F*ck Work!
November 28, 2016 5:09 AM   Subscribe

What if jobs are not the solution? An essay on the nature of work, its evolution as a cultural linchpin, its role in the human psyche and how it does/does not define us in an atmosphere of increasing social volatility.

Though work has often entailed subjugation, obedience and hierarchy, it’s also where many of us, probably most of us, have consistently expressed our deepest human desire, to be free of externally imposed authority or obligation, to be self-sufficient. We have defined ourselves for centuries by what we do, by what we produce.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Working a 40-hour week, you would have to make $10 an hour to reach the official poverty line. What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic? Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing? [It] makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives
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posted by I_Love_Bananas (156 comments total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
 
If climate change is a useful parallel - and I think it is - I can't see this going any other way than an absolute shitshow of ignorance and neglect and blame on the part of the ruling elites, maybe before finally acknowledging it's real only once a huge amount of damage has already been done and then taking ineffectual steps to non-address it.

Even if we can find a way to solve this - and it's still a big if, at least in my mind - it feels inevitable that it will happen against the backdrop of several generations of social carnage for everyone involved.
posted by terretu at 5:39 AM on November 28, 2016 [27 favorites]


!!!!

Me: quotes the entire article
Me: QFT
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:44 AM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


Where they hung the jerk that invented work ...
posted by NervousVarun at 5:56 AM on November 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


You mean we must abolish work?!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:03 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


Automation is not a thing that is happening to future labor markets, it is a thing that has been happening to labor markets for 200 years. And it works like this: automation reduces the labor inputs required to make make quantity n of thing A; thing A becomes much cheaper; people then buy much more of thing A, maintaining A industry employment, or use the money that they no longer have to spend on thing A to demand other things, and the economy responds by growing production (and related employment) for those other things.

There is no evidence whatever that robotics engineers or artificial intelligence programmers are going to create labor market step changes which are able to break this cycle, or even have impacts which compare to those of mechanization of agriculture and synthetic fertilizer production, the assembly line, bulk transport of goods by rail or huge capacity bulk cargo ships, injection molded plastics, telephony and telegraphry, personal transport by air, etc.

Moreover, there is no evidence that if there is some huge, fundamental step change coming, that all the fashionable left-wing sentiments he dutifully nods to are even remotely a solution. Uncapping Social Security taxes, for example, "works" to savage the prosperity of the upper middle class, but they will already have been destroyed by the step change and won't have any income to tax. There won't be any police brutality against which to defend black bodies when the step change has so devalued urban tax bases that cities have laid off all their cops, or enabled cities to replace their human cops with robots who can presumably have anti-racist algorithms programmed in.
posted by MattD at 6:06 AM on November 28, 2016 [14 favorites]


I think the gamification of work is next. Work is fun! Earn points! Go up levels! Collect coins! Buy your own equipment! Build your own levels! [Artesians just above]
posted by chavenet at 6:07 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


What seems to be the gap is most folks don't realize--or work under the assumption--that the driver of a capitalist economy is not business but the consumer. If there aren't enough folks to buy iPhones, Apple collapses. IF not enough people can afford coffee, Starbucks closes.

Unless we change the rules of the game (i.e. not basing one's life, value, etc. on work but some other metric), paying at least a living wage is actually in a business's best interest.
posted by MrGuilt at 6:07 AM on November 28, 2016 [24 favorites]


It's in a business's interest that *everyone else* pays a living wage. They want their customers to have money to spend, but they don't want to have to chip in their share. Tragedy of the commons all over again.

If only we had a way to force businesses to pay a certain wage at minimum.
posted by explosion at 6:21 AM on November 28, 2016 [112 favorites]


It's in a business's interest that *everyone else* pays a living wage.

aka an externality
posted by Slothrup at 6:27 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


[SLYT] Kids in the hall - Bank people
"Fuck the b-b-b-bank"
posted by beesbees at 6:27 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


"automation reduces the labor inputs required to make make quantity n of thing A; thing A becomes much cheaper; people then buy much more of thing A, maintaining A industry employment, or use the money that they no longer have to spend on thing A to demand other things, and the economy responds by growing production (and related employment) for those other things. "

2 things: The improvement of tools required to make thing A does not equal the automation that can be used to completely remove a human being from the manufacturing process (except maybe for a single manager overseiing the robot staff to make sure the assembly line is working smoothly with no errors.)

"thing A becomes much cheaper; people then buy much more of thing A, maintaining A industry employment, "

...that last part: "maintaining A industry employment". How does that work if the manufacturing jobs from industry A no longer exist?

We already have "lights out factories" so called because they can be run with the lights-off since everything other than Quality Assurance is automated.
posted by I-baLL at 6:40 AM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


Automation is not a thing that is happening to future labor markets, it is a thing that has been happening to labor markets for 200 years. And it works like this: automation reduces the labor inputs required to make make quantity n of thing A; thing A becomes much cheaper; people then buy much more of thing A, maintaining A industry employment, or use the money that they no longer have to spend on thing A to demand other things, and the economy responds by growing production (and related employment) for those other things.

There is no evidence whatever that robotics engineers or artificial intelligence programmers are going to create labor market step changes which are able to break this cycle, or even have impacts which compare to those of mechanization of agriculture and synthetic fertilizer production, the assembly line, bulk transport of goods by rail or huge capacity bulk cargo ships, injection molded plastics, telephony and telegraphry, personal transport by air, etc.


The factor that is going to change this is ecological constraint. The meta economy as it is organized right now operates as if it's in a infinite system. Our overall system is finite. We can just keeping making more 'things' in the way we are now. The only reason it has functioned so far is that it's a very, very big and complex system. We are now hitting the walls of our finite system.

Whether humans can reorganize our economies within these constraints remains to be seen. The tech part isn't doing so bad. Lots we can do that way. The social, economic organization and rejigging not so much. Not looking super hopeful either.
posted by Jalliah at 6:41 AM on November 28, 2016 [13 favorites]


MattD Past behavior doesn't guarantee future behavior, and the nature of automation is shifting and changing significantly from prior automation.

It is true that in the near term only a few jobs are going to completely and totally vanish, swapped out for robots doing 100% of the labor.

In fact, the only one I can think of offhand is driving, there we can soonish (15 to 20 years maybe?) expect to see all (or close enough to all) human drivers unemployed due to robot replacement. And that's going to be huge. Close to one out of fifteen people is employed in transportation.

But the other jobs aren't going to completely vanish, we're just going to see an acceleration of the same trend we've seen for a long time: the labor of one person being amplified so that you need fewer people.

This isn't just hitting blue collar factory jobs, its hitting traditional white collar intellectual labor jobs.

Take, for example, lawyers. Time was it took one (or more for really active lawyers) secretary and one (or more) paralegal to support a single lawyer. These days law firms try to reach a staffing level of one support staff for three lawyers. And the firms don't need as many lawyers either, work that used to take a lawyer a week can be done in just a few hours.

Since human society began we had a situation where our wants were largely unmet, where it took the work of virtually every able adult merely to allow us to survive with a tiny handful of luxuries. As automation increased we were able to shift more labor away from necessities and into luxuries.

