As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, for the next four weeks, we will publish the responses to a different question.
How would you characterise the state of ‘work’ today and its recent developments? Is work in crisis – if so, how?
I would agree that ‘crisis’ is a suitable word to describe the current situation. It’s possible to grasp the problem by thinking in terms of the important social functions that have been delegated to work. Work is the main mechanism for distributing income, and people therefore depend on work for their survival. But work also has this monumental cultural significance. It is supposed to be the main axis of identity, and is heralded as a signifier of social status, maturity and citizenship.
Whilst all of this is true, it is also now evident that work is failing to fulfil its functions. We are seeing the endurance of mass unemployment and underemployment – a problem that is now set to escalate due to the increasing rate at which workers will be replaced by automated technologies. Societies could try to keep pace with the elimination of work by creating jobs and expanding the rate of production, but even if this were possible, many are now waking up to the reality that this is an ecologically disastrous route. Meanwhile, we can observe a troubling discord between the ideal of meaningful employment and the realities of work.
“It is doubtful whether modern jobs can offer the sense of moral agency, security, and recognition required to secure work as a source of meaning.”
The standardisation, precarity, and dubious social utility that characterise many modern jobs is a major source of modern misery.
Hannah Arendt offers an admirably concise summary of these problems in her reference to the misery of a society of ‘labourers without labour’: a society of people who are practically, ethically and psychologically bound to work, but for whom there are not enough decent jobs to go around. This is what we are living through, and it is an incredibly inhumane situation, with a number of undesirable side-effects, from the escalating prejudice against migrant workers, to widespread mental illness, and the pressure on young people to secure their futures by sacrificing the best years of their lives to ‘employability’.
A point that may be worth adding here is that, whilst work may be in a state of crisis, I think the true spirit of most post-work commentary will be overlooked if it is viewed merely as a kind of ‘crisis management’. What really attracts me to critiques of work is the promise of addressing that tantalising gap between the possible and the actual. The tremendous productive capacities of capitalism have given societies the theoretical opportunity to radically reduce the need for human labour and allow everybody to live more autonomous and varied lives. The reason we so desperately need critique is because this possibility still feels so remote from the dismal reality.
Dr. David Frayne is a writer and social researcher interested in critical social theory, the sociology of work, consumer culture, political ecology, the sociology of happiness, and utopian studies. His first book, The Refusal of Work, was published by Zed books in 2015. His follow-up, Fitter, Happier. More Productive – an edited collection of critical essays on work and health – will be published by PCCS in 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Guardian, The Irish Times, ROAR Magazine, and Contrivers’ Review.