No future for employment?

Every now and then you come across a truly eye-opening piece of writing that you just need to share with as many people as you possibly can. For me, such revelation came with Derek Thompson’s A World without Work, published in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. So don’t be surprised that this post is shamelessly advertising Thompson’s thorough and thoughtful, rich and deep essay, that really should find a wide audience to encourage farther and further thinking.

Thompson investigates the impact that the disappearance of work would have on a community or society, which is far from a simple story:

The paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs,
but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.

The fear that machines could destroy man’s livelihood is as old as the beginning of the industrialisation. It only got a name when Ned Ludd and his followers destroyed the first mechanised looms for fear that those machines would drive all weavers out of work. Since those days, Luddites or neo-Luddites have declared many times that the end of work had just arrived. Thompson points out why this time the situation is different:

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The convergence of three developments, the shift in economic activity, the shrinking of the employed population, and the progress of enabling technologies, for the first time creates the conditions that could actually end employment the way that we currently understand it.

This consideration resonates with the ideas I’ve expressed a few months ago in A vision for economics , and it goes quite a bit further. I had centred my thinking mainly around Brian Arthur’s short essay on The Second Economy , in which he extrapolates the current evolution of technology to illustrate how that could pave the way for a future without work. That essay concentrates on the end state of such a development, where employment does not serve its traditional double-role anymore: the generation and the distribution of wealth. While Arthur is less clear on the stepping stones or incremental changes that would get us to that end state,  Thompson actually focuses his attention on those increments, and how they already play out today:

… there are, perhaps, fragments of the post-work future distributed throughout the present. I see three overlapping possibilities as formal employment opportunities decline. Some people displaced from the formal workforce will devote their freedom to simple leisure; some will seek to build productive communities outside the workplace, and others will fight, passionately and in many cases fruitlessly, to reclaim their productivity by piecing together jobs in an informal economy. These are futures of consumption, communal creativity, and contingency. In any combination, it is almost certain that the country would have to embrace a radical new role of government.

Thompson goes on to develop storylines for each of those three futures, describing the direct and indirect effects that automation-driven unemployment has for the former workers and the communities they live in. And he builds those storylines around evidence that is taken from recent history. He does point out, though, that in different places and/or at different times, most likely a combination of elements of three futures will actually occur. At any rate, he sees a definite need to adjust policies as well as institutions in order to equip communities and prepare societies for a future without work.

To his mind, there’s no reason for irrational fear of such a future. Rather, what we consider normal today, that the value of an individual is directly tied to productive employment, might actually be a historically exceptional situation:

Perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration,
with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity.

But enough of advertising. Time for you to make up your own mind, read the full essay


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