But soonish automaton will have reached the point where not only the necessities, but also the luxuries, will require less than full employment to produce.

What happens when everyone's needs can be met with the labor of only 80% of the population? What do those leftover 20% do? How do they survive when there is no place for their labor?

The comfortable belief that nothing significant is changing, that we'll just absorb displaced labor into other segments of the economy, is by no means guaranteed.

Historically transitions in economy have not been pleasant. The shift from feudalism to industrialism involved millions of displaced people, mass starvation, and didn't really end until the bloodbath of WWI.
posted by sotonohito at 6:54 AM on November 28, 2016 [55 favorites]


Gradual continuous processes can still result in step changes. For example, automation gradually devaluing human labor to the point where it is no longer economically worth it to feed and house the average human being
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:55 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. I think the author is right, from a cultural perspective about identifying the general 'forces and trends' that compose the USian conceptual topography around 'work.'

I don't think, however, that we'll be seeing the axis of 'work' --> 'Inherent Moral Virtue' breaking down in our society anytime soon. It's cooked too deeply into the crust. It provides, amongst other things, a great excuse for the capitalist hatered of the poor, convenient justification for curtailing of social safety nets, and further justification for concentrating rewards at the top in a 'winner take all' system.

Whether or not shiny happy robots build your car, or shiny happy union member #41,342 does, is pretty irrelevant, from the perspective of power and capital.
posted by mrdaneri at 6:58 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


There is no evidence whatever that robotics engineers or artificial intelligence programmers are going to create labor market step changes which are able to break this cycle

Well, there's the ongoing productivity growth slowdown. Paradoxical, really.

Something funky is going on with the economy and has been for some time. Real wage growth has been non existent for 40 years, productvity's plummeted for nearly a decade. We're making lots of new stuff, but we don't seem to be creating lots of new jobs.

Personally I am leery of any arguments about economics that include the words "must" or "have always". The entire field of economics has been developed in a post-Industrial Revolution context. Another real revolution might work differently. Because writ large, the IR was about replacing human and animal muscle with machines. This freed up humans to start working with their minds instead. The animals --- horses, mostly --- we let die off.

If we develop machines capable of performing basic cognitive tasks --- and we are --- we humans get freed up to do what, exactly?
posted by Diablevert at 6:59 AM on November 28, 2016 [22 favorites]


But soonish automaton will have reached the point where not only the necessities, but also the luxuries, will require less than full employment to produce.

You are dramatically underestimating the creativity underpinning human desire. As labor becomes cheaper, things like small class sizes and a greater proportion of artists becomes possible. More psychologists, better jails, etc.

There is a justifiable worry that the people who are laid off (as truckers, e.g.) will not be able to fill these roles. The governments of the world will probably have to mitigate that suffering.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 7:03 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


Good job the governments of the world have such an excellent record of redirecting windfalls to benefit those who are negatively affected by the social, legal, or economic shift behind those windfalls. That's why there haven't been any populist movements based on yeah you get it.
posted by No-sword at 7:07 AM on November 28, 2016 [13 favorites]


Why is there not a huge, multinational, space-race-like effort on hitting climate change and redistributing wealth and creating an orderly transition to the world we're heading towards?

Most people are not interested the future. They are interested in the present. They want fixes now and they evaluate politicians on changes for today. If average people don't care about the future, it's hard for politicians to do anything.

40 hours a week of work is a Victorian value, brought in when we needed cotton mills full of workers to churn out cloth.

That's never going away. Humans are never satisfied. The mind turns today's basic needs into eternity's perpetual needs. It turns basic standards into fantastic ones.
The causes lie deep and simply — the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man — muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need — this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. — Steinbeck
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 7:09 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


Speaking as a robotics engineer who also cares about this kind of stuff:

- The follow-on effects of automation will be far-reaching. Take, for example, the scenario of driverless cars putting human drivers out of work. Someone pointed out to me not long ago - what, then, happens to the tiny towns along the interstates that basically exist because they're at the 12 hour point for semis to stop for gas, food, and rest? It's not just the one-for-one job replacement; it's the industries that exist to support the fact that there are currently humans who get weak, have to pee, and have to rest doing a lot of jobs.

- Even in the best case where there is still plenty of labor to go around (the way most roboticists love to point to the Industrial Revolution making happen - "The jobs are just more intellectual/better/safer/desirable!") - there will still be a whole lost generation of people who can't "just" retrain for these new jobs. If you're a 50 year old distribution center worker and not college educated, are you suddenly going to be able to work in financial trading when your workplace changes over to a fully automated design? Are you going to be able to afford to go back to school while you *have no job*? Of course not. So even if we assume the best case, we have a bunch of people who need retraining at some level who won't be able to afford it. What now? Government workplace retraining programs? Should, as Anil Dash suggested to me, places like Uber that will most benefit from automation and firing their workers (excuse me, independent contractors) be required to pay some additional sort of tax that will fund these programs? Or the social safety net because there is no feasible way to retrain this many people for jobs that are available (or there simply won't be enough jobs available)?

- I hear a lot of "well there won't be any motivation for people to work harder" except look at all the millionaires still going to work every day because it's never enough, is it?

- And yeah, of course the "well how will people feel useful"? And I don't think there's something inherent to work that makes people feel they have purpose; I think it's the fact that society SAYS you are useless unless you are a contributing taxpayer and supporting yourself and your family. The people too proud to take charity or welfare are that way because they've been convinced there's something wrong with that, not because there is an inherently morally wrong thing with not earning an income. I don't know how we change society this way, but it seems to me it's the answer, not creating artificially important jobs so that people can feel good at the end of the day. And like, people don't seem to be complaining about retirement, right? There's always that person who will drop dead doing "what they love" but like, my super Republican parents, who rail against my "communism" when I talk about this stuff, take art classes, go to Rotary, walk, swim, and travel. They're doing alright. I don't actually believe either of them found great meaning and purpose in their office jobs (since for the last decade or two of their careers they were working pay-the-bills jobs, having both had to leave the jobs they were actually passionate about for various reasons) other than "not starving" and "making sure their kids left the nest". I feel like when a lot of people say "but how will people have purpose", what they actually mean is "well how will those already lazy poor people [which probably also means "not white" in their minds, of course] learn the value of a dollar", and that's really not okay.
posted by olinerd at 7:09 AM on November 28, 2016 [48 favorites]


I forgot to add, that I do have a bit of a privilieged position here, as someone who directly implements 'weak AI' solutions and automation technologies.

I have yet, in my career, to see 'We implemented automation solution X' and 500 jobs were eliminated. The typical scenario is much more like 'We implemented solution X' and 2000 man-hours were freed up from having to do [insert really boring repetitive task that everyone hated here.] Typically the freed manhours are used for higher level tasks, like strategic or tactical planning.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:11 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


And it works like this: automation reduces the labor inputs required to make make quantity n of thing A; thing A becomes much cheaper; people then buy much more of thing A, maintaining A industry employment, or use the money that they no longer have to spend on thing A to demand other things, and the economy responds by growing production (and related employment) for those other things.

