending.

The fiscal obstacles to the implementation of a UBI are, in fact, substantial. The scheme would require substantial increases in the effective marginal tax rate faced by middle- and high-income earners, whether this was achieved through the income tax schedule or through means testing. The political obstacles are even more substantial. The whole thrust of policy for decades has been to increase the intensity of work testing for benefits of all kinds. And, unlike much of the neoliberal agenda, measures like “work for the dole” have plenty of public support, despite the largely spurious nature of the work that these can involve.

But the difficulty of the proposal is precisely the point. A UBI represents both a long-term challenge to the entire organisation of work and labour and, in the short term, a rallying point for a rejection of one of the central themes of neoliberalism, the critical importance of (paid) work. As the collapse of the neoliberal order accelerates under pressure from the political right, this mixture of utopian vision and immediate resistance is exactly what the left needs to offer.

Technological change has been rendering old skills obsolete ever since the invention of the spinning jenny in the eighteenth century, and will doubtless continue to do so. The real problems we face today are not technological but social and economic. Like it or not, a radical reorganisation of work is under way. The question is whether we can shape it to benefit the world as a whole, or whether it will continue to enrich the few at the expense of the many. As Dunlop concludes, “We have been told that when it comes to work, there is no alternative. What these new technologies suggest is that maybe there is.” •