What Could We Do If We Thought of Work Differently?

Following up on my post about work and automation, I’d like to invite anyone reading this to do a little thought experiment.

Our collective attitudes about work are, I’d say, paradoxical, especially in the United States but also in Canada and, really, throughout the world. There is both too much work to do and not enough. There is too much work to do to allow people much in the way of vacation time and other time off, and people who are unable to work, for whatever reason, are seen as a burden on society. Yet there isn’t enough work around to provide everyone with paid jobs, let alone jobs that pay well. Is the answer too much work and not enough money? But money only exists in order to pay people for the work they do – to represent the value of their work. Is the problem that the value of most people’s work is too low? And what of the people who are without work? Why is there no work for them that they can be paid to do?

Some short-term unemployment can be explained as a transitory thing, where someone has had to leave one job and is looking for another. Others are out of work for much longer. Maybe the company they worked for closed, or replaced them with a machine, and now there no more jobs that will pay them what they were trained to do and paid to do for decades. Now what?

But let’s imagine for a moment that we’re looking at work the wrong way. Suppose millions of people’s jobs are replaced by machines, and there aren’t enough other jobs around to replace them. Why not? Is there no work to be done? Aren’t there things that need to be done? Maybe things that are more rewarding than doing the repetitive jobs that are now being done by those machines? Aren’t there things we could do as a society,.except people say there aren’t enough resources? What do you mean, not enough resources? There are millions of unemployed people! But is there enough money to hire them? Why not? Again, money only exists in order to pay people for the work they do – to represent the value of their work. If their work has value to us, it’s worth paying for.

And remember, this is in a context where many workers have to be on call to companies, willing to work extra shifts, forgoing vacations, putting off retirement- and yet there isn’t enough paid work to go around and it’s very likely going to get worse. What’s wrong with this picture?

How can we think about work differently, and what could we do as a society if we did?




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