Cute model, but it is not borne out by reality. In reality, workforce participation has been dropping for twenty years, real wages have been flat for forty, the distribution of wages and wealth has been growing more unequal for decades, etc. But keep flogging that horse, I'm sure it's just a temporary business cycle blip (never mind one that has persisted at this point longer than a typical working life) and all the graphs will start going up and to the right again any day now.
posted by enn at 7:11 AM on November 28, 2016 [19 favorites]


Workers of the world... Relax!

I do think humans need useful fulfilling activities. I think entertainment like television, movies, and video games do not cut it, which seems like one of many reasons that basic income is dangerously oversold. It seems many white collar professions do not count as useful fulfilling activities either of course.

It's clear we must reduce our consumption for environmental reasons too, meaning demand for physical things must not create new jobs. Ideally we want declining shipping even as the shipping, truck driving, etc. all goes automated. Also, virtual products need to decline in value to their near zero marginal cost, so no demand there either.

What's left? We can pay people for doing their hobbies, but people cannot all become entrepreneurs, small business owners, etc., so capitalism fails here.

I'd propose two strategies : First, divide available work up as evenly as possible by shortening the work week. Second, institute a merit-tested basic income or merit-fare scheme that aims to provide basic subsistence or lower income for a fixed percentage of the population, while selecting the recipients according to "merit". And avoid creating too much bureaucratic overhead around that selection.

As one easy example, university students should not only receive free tuition but actually be paid, at least if they study a STEM field, but doing that requires that universities actually fail out students with low grades like they do in say continental Europe.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:15 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


One problem people have is they don't get the order of magnitude of how technology has already changed, and not changed, labor markets.

To use an example above, self-driving cars and trucks will have a labor-displacement effect which is trivial compared to moving agriculture from hand-weeding, sowing, cultivation, and harvesting and horse-drawn carts to general stores to herbicides, combines and semi-trucks to distant supermarkets.

To use another example, of law firms. Yes, law firms have somewhat fewer secretaries than they used to have. But they have a heck of lot more lawyers, and there are a heck of lot more law firms, corporate compliance departments, and regulatory agencies than there ever were before. "Law" read with any reasonable breadth employs a far higher percentage of the population than it ever has in any prior era. (If we have a crisis in legal employment, it is because the government improvidently subsidized the expansion of law school enrollment even beyond the organic increase in demand.)

Now, of course, that doesn't mean that we couldn't get the step change that can't be absorbed. Robots with the recall, creativity, judgment and manual dexterity of humans, at a fraction of the cost, seem pretty hard to handle. But then again, Formula 1 and NASCAR haven't kept people wanting to see jockeys race thoroughbreds. High-altitude helicopters don't keep people from mountain-climbing. Microwaves don't keep people from paying $100 a person for a fine meal at a restaurant.
posted by MattD at 7:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


After all, by a very narrow margin a majority of voters here voted - from a point of view of almost total ignorance of the issues - to tank the national economy with Brexit.

uh no. Democracy wasn't the problem with Brexit; propaganda and having to select between two poorly understood options was the problem.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


jeffburdges Here's a link to the US's Federal Job Transition program.

As noted in the main article, and many comments above. It is extremely inadequate.

For example, it's maximum duration is 52 weeks (and this if you seamlessly enter it with absolutely zero pre-existing claims). And of course, for example, a laid-off coal worker can transition to a highly-paid knowledge worker in 52 weeks easily, or else they are somehow morally deficient or lazy.

I won't get into the requirements of the transition program, for even these modest benefits, as they are similiarly well crafted.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:25 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


First automation replaced work that consisted mostly of manual labour, and then increasingly sophisticated forms of mental labour (a computer used to be a clerk who would perform arithmetical tasks). Now machine learning is promising to replace human cognitive labour that looked impervious to replacement by simple algorithms. Eventually we'll get a situation where machines excel in areas such as medical diagnosis, law and management of businesses and governments. Going to a human doctor rather than a system with orders of magnitude of cases in its knowledge will be a mildly self-destructive eccentricity. Human drivers will be banned from roads, either outright or through punitively steep insurance premiums and testing regimes. There won't be enough jobs for bot programmers either, as sooner or later there'll be a system which makes the app you want from having a conversation with you and iterating over a sequence of prototypes. Then will come content creation: firstly things like gists, reports and fact-based journalism, and then light entertainment, and eventually anything where the value is not in communication with a specific human being.

The only jobs left for humans will be soft ones with a social component. Taking care of each other, or making friendly conversation, or what have you. If we have a universal basic income, this will get demonetised, to the point where we are back to where our ancestors were, grooming each other's pelts for nits in the trees, only doing so with language and swarms of intelligent agents at our beck and call.

If, however, we stick to a market-based system, the distribution of these services may be radically unequal: the oligarchical elite will have bum-wipers standing at attention, 24 hours a day, at each bathroom of their mansions, yachts and private jets, as well as pages, concierges, trusted counsellors and attendants of every kind. The privilege will trickle outward, until it runs out of servants: the first few degrees from the centre of power will have smaller swarms of servants, then at some point will be professionals of some sort who serve court officers and whose servants are time-multiplexed Uber/TaskRabbit-style precariat, who are attended to by machines, the service tiers declining with each step away from the centre. At the edges will be a vast slum, with the wretched of the earth being born and dying in filth and darkness.
posted by acb at 7:27 AM on November 28, 2016 [26 favorites]


I have yet, in my career, to see 'We implemented automation solution X' and 500 jobs were eliminated.
But that's not how it works. Today they get new jobs. Next time the budget gets tight enough, they will trim fat. The people that got moved to new make-work jobs because of automation will be the ones to go.
posted by idiopath at 7:27 AM on November 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


It doesn't have to be a massive, traumatic, cataclysmic change...

This is actually part of the debates going on in the current presidential election cycle here in France. On the left (vast generalization on my part, bear with me) we have the proposal to lower the work week yet again, say from 35 hours to 32, thus freeing up more leisure time, which would create more demand, and also give companies an opportunity to hire more people. Of course the flip side is that employers would have to make more of an initial outlay for hiring... but the idea is it would be an investment in people who would then also have more income to buy stuff. This is a really dry view of it, I know, generalizations tend to do that. But there is genuinely a discussion about how important leisure is in economies.

On the right, we've got Fillon (ugh) who wants to RAISE the work week back to 40 hours, and remove all employer taxes on minimum wage hires to jump start employment. Meanwhile anyone who's ever worked in a capitalist-minded company is groaning and going, "so what you're saying is they'll keep people at minimum wage in order to avoid paying employer taxes while we all work more hours a week. Great." But employers... who have more money i.e. influence than the people who need those minimum-wage jobs... are super-stoked about this plan.

