This weekend I have been contemplating a Guardian Article, “Post-Work: the radical idea of a world without jobs.” By Andy Beckett.
“We believe work is the most important piece of our lives”. What rubbish! That over arching story dominates and profoundly impacts every aspect of our lives. But work was not always the central piece of our lives and the world changes. This article explores the history, complexity and possible futures of our work lives. Articles like this are becoming more common as more of use realize work does not work any more. The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one commonly discussed aspect of this . Yet there is a much bigger story here. What about work it-self?
Work dominates our lives with capitalism and consumption as two evil twins. We work to consume, and our health and environment suffer. And often the work is demeaning and pointless, unstable and, often, self and health destroying. Wage slaves indeed. Just think about your “barista with the far away glazed eyes”. That’s capitalism. Any service worker. But aren’t we “wired for work?” Maybe not. Think back to the ancient Greeks; slaves did the work, so that citizens could debate politics and philosophy. Or earlier, studies of today’s hunter gatherer tribes spend little time gathering food, with more time spent for social interaction and rest. I suspect we can adapt to much less work.
But is this true? Andy Beckett tells this story.
In Britain in 1974, Edward Heath’s Conservative government, faced with a chronic energy shortage caused by an international oil crisis and a miners’ strike, imposed a national three-day working week. For the two months it lasted, people’s non-work lives expanded. Golf courses were busier, and fishing-tackle shops reported large sales increases. Audiences trebled for late-night BBC radio DJs such as John Peel. Some men did more housework: the Colchester Evening Gazette interviewed a young married printer who had taken over the hoovering. Even the Daily Mail loosened up, with one columnist suggesting that parents “experiment more in their sex lives while the children are doing a five-day week at school”.
For a time there was an optimism that work hours would be reduced but Beckett says:
Instead, the work ideology was reimposed. During the 80s, the aggressively pro-business governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Rogernomics in New Zealand) strengthened the power of employers, and used welfare cuts and moralistic rhetoric to create a much harsher environment for people without jobs. … these policies were motivated by a desire for social control. After the political turbulence of the 60s and 70s, he says, “Conservatives freaked out at the prospect of everyone becoming hippies and abandoning work. They thought: ‘What will become of the social order?
It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but …: “I do think there is a fear of freedom – a fear among the powerful that people might find something better to do than create profits for capitalism.”
That is where we stand now. Strong sanctions against anyone who dares alternative independence. Unless, of course, you are independently wealthy through inheritance or guile, in which case you live in fear of losing it all.
So how do we move forward? Post workists” is the term used for those exploring this question. We can build a capacity for leisure. But don’t the positive psychologists, and economists, tell us we are happiest working. They have a point. We lack capacity for leisure.
Beckett makes the point that, in leisure rich societies people comfortably fill their time. Like the ancient Greeks and our comfortably wealthy we would be OK…
“People will come up with stuff to do if you give them enough time. I lived in a village in Madagascar once. There was this intricate sociability. People would hang around in cafes, gossiping, having affairs, using magic. It was a very complex drama – the kind that can only develop when you have enough time. They certainly weren’t bored!”
It is said that, “The devil makes work for idle hands”. This is a reflection of current values and lack of opportunities in our societies, especially if you are time rich and dollar poor. One solution to this is like a “Super Library” where, in addition to books and e-resources, we have workshops and studios; and access to tools to support constructive leisure. The criticism is made that many post-workists are from fields like journalism where the work leisure boundary is blurred and the individuals are often highly educated. Certainly I would love to have time to read and develop writing like this. Yet… What about a shop worker, say a store-man? My sister’s husband is one. Given time he crafts wonderful handmade cabinetry, fishes, and is a husband, father and friend. He would easily adapt. I think this is generally true. Everyone has a passion they would explore. And in any case, it is constructive to be idle. Many creative products come out of that.
It is worth reading the full article. To begin thinking about progressive approaches we can take and explore. My favourite example of a post work society is Ecotopia by Earnest Callenbach. A classic example of sustainability and beauty. (https://sustainabilityandbeauty.wordpress.com/?s=ecotopia)
The long read: Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative