In my recent Leisure Society post, I explored John Maynard Keynes idea of 15 hour workweeks and why we haven’t managed to cut back our work hours over the last century. The fundamental question is whether or not having a job is still a necessary part of the human condition. The idea of employment is only a few centuries old, and I believe it’s outliving it’s usefulness. We are already seeing a shift to higher levels of permanent, structural unemployment and this is only the beginning. Are we still going to have jobs in the future?
What is Work?
One of the key issues is how the word ‘work’ is defined. If you follow Tim Ferris of the Four Hour Workweek you might be tempted to believe that if your occupation is fun, then it’s not work anymore. This definition is brilliant marketing that made Tim Ferris famous, however, judging by all that he accomplishes, it’s clear that puts in a lot more than 4 hours per week. That’s work no matter how much he enjoys it.
At the other extreme is the idea that any directed effort is work.This would include cleaning your house, raising children, washing your car and shopping for groceries. While there are many tedious but necessary chores we must do in our lives, I don’t equate this to ‘work’.
I define work closer to the common idea of having a job. Work is something you do to earn a living. This is important because if money were no object, most people would likely do something else with their time.
For me, blogging is not work. I don’t earn much money from this site, but I still do it because I love the process of articulating my ideas. The same goes for playing guitar, exercise and reading. I do those activities because I enjoy them, not because I expect to directly earn an income from them.
I believe we are shifting to a world with far fewer jobs. We’ll still have to do personal chores and most of us will continue to invest time in non-paid or low-paid hobbies and creative pursuits, but there will be much less paid employment, particularly for unskilled, repetitive work and administrative tasks.
Why Do We Work?
In a world of scarcity, we work to survive. We need food, clothing and shelter to continue living. We could try to produce all those primary needs ourselves, like most of humanity did prior to the industrial revolution, but it’s far easier to get a job or run a business to earn enough money to buy those things from others. That is the miracle of capitalism. The free market has brought us abundant and inexpensive consumer goods and services, so it makes more sense for each of us to specialize rather than try to produce everything for ourselves.
In fact, it’s become so easy to cover our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, that most of us still have large portions of our income left over for entertainment and other non-essential purchases.
For example, Americans have the cheapest food in the world as a percentage of income. In the US, only 6.8% of income is spent on food, while countries like Pakistan, Kenya, Algeria and Morocco spend more than 40% of their incomes on food. That is abundance. (source)
Since the 19th century agriculture as a percentage value added to the US economy declined from 37.5% to less than 1% now. (source) That frees up a lot of extra income for non-essential purchases.
Clothing is essentially free now. We no longer purchase new clothes because they are worn out or we need protection from the elements. Most of the clothes we own barely get used anymore. Our clothing purchases are driven primarily by fashion.
The same argument goes for housing. Average home sizes have tripled since World War II. Most new houses have more than one bathroom per occupant now. New homes come with ensuite spa bathrooms, granite kitchen countertops, multi-car garages, and a whole host of other luxuries. A house is no longer shelter, it’s conspicuous consumption.
We are no longer working for needs, we are working for wants. That’s very different than a century ago, or for the bottom 6 billion people on the planet, now.
Productivity and Income
The amount we get paid for our work is closely related to the value we create. For example, the application of the assembly line to automobile manufacturing by Henry Ford massively increased productivity, facilitating an unheard of $5 per day manufacturing salary. Factory workers could finally afford the cars they were producing.
While child factory workers in countries like Bangladesh can often work 80 plus hours per week, those of us in developed countries have it much better now. As modern societies, we’ve decided that children should go to school and adults should have comfortable amounts of free time. I think even extreme right wing Republicans can see the value in this type of government intervention. Then again, maybe not. Have you ever watched Fox News? 🙂
From the early days of the industrial revolution until the early 20th century, we drastically reduced working hours and improved working conditions, so there is precedent here.
Longer vacations and shorter working hours, combined with generous social welfare systems in most of Europe. and even Canada, also hint that there is still more that can be accomplished in the US.
Why do we have 40 hour workweeks?
There is very little economic reason for 40 hours to be optimum work week. Given the productivity improvements the developed world has experienced over the last century, we have the production levels to substantially reduce working hours.
Let’s keep this argument very simple. At a 2% productivity increase per year, it takes about 35 years for productivity to double. It’s been a little less than that over the past few decades, but let’s keep that assumption for this discussion.