It will be interesting to see how things go during this election. Trump winning in the States has been a wake-up call to a lot of people here. Now, in which sense they're woken remains to be seen, but they did massacre Sarkozy in the first round of the right's primaries. To say he got his ass handed to him would be an understatement. They did then go on to choose Fillon, though, who's only less bad. The left needs to up their game, which, to play the optimist, they have proven capable of in the past.
posted by fraula at 7:28 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


I never advocated job transition schemes per se, mrdaneri. MattD did maybe? I advocated shortening the work week, while enforcing a living wage, so that what blue collar jobs exist can be more evenly divided among the blue collar workers. It's not a solution but an approach to softening the transition to a society with less work and less consumption.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:32 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


And it works like this: automation reduces the labor inputs required to make make quantity n of thing A; thing A becomes much cheaper; people then buy much more of thing A, maintaining A industry employment, or use the money that they no longer have to spend on thing A to demand other things, and the economy responds by growing production (and related employment) for those other things.

Cute model, but it is not borne out by reality. In reality, workforce participation has been dropping for twenty years, real wages have been flat for forty, the distribution of wages and wealth has been growing more unequal for decades, etc. But keep flogging that horse, I'm sure it's just a temporary business cycle blip (never mind one that has persisted at this point longer than a typical working life) and all the graphs will start going up and to the right again any day now.


MattD is right. The evidence you cite is proof that the distribution of profit has been going to capital instead of labor. That's what the article gets right: If you want to improve the distribution of wealth, then you need to increase corporate taxes and return some money to labor. Workforce participation looks fine.

The error the article makes is assuming that lower corporate taxes has no consequences. It does have consequences on initial domestic investments (which encourages foreign investment instead) and on market prices (which will meet significant opposition from anyone with a pension).
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 7:35 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


mrdaneri I have yet, in my career, to see 'We implemented automation solution X' and 500 jobs were eliminated. The typical scenario is much more like 'We implemented solution X' and 2000 man-hours were freed up from having to do [insert really boring repetitive task that everyone hated here.] Typically the freed manhours are used for higher level tasks, like strategic or tactical planning.

In our case it was, "Freed 2000 hours through automation, offshored 2000 hours of labor, and then brought in 8000 person-hours of new work."
posted by nathan_teske at 7:40 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


the question is not "how do we preserve our current way of life?" but "what is our way of life going to be in 50 years?".

This is the central conflict of our time. We can't continue to assume the way of life in the Twenty-First Century--and beyond--will resemble the prior 50-100 years. We've moved past a manufacturing-based economy where a set amount of jobs gave a workforce enough money to create a middle class of consumers. The pressure to optimize those costs put an increasing pinch on that. Add to that the need to protect the environment, greater inclusiveness (i.e. not just white males) and globalization have changed the climate we live in.

My hope is that the 2016 election is the last gasp of "let's try to return the US to the way things were" so we can face these challenges honestly.
posted by MrGuilt at 7:41 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


Prediction: we all wind up as members of the clergy, performing increasingly elaborate rituals for one another which take up increasingly long periods of time. (Said rituals must be performed by human beings because reasons.)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:43 AM on November 28, 2016 [21 favorites]


For more on this, check out the results of the hard-working staff of The Idler.
posted by kozad at 7:43 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Macro-changes typically aren't seen on a project level basis.

In the last 50 years we've gone from a factory/mill industrial system to a service/"knowledge" driven economic system.

This has happened in a variety of steps as outsourcing to lower cost locations made overseas manufacturing possible. With container ships and relatively cheap fossil fuels the historical demands that the means of production be some what close to the consumer went away. The second phase of this de-industrialization has been in the form of automation and advances like Just In Time Manufacturing which eliminates the need to store lots of goods for extended periods of time.

In some cases there have been advances in productivity that allow highly paid industrial workers to compete effectively with low cost workers but these are typically in industries where the cost of producing goods precludes the ability to relocate a plant to China easily.

We tend to focus on industrial labor but there has also been a massive shift in administrative/clerical work over the years. The days of a massive secretarial pool support executives and middle managers disappeared a while back and while some industries still have data entry clerks many of those jobs are disappearing. In some cases those people are being reallocated to do different work now but in many cases the percentage of admin support staff has been shrinking steadily.

Increasingly labor is being directed towards the handful of industries that simply cannot be effectively automated. Food services, retail sales, etc. All of the positions that cannot easily be filled with remote labor or an industrial robot. Attempts to cover this last mile of the service industry have been largely unsuccessful. People bypass the self-checkout lanes because they are slow and frustrating. Shelf stocking in grocery stores still largely depends on human labor etc.

Even knowledge industries are at risk. Financial markets still have humans involved but algorithmic trading will basically end the need to have expensive labor involved in many financial areas. Positions like accountant will slowly be replaced as financial and ERP systems will get more integrated with each other. Even areas of high employment growth like medicine will begin to feel challenges. Electronic Medical Records and automated claims processing will just be the beginning of the shifts as expert systems will increasingly replace the need for skilled medical technicians. If a weak AI can be used to detect 95% of abnormalities that typically required a radiologist to examine then suddenly you can get rid of 18-19 radiologists and just have 1-2 doublecheck the work of the expert system.

The simple reality is that increasingly our economic value will not be measured in what we produce but what we are able to consume and this will have to necessitate a massive change in our economic systems.
posted by vuron at 7:46 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


My apologies for that mischaracterization, jeffburdges.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:47 AM on November 28, 2016


Global warming and the peaking of easy oil supplies will do more than enough to resolve the shortage of available work.

And I'm only saying it half pessimistically. If you think Gamergate was bad, imagine it in a world where more than half of us can game full time.
posted by ocschwar at 7:47 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


I advocated shortening the work week, while enforcing a living wage, so that what blue collar jobs exist can be more evenly divided among the blue collar workers. It's not a solution but an approach to softening the transition to a society with less work and less consumption.

It's worth pointing out, to people who bring up the industrial revolution as an example of new jobs replacing old, lost jobs, that the workweek was significantly shorted during the industrial revolution--to the eight-hour day, with weekends off. In other words, there was not a zero-net replacement of new work with old; instead, government policy was successful in managing the distribution of the remaining work, just as you suggest we do today.
posted by enn at 7:47 AM on November 28, 2016 [19 favorites]


Back in 1990ish, I started my first post-collegiate job in publishing, as a very junior assistant managing editor for a magazine. It was all typesetting strips of text, cutting them with xacto knives, and laying them out with hot-wax on card stock flats. Within a couple of years, I had convinced my boss to go to desktop publishing for layout and output via laser printer. As a result of that, I saw a 7-person department of layout artists get laid off, replaced with one part-timer who had seen the writing on the wall and gotten some training on desktop publishing. The 6 who left permanently had other part time jobs -- we only used them 1 week out of the month -- but clearly had relied upon this income to make ends meet.

Publishing, when I started, required many full-time employees to make a magazine happen: the reporters, the editors, the fact-checkers, the typesetters, layout artists, photographers. Nowadays, most reporters are expected to also be their own photographers, fact-checkers, and editors, and have been turned from full time with benefits to on-demand contractors, paid by the word if they can get paid at all.

I left the industry as it was imploding due to automation to become a network engineer, which I remain in today -- but I can see the writing on the wall, with auto-provisioning networks, the "swap out the whole rack" approach to trouble shooting, and cloud services taking over from dedicated server/network stack setups. Still, I'm not terribly worried: someone still has to watch over the network, upgrade code, and every so often go over with a console cable and figure out why a switch or firewall went silent, but will my security last until I hit retirement age (assuming that's still a thing) in about 20 years? I don't know. At least I have a semi-profitable hobby to fall back on if it all goes pear-shaped, but that requires that people have spending money for handmade crafts, which seems increasingly unlikely.
posted by Blackanvil at 7:52 AM on November 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


Workforce participation looks fine.

Your link goes to a graph of the unemployment rate. The workforce participation rate looks quite different—an increase as women entered the workforce after WWII, then a steady decline since the mid-90s.
posted by enn at 7:53 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


This article has been written before, in 1932 (which, in many ways, 2016 is starting to resemble, i suppose.)
posted by palbo at 7:56 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


Blackanvil-- If it's any encouraging news, my experience is that although the cloud has revolutionized some approaches to technology implementations-- I'm working with the network guys as much as ever, and they always seem as busy as they ever were. Their day-to-day job has probably changed-- in that they aren't running around with patch cord and toolbelts anymore-- they're sitting at their desks and coding cloud operations and configuration.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:58 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Something I've always found hard to come to terms with is just how unimaginative political leaders are on all parts of the political spectrum

This came up in the unending election thread but: political leaders aren't supposed to be imaginative. They're supposed to be persuasive and effective.

Imagination, in this case, involves incredibly unpopular and bizarre suggestions. If you aren't a House member in an extremely gerrymandered district, this is a good way to lose your seat (and, even if you are, this is a good way to marginalize yourself).

If you believe this conversation needs to happen, people outside of the political mainstream need to shift the Overton window in order to make it possible for it to happen.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:59 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


Yep, unemployment rates massively understate the problem as the primary ones used by the government don't measure workers that have given up looking for work.

The reality is that eventually we are going to need to go to a universal basic income model or an increasing percentage of people will just figure out ways to provide a somewhat manageable standard of living through alternative means.

Grey/Black economy, dependence on the few remaining social nets like SSDI, etc. Hell for an increasing percentage of the population incarceration might be seen as a safety net because in theory your basic needs and medical care are covered by the state.
posted by vuron at 8:02 AM on November 28, 2016


Work?! </Maynard T. Krebs>
posted by entropicamericana at 8:05 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Artful Codger: uh no. Democracy wasn't the problem with Brexit; propaganda and having to select between two poorly understood options was the problem.

But propaganda is unlikely to ever go away, and "having to select between two poorly understood options" is practically the definition of democracy. Even the most educated voters cannot truly know their preferred candidates' intentions.

Democracy may be the least bad system we've discovered, but that doesn't mean it doesn't suck.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2016 [16 favorites]


I left the industry as it was imploding due to automation to become a network engineer, which I remain in today -- but I can see the writing on the wall, with auto-provisioning networks, the "swap out the whole rack" approach to trouble shooting, and cloud services taking over from dedicated server/network stack setups.

The nice thing about the computing industries is that cross-training is much, much easier than in manufacturing industries. Training an assembly-line worker to do CAD is difficult, training a network engineer to lay out and configure virtual switches instead of physical ones is much less difficult. And the really menial grunt work was already foisted off on temp-hire interns anyway.

That said, I see the writing on the wall as well. The software industry is due for a sea change. I just think it'll be a financial sea change, like the 2000s bubble burst, rather than a technical one.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:19 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Democracy wasn't the problem with Brexit; propaganda and having to select between two poorly understood options was the problem.

I believe you just listed two of the problems with democracy.
posted by Candleman at 8:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


This thread is woefully western-centric. My alarms go off with prose that relies on second-, or first-person, plurals and assertions about "reality". I am intrigued by the coordination of trading markets and the ongoing and aggressive negotiation of currencies. I subscribe to the flawed (externalities) definitions of value within a diminishing asymmetry of developed and developing markets (consumers). The socioeconomic stratification within a specific nation? Speaking loosely, there's a long fall to a mean that transnational corporations will pursue.

Less technically, and though it's ultimately an engineering issue, that the "west" doesn't "get" requiring sanitized water for its wastes while clean water is a health issue for the remaining majority doesn't elicit sympathy. Many arguments about guaranteed income sail around: What authorities define quality of life?
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:24 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I believe you just listed two of the problems with democracy.

No, in the case of Brexit this was a problem with its practitioners. There were tough issues to address; putting EU membership to a vote was... a copout, a way to avoid the hard work of addressing issues and seeking compromise. All or nothing. Dumb idea.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:34 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


To use an example above, self-driving cars and trucks will have a labor-displacement effect which is trivial compared to moving agriculture from hand-weeding, sowing, cultivation, and harvesting and horse-drawn carts

How many folks on MiFi have no memory of living without a cellphone? The thing about certain kinds of tech is that when it hits a threshold it becomes totally pervasive, rolls into the world and the world changes. Knowing what's on the other side of the threshold just is not all that knowable, predict "twitter" in a forward thinking article in the 60s?

(clicked into this directly from the westworld thread so perhaps a bit techwoozy)

A huge problem in agriculture is that economies of scale are a mixed blessing, we could all be eating sustainable artisan vegetables at $50/lb now, but given zero wage labor (robots) doing the "right thing" to the land will become economically practical.

Real useful tech does migrate everywhere, there are cars and cellphones everywhere. Robots will be everywhere.

Self driving trucks before 2020, actual farm weeding bots - no one knows.
posted by sammyo at 8:35 AM on November 28, 2016


Here's a UN report: Robots and industrialization in Developing Countries that I found on futurism.com

I fear more for places like Bangladesh when all the advantages of sweatshops are overcome by automation
posted by Hash at 8:40 AM on November 28, 2016


The effect of technology on work isn't as obvious as people think. For example, the transformation in workflow for law and finance that came from email and mobile phones going from extremely rare to ubiquitous (call it 1995 to 2000) was trivial compared to that enabled by the coming into ubiquity of faxes and voicemail a decade prior. Put a young associate in time machine to 1990 and he would be just fine. Put a young associate in a time machine to 1980 and he'd be pretty darn disoriented.
posted by MattD at 8:52 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think one effect of massive automation that people aren't considering is how vulnerable all these automatic systems are to hacking. As we've seen, the more complex and automated the systems become, the more the advantage goes to attackers.

So great, automated trucks - that will be redirected to criminal warehouses, or be ordered to drive through civil rights marches. Expert lawyers that alter references to benefit a hacker's client ("Wow, all these people altered their wells top give their money to some guy in Russia."). Automated doctors that misdiagnoss ailments to benefit a drug producer.