Every 35 years productivity and income doubles. As workers and consumers, we have a theoretical choice about what to do with that extra income. We can consume twice as much, or we can maintain old consumption levels and work half as much. (Note: Income doesn’t really rise at the same rate as productivity because of growing income inequalities. However, I assume they are closely correlated to simplify the argument.)
Most of the world seems to prefer increasing levels of consumption, over increasing leisure time, but I feel that is changing.
With the lifestyle design and digital nomad movements, wide spread outsourcing, freelancing and remote work arrangements. More and more people seem willing to sacrifice income for free time.
This is still far from mainstream, however, the number of entrepreneurs and self-employed freelancers continues to increase. Right now more than 25% percent of the US workforce are not full-time workers, this contingent work force is expected to be greater than 40% by 2020. (source)
The shift to freelance workers is not always a voluntary one. Corporations can avoid expensive benefits, taxes and other costs by hiring part-time contract workers over full-time employees. This is part of the inexorable transition from job based societies.
The real tragedy is in youth unemployment. In Greece, under 25 year old unemployment stands at 60%, in Spain it’s 56%. (source) In the US, youth unemployment rates were 16.3% in early 2013. For the black community it’s 29.7% (source)
Global economies are already shifting to higher levels of unemployment. We have workers without jobs because they lack necessary skills in fields like medicine, engineering and technology. We have jobs without workers, because few are willing to work at low pay levels in less prestigious industries like fast food and retail. Companies have to adjust to a lack of adequate employees. They have no choice.
Is Work Necessary?
In my Leisure Society post, a couple of commenters have suggested that long work hours are necessary. One argument was that productive work can bring meaning and satisfaction. We need work because it makes us happier.
The other was that if we weren’t preoccupied with work, we’d become idle and spend our time doing unproductive activities like watching TV, spending our free time in pubs, or even committing crimes.
I agree that work can be enjoyable. The feeling of contribution and self-worth that come from earning an income and providing for our families is an important part of the human condition. However, I think this is a problem society will have to deal with. We are going to have to find new ways to find meaning and fulfillment in our lives, because jobs are no longer going to be there. Higher unemployment and lower work hours are inevitable as technological change continues to accelerate.
If you believe that work is a critical part of being a functioning member of society, then the phenomenal unemployment levels of under 25 year-old workers around the world must be devastatingly demotivating and destructive. What havoc is this wrecking on global economies as a whole generation faces depressing employment prospects along with the burdens of high student debt loads?
The second argument, is more complicated. If it is true, then it essentially says that most of our workforce needs employers or government telling them what to do with their free time.
I interpret this argument as, most people are incapable of acting for their own well-being. I hope this is not the case. However, looking at the profligacy and rampant materialism in the US and Canada, it may very well be true.
Maybe most people do indeed need to be preoccupied with work and consumerism to function in society. If this is the case, then we are in for a whole lot of social unrest as the poorest quartile of our population find it increasingly difficult to find jobs. Corporations aren’t in the business of creating jobs because it’s good for society. They are focused on immediate economic benefits. Outsourcing and automation are much more attractive to corporate profits than a well-functioning society.
What Happens When Jobs Disappear
Our societies are based on a very industrial age mentality. In school, we’re trained to follow the rules and be good workers. Later were trained to be consumers to continue growing our economies and ensure that companies keep producing lots of stuff. Most people don’t realize how much they are shaped by their own culture. It took me years of living abroad to realize that most of what we consider normal parts of a functioning society are mere social constructs.
The idea of employment is only a few centuries old. We had civilizations for many thousands of years without jobs, even without money. It’s hard to look beyond the constraints of our own cultures and way of life, but let’s not forget that we’ve created everything around us. We also have the opportunity to change it.
Actually, let me clarify it. It’s unlikely that we are going to shape the changes in store for us; technology will do it for us and we may not always like the consequences.
With automation and outsourcing we are getting rid of large numbers of jobs. This will continue. It’s inevitable. Sure new industries will arise and they will bring new employment opportunities, however, we are moving to an era of higher unemployment levels.
Robots have replaced countless workers in repetitive and dangerous conditions. As technology and costs improve, robots are going to get much more sophisticated and ubiquitous. It is not unreasonable to forecast a time when robots outnumber people.
Robots can weld and paint cars now. There is no reason they won’t be cooking food in restaurants, picking fruits, sweeping floors and virtually anything else imaginable.