The future world of smart technology is going to very quickly show how vulnerable to being manipulated by bad actors, so the actual trust in automated systems will likely plummet.
posted by happyroach at 8:56 AM on November 28, 2016 [11 favorites]


Happyroach -- I kind of love that -- so all human knowledge workers basically become the standby override on machine intelligence. Sort of like airline pilots are to auto-pilots these days?
posted by MattD at 9:15 AM on November 28, 2016


> actual farm weeding bots

Yours for only three grand! Well, for a little home vegetable patch at least, but Bosch is working on a field weeder.
posted by lucidium at 9:15 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


No, in the case of Brexit this was a problem with its practitioners. There were tough issues to address; putting EU membership to a vote was... a copout, a way to avoid the hard work of addressing issues and seeking compromise. All or nothing. Dumb idea.

Well, again. This actually is a problem with democracy. Ask de Tocqueville. Demagoguery is a great way to win elections, and there's almost never a long-term consequence when it fails.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


IoT is definitely going to be a security nightmare for the foreseeable future but I'm not sure that we are necessarily headed for a Cyberpunk future where shadowrunners hack into drone trucks to steal goods.

I'm also not sure that we are destined for the techno-utopian future where "free" energy from fusion devices and nanoforges pretty much allow us to build whatever we want in our spare bedroom.

What is clear is that the ability of the Earth to support 10 billion people living at Western European/ Usaian standards of living seems suspect without a major increase technological development. Even then the current model of consumption based economic activity will probably have to be abandoned in favor of a system that works within a closed loop. Yes theoretically there are unlimited resources in a vast galaxy but we've probably got centuries to have to survive within the current system + any colonization efforts in the rest of the solar system before we can reasonably expect to venture into extrasolar colonization.

Unfortunately American Exceptionalism is predicated on the useful idea that our children will inherit a better Earth than the one that we had and unfortunately that's no longer a guarantee. The question is can we get to a system where the whole world has a Nordic standard of living or will we settle into an equilibrium where the mean is closer to third world?
posted by vuron at 9:29 AM on November 28, 2016


The question is can we get to a system where the whole world has a Nordic standard of living or will we settle into an equilibrium where the mean is closer to third world?

Or something like The Jackpot from William Gibson's The Peripheral, where the bulk of humanity dies out due to climate change/antibiotic-resistant superbugs/terrorism/war/other cataclysms, and a tiny proportion (mostly the descendants of Russian and Swiss-Saudi oligarchs) inherit the boon of the technological breakthrough that comes through too late for the multitude.
posted by acb at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


And yeah, of course the "well how will people feel useful"? And I don't think there's something inherent to work that makes people feel they have purpose; I think it's the fact that society SAYS you are useless unless you are a contributing taxpayer and supporting yourself and your family.

Have you never met anyone who genuinely enjoyed their work? There are people who legit enjoy waking up and having an unquestionably valuable (to them) thing to do that day, a place to connect with others in a common purpose, a task to which they can apply native talents or honed skills - creating things, solving problems, teaching, healing, caring for or exploring something that excites them. It's true that very few people are lucky enough to do work like that.

A lot of the ones I know are in health care. Couple of working artists, some craftspeople, a baker. Almost no one with an office / cubicle job, and I think it's down to what was expressed here:

When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labour market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And there’s the rub, they do go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, of durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by ‘durable’ I don’t mean just material things), I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.

Most of the good things to do have lost their value.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:42 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


Is there anything in the recent behavior of the wealthy and powerful that suggests that they'll support a workforce that they no longer need?
posted by MrVisible at 9:43 AM on November 28, 2016 [11 favorites]


Agreed with everything in the article, even if it is rather clumsily stated. I personally don't believe there will be enough "work" (defined as "activity which will enable a comfortable 20th-century-first-world* standard of living via market-based remuneration") to go around, for all the reasons that have been pointed out above. The fact that millionaires go to their jobs, as well as that starving artists continue to make music (and all the other arts/intellectual pursuits/physical pursuits/hobbies/etc continue to exist), demonstrate that monetary-remuneration and human-desire-to-produce are imperfectly correlated, at best. Culturally we have to break the connection between jobs and self-worth, or suffer enormous consequences.

These ideas aren't new, of course: Russell wrote on them 80 years ago in one of my favorite essays.

And for those of you trying to imagine what the future could look like, Peter Frase's Four Futures treats this subject in depth (the book version is on my shelf, but I haven't gotten to it yet; the article-length treatment in Jacobin is extremely interesting, though).

(*Lazycomputerkids's post above makes a good point that this discussion is Western-centric, but I think it's reasonable to restrict ourselves to Western conceptions of work. The point of the piece is to argue against the idea that "what you get paid for determines your human worth," and that seems to be an especially strong value in the West, less so in the East or Global South [but I am Western, and am happy to be corrected on this point]. Regardless, I think most writers discussing this topic think that clean water for health, to continue the example, is nonnegotiable "table stakes" quality-of-life, and omit discussing it in pieces like this for that reason, even though, yes, the majority of the world still lacks it. We can imagine that the whole world achieves current Western developed economies--this debate is about what happens then? It's true that someone will need to define a reasonable standard of "quality of life" but that seems to me to be exactly the same kind of problem as defining reasonable standards of construction safety, health practices, consumer protections, etc.)
posted by acroyear2 at 9:46 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


> actual farm weeding bots

Yours for only three grand!


Exactly my point, I was at a lab two jobs ago where they worked on an inertial sensor, like the one in pretty much every smart phone. Each chip was like $80,000 -- now just an assumed addition to every cheap phone, basically $80k to free in just a few years. And the rate is accelerating.

It is the economies of scale in cell phone production that's changing things, the early robots like the Roomba had barely a chip considered a real computer, just tiny weak. The increased computational power (at lower electric power) that become available are taking ideas that would be lab prototypes hooked to a supercomputer and well, it's almost here.
posted by sammyo at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


"If work was so great, the rich would've kept more of it for themselves." - variously attributed.
posted by clawsoon at 9:59 AM on November 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


As one easy example, university students should not only receive free tuition but actually be paid, at least if they study a STEM field.

Why, so they can contribute to driving down wages for existing US STEM workers? So they can more cheaply automate the economy and push even more people out of work?

More STEM workers doesn't solve any problem.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:03 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


I do think humans need useful fulfilling activities. I think entertainment like television, movies, and video games do not cut it, which seems like one of many reasons that basic income is dangerously oversold.

I don't think that's true, and even if it was, that philosophy would lead to our exact current situation.

So, if TV isn't enough, what about reading? Or does it have to be the act of creating something? Is conversation good enough? A creative game like Minecraft?

My family is obsessed with this idea. That building something is good for the soul, that it's some healing act just in and of itself that can help people. I've seen family members pushed into building projects they really don't care about as a result of this. It's just another manifestation of the work ethic. And it becomes especially problematic with cognitive dissonance, where after completing a project there's that innate desire to be proud of it, even if you didn't want to do it.

But you're right, the basic income would reduce the need for "useful creative activities." But given our current work-life imbalance in the states, other models should be examined.
posted by formless at 10:10 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


Work has transformed for me over the past 12 years, thanks to more and more powerful technologies that are offered for free. I can collaborate with anyone anywhere on the planet, and get paid. Twelve years ago, I relocated to Canada from Japan. I had to find a job, and it was tough. I did it, but I was limited strictly to the local labour market. As someone in my thirties entering the "mid-career" phase of work, it was tough finding work that paid enough to support a household--jobs were already occupied by people at my stage of their career.

So I would get laid-off, and would have to scramble to find another job. In 2010 I went freelance, and it's just gotten better and better since then. The biggest change over the past decade is that people are willing to collaborate with remote workers like me. So I've been able to build up a diversified set of clients. My work may still be precarious, but I can manage that risk, thanks to technology.

So I'm cautiously optimistic about the future.
posted by My Dad at 10:10 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


So I want to like the author's no-punches-pulled style of argument, and I would welcome political progress towards a basic income, but I don't think this piece is very persuasive at all.

The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit.

Well, yes, but most of those jobs are not the types of jobs that "build character" or "pay the bills". So we can't really say whether it's the job -- the idea of work itself -- that has outlived its usefulness, or whether we're just getting shafted. I'd tend towards the simpler explanation.

The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.

Um, okay. No point arguing about that then. Don't wanna sounds like a moron.

But the bottom line is this. Most jobs aren’t created by private, corporate investment, so raising taxes on corporate income won’t affect employment.

I hoped the won't would link to a reference, but it links to his own book. I suppose I could buy the book, but I guess that would just be me getting duped by the old-fashioned notion that authors should be rewarded for their work...

Since the 1920s, economic growth has happened even though net private investment has atrophied

Atrophied? Net domestic investment crashed in 2008-2009 but recovered. The recovery might not be as strong as you'd like, but that's not what atrophied means.

You don’t need profits to ‘reinvest’, to finance the expansion of your company’s workforce or output, as the recent history of Apple and most other corporations has amply demonstrated.

What has been demonstrated? Apple's workforce appears to have grown ten-fold over the past decade. In any case, why highlight Apple? It's one of the most exceptional business in the world. What goes for Apple goes for almost nobody else.

When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug-cartel money (HSBC), [...] while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realise that my participation in the labour market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.

But that conflates the different rewards that a job ostensibly offers: work is not just about money (the external reward), but also about satisfaction (the intrinsic reward). You can't say that pursuing satisfaction is stupid because the money is bad. A lot of people do work that they find rewarding despite poor pay. This is like saying that it's irrational to refrain from stealing because other people steal. As a moral argument it doesn't make sense, and empirically, well, many if not most people don't steal simply because they don't like to think of themselves as thieves.

When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work – education, healthcare, service – becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy.

Where is this blurring occurring? Women are still very much overrepresented in these lines of work.

Until now, the principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible. ‘Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead’, or, ‘You get what you pay for, you make your own way, you rightly receive what you’ve honestly earned’ – such homilies and exhortations used to make sense of the world. At any rate they didn’t sound delusional. By now they do.

Okay, perhaps, let's say that this is true. It's not very clear how we would even begin to measure this, but let's assume that all indications of progress (like the unemployment rate) really mask decline, while we take all indicators of decline at face value. Let's say systemic corruption and injustice are at an all-time high. Then what's the alternative? And what are people going to do in the meantime? Just drop every notion that effort is rewarded? Simply not show up for work? Shoplift their way out of poverty? The article suggests we "ask practical questions", but not, apparently, the question of "what am I going to serve for dinner tonight".

Can we let people get something for nothing and still treat them as our brothers and sisters – as members of a beloved community? Can you imagine the moment when you’ve just met an attractive stranger at a party, or you’re online looking for someone, anyone, but you don’t ask: ‘So, what do you do?’

Finally we get at the real reason why Livingston hates "work" so much. It distracts him from hooking up with "attractive strangers" at cocktail parties. (utterly neglecting that being invited to a party presupposes a loving community with shared values and interests; i.e. everyone is there because something binds them -- and frequently work is an important part of that)
posted by dmh at 10:18 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Well the wealthy need the rest of us to buy stuff because that's what the whole house of cards is built on. Americans having the money to buy big TVs is a "good" thing because even if the US is no longer building TVs the economic chain of trade means that there is a possibility for people to get rich facilitating the action of having USians buying South Korean TVs or Smartphones.

If all of the income is gathered into the hands of the 1% that's a bad thing because fundamentally the rich can only consume so much stuff. There might be an increased consumption of goods over the median consumer but the aggregate consumption is way way lower.

The whole system depends on the average person having enough of the economic surplus that they can consume in excess of their basic needs. If they don't have access to that economic surplus they just don't consume the goods and services that the 1% are trying to sell.

So the desire is that consumers have lots of disposable income but there is the opposing principle that companies are based upon maximizing shareholder return and one of the easiest ways of doing that is to decrease labor inputs. Furthermore while some companies do try to do the social responsible thing which is to pay a decent living wage they tend to be punished by the stockmarket if they are too generous.
posted by vuron at 10:18 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Something I've always found hard to come to terms with is just how unimaginative political leaders...No one is standing up and speaking the truth,

then THEY would be out of a job. The problem begins with calling them leaders in the first place. Politicians are followers, if you want change you need to create a groundswell so powerful they would have to support it in order to keep their job. Yeah that's work, no wonder the majority of Americans are content to just blame the politicians
posted by any major dude at 10:19 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


That building something is good for the soul, that it's some healing act just in and of itself that can help people.

Am I just a romantic, or hopelessly self-deluded, when I say I genuinely enjoy cooking a meal, and that it feels more meaningful (purposeful) when it's for others than when it's just for me? I enjoy the rhythm of chopping, the colours of veg, the smell as things transform, the taste of whatever thing when it's done, sharing it with others, creating a space and reason for people to talk and eat together, yeah maybe receiving the compliment of their enjoyment? That's labour. (Not paid, ofc, that's the whole thing. Doing it for not enough money under awful conditions is another thing, but some do take that feeling and trade it fairly, on their terms)

(I don't feel that way about finessing other people's spreadsheets, for good reasons, I think)

Are people who grow things in their gardens totally whack? I actually have no idea about what all really goes into that, but people do get enthusiastic about the qualities of this or that soil and optimal layouts for pest reduction or complementarity, and they seem to be pleased when something beautiful or delicious grows as a result of their work.

Kids play; that play is often goal-oriented, a kind of work - they'll draw pictures or stack Legos with an intention to be expressed (realized, communicated)

(There are other things people do love to do, I think I'm just hungry)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:37 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


why does everything have to be run past Dave in Stockport or Winterhill in West Yorkshire before it goes through?

well, for brexit, the honest answer is that the southern elites fucked up by suggesting a poll in the first place. for them, it was a "sure thing" to paper over a few political cracks.

so to suggest that the solution to the resulting mess is to trust them more seems a little odd.
posted by andrewcooke at 10:39 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


terretu: "If climate change is a useful parallel - and I think it is - I can't see this going any other way than an absolute shitshow of ignorance and neglect and blame on the part of the ruling elites, maybe before finally acknowledging it's real only once a huge amount of damage has already been done and then taking ineffectual steps to non-address it.