With Moore’s Law and the doubling of computer processing power every 18 months, there will come a time when computer processing power will surpass human intelligence. That moment is called the technological singularity and will lead to unfathomable changes in all aspects of our lives.
The last century brought us automobiles, airplanes, radio, TV, computers and the Internet. The pace of that change is accelerating. We will see more change and social upheaval in the next two decades, than we did the entire last century. It takes generations for economies to adjust to emerging industries. Factory workers don’t suddenly become computer programmers over night. How will we cope when entire industries are made obsolete and new ones arise in less than a decade? Our universities are already hopelessly inadequate in providing needed workforce skills.
Imagine infinite clean energy, 3D printing of physical goods, near 100% recycling and perennial crops that grow like weeds. All problems of scarcity are going to be eliminated, probably much sooner than we think.
These are not scientific fantasies. They are simple projections of what is already happening. If any of this is hard to believe, compare the functionality of your smart phone to the rotary dial phones of a few decades ago. Those upgrade iterations are accelerating.
It’s getting easier and cheaper to do everything we can imagine. It’s not going to stop. Energy is a barrier now, but that will be solved with technology. There has been talk of peak oil crises since the 1970s, yet the US is once again becoming a net energy exporter. Solar and wind energy have had phenomenal improvements in efficiency. The pace of change is not slowing.
The End of Scarcity
What happens when scarcity is eliminated in the world? With technologies like 3D printing, we’ll be able to produce almost anything we want in our own homes with recycled materials. With nano-technology, quantum computing and genetic engineering, we really have no idea how much change is in our future.
It might not all be good either. We could destroy ourselves, just as likely as reach some technological utopia. Either way, traditional ideas of work are not going to exist. Lifetime employment has already vanished. The jobs that are available are more insecure and lower paid. Anything that can be outsourced or automated, most certainly will be.
Today, most of us have options to work much less hours. It’s possible to earn an income online from almost anywhere in the world. That trend is accelerating. The skilled will be creating their own opportunities. Whether we like it or not, an increasingly large sector of the economy will be permanently unemployable. That is a reality we’ll have to cope with. Economies like the US will have to chose between minimum guaranteed incomes and generous social welfare programs versus growing social unrest and crime.
We don’t have a problem with a lack of wealth. There are more than enough resources to go around. We have a problem with equitable distribution. In the US, the top 1% own 40% of the wealth, while the bottom 80% have about 7%. (Here is a great video explaining this. ) These inequities have dramatically increased over the past few decades.
Moving to this post-capitalist society will have many tangible benefits as well.
With less outside employment we can reverse the trend to outsource the raising of children to daycares and nannies. Hopefully, with more free time, we might learn to enjoy growing our own food again without hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.
More importantly, instead of large sectors of the work force stuck in boring, unfulfilling work, creating largely socially useless products and services, modern societies may see a return to community values. We might even learn to enjoy a slower pace of life with less stress, more physical activity and interpersonal relationships. The rest of the world still values time spent with family and friends. It’s only the richer western countries that have lost their way.
It’s not Human to Work
Having a job is not what makes us human. We are social animals. We are driven to connect, contribute and collaborate. We don’t need to dedicate our lives to making and consuming consumer goods. In fact, I believe rampant consumerism gets in the way of the connections, contribution and collaboration that are a fundamental part of our nature. This is not about sacrifice, it’s about enlightenment. We should spend our time on what generates the greatest well-being for ourselves and the planet. Most of what we spend our time on now is either useless or destructive. Think of the obesity epidemic, military expenditures, pollution, hours spent watching TV, time lost commuting, etc. None of that is making a better world.
Society will have to change in the near future to cope with the shift to much fewer jobs. Remember, it was only 60 years ago when women were largely absent from the work force. It’s not unreasonable to believe that we will return to an economy where 25%, 50% or even more of our adult population no longer has traditional jobs. The primary difference being that women will be the dominant income earners.
The extra free time this generates might be spent in front of TVs, in shopping malls or in pubs. It could also be spent on volunteering, art, civic engagement, child-rearing, publishing content or with friends. That will require a massive shift in our personal preferences and priorities, but I remain hopeful.
It’s difficult to extrapolate into the future when our world is so complicated and change is happening so fast, however, the signs are already here. I’ve met and interviewed so many digital nomads who can permanently travel and work around the world. That would have been unimaginable in my grandparents’ age. What kind of world are our grandchildren going to live in? We can’t even begin to guess.