Even if we can find a way to solve this - and it's still a big if, at least in my mind - it feels inevitable that it will happen against the backdrop of several generations of social carnage for everyone involved.
"

This is both an insightful comment, and a universal one, in that I could probably cut and paste it into any MeFi discussion of societal or cultural change and it would fit, in exactly the same way that ‘Christ, what an asshole’ fits for every New Yorker cartoon. Well done, terretu.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:44 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


What really needs to happen: People who don't need jobs stop taking them from people who do. Young people, upper-middle-class and above, whose parents can afford to support them outright their whole lives. Retirees who have ample pensions but want to stay in the game. That kind of thing. Just get out of the way, and let people who need jobs have them. Fuck your pride.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:51 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]




What really needs to happen: People who don't need jobs stop taking them from people who do. Young people, upper-middle-class and above, whose parents can afford to support them outright their whole lives. Retirees who have ample pensions but want to stay in the game. That kind of thing. Just get out of the way, and let people who need jobs have them.

Yeah, but there are is not a limited number of jobs, exactly (although there is competition). Anyway, the unemployed/underemployed in the US economy are typically concentrated in specific industries, notably construction. Track the unemployment figures of Imperial County in California pre-Great Recession and post-Great Recession. Construction was hit the hardest.

Trump's "infrastructure spending" plans are going to target this demographic--construction workers. And it's going to create an employment bubble that will crash, just like in 2007/08.
posted by My Dad at 10:56 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


I hate how these articles always try to blame the economists.

The Jetson's is based on the work of Keynes. The increase in automation and jobs that are mentally taxing should lead towards lower workloads. Otherwise you get stressed people who are likely to make catastrophic mistakes.

A generation later, Ronald Coase discussed the inefficiency inherent in the firm. You lose efficiency when you try and contract for all the variable tasks that an employee might have to deal with. So you introduce risk when you move from employee labor to contract labor. You need the slack in your labor pool. The office worker who might have very little to do, so that you have their knowledge and labor when it's crunch time. A study of his work from the '50s lays out a lot of the invisible risks that created the Too Big to Fail issues in the last few decades.

And empirical studies bear this out. Employees think they're efficient after 40 hours. But only because they become blind to their own mistakes and impairment in judgement.

There are some societal realities that reinforce these mistakes. High benefits for high salaried workers make it difficult to split these jobs into multiple part time jobs, allowing for more lower salary workers to move into a higher salary, and create less demand for low-skilled work. So instead we work our programmers/doctors/lawyers to the bone. (I find it interesting that somehow many Silicon Valley companies have recognized the benefits of pairing, despite being 'duplicative'. But there's still a lot of work to go)

The economics is there. It's the business world and the political world that have largely ignored that work to create better institutions and models of working, because they can easily point the fingers at each other when those risks finally come to light.
posted by politikitty at 10:58 AM on November 28, 2016 [14 favorites]


A generation later, Ronald Coase discussed the inefficiency inherent in the firm. You lose efficiency when you try and contract for all the variable tasks that an employee might have to deal with.

This insight seems critically true, based only on my first-hand observations of a few industries. A decade ago the New Management Hotness was Outsource Everything! The pendulum has swung politically and stylistically the other direction now. Some firms have observed that it gets really, really expensive and really, really inefficient when 80 % of your workforce is contract based.
posted by mrdaneri at 11:09 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


There won't be any police brutality against which to defend black bodies when the step change has so devalued urban tax bases that cities have laid off all their cops, or enabled cities to replace their human cops with robots who can presumably have anti-racist algorithms programmed in.

Or replace their human cops with robots who have totally racist algorithms programmed in? I mean...

Anyway stating the reason for the concern about automation now is easy - it appears that we may be building an unprecedented number of machines that don't even need to be controlled by humans. And a lot of the jobs that remain secure, prestigious, and well-paying are things that not everybody will ever be able to do. Is that going to mean there's no other work for people though? I'm certainly not sure about that. There's plenty of work I would like to see done. However the incentives are often not there to get it done, and I'm not sure that's going to fix itself without intervention.
posted by atoxyl at 11:28 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Have you never met anyone who genuinely enjoyed their work?

Oh of course I have! I am in fact one of those people - I had 1.5 years "off" due to geographic circumstances while my husband was posted to a fairly remote location and I hated every moment of it, because I absolutely love what I do and I missed it terribly. And my way of dealing with that was to find volunteer roles where I could scratch some of the itch and pass on what I love about robotics to schoolkids.

But I am rare among most people, I think - my family who are accountants, commercial real estate agents, school administrators, mid-level marketing managers, tow truck drivers, etc, aren't getting out of bed every day because they find their jobs fundamentally and emotionally fulfilling. It's so they get to have a place to live and food to eat. The "do what you love" thing is reserved for a privileged few, and what people love often doesn't pay well. There will inevitably be people who literally want to do nothing but sit around drinking beer and watching reality TV all day, but there are plenty of other people who want to raise their children, create art of various forms, garden, build, experiment, travel, learn, hike, etc. I hear far more people complaining that they don't have enough time to do the things they love than I do people complaining that they can't fill their weekends and evenings.
posted by olinerd at 11:32 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'd also like to put in a plug for my favorite Vonnegut book, Player Piano, which deals with exactly these questions.
posted by olinerd at 11:37 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


But I am rare among most people, I think - my family who are accountants, commercial real estate agents, school administrators, mid-level marketing managers, tow truck drivers, etc, aren't getting out of bed every day because they find their jobs fundamentally and emotionally fulfilling.

Not in my experience, at least with the generation before mine. Most of the parents of people I knew growing up, and my own, were completely attached to their jobs. My dad couldn't stand retirement and that was the case for many of his peers, and none of them had particularly "interesting" or "special" jobs, they just found much of their social life and well being tied to their accomplishments within the work they did and the people they saw every day.

Now that social media and the internet generally has been around for a while and people have changed their social dynamics, thing could be different, but one can read the statistics on drug use and suicide in rural areas as an indicator that may not be the case as well. Turning to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and other destructive behaviors can be a way to fill a void that isn't being addressed elsewhere. Many people aren't that interested in media, or learning as such and don't find pleasure in interiority, but find their worth through direct social bonds and comradeship, which is in the decline according to many different measures.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:52 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


More STEM workers doesn't solve any problem.

Indeed, I'd flip the incentive. Free college for everybody, stipends for people who want to study the humanities. We have a critical lack of people who understand history and philosophy in the world today.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:59 AM on November 28, 2016 [24 favorites]


I share the title's sentiment. (That's me in Routt National Forest in 2007, riding the Continental Divide.)
posted by workerant at 12:33 PM on November 28, 2016


Cntrl + F "Studs Terkel"; lacking; voila. Wikipedia theme summary: "As the foreword to the book points out, "Mr. Terkel found, work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, 'for daily meaning as well as daily bread'.... The oral histories in Working are wistful dispatches from a distant era...when management practices and computers were just beginning to transform the American workplace. In the last thirty years, productivity has soared but job satisfaction has plummeted. It is hard to read Working without wondering what has gone wrong." (to your point, gusottertrout)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:01 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Have you never met anyone who genuinely enjoyed their work?

"Enjoyment" and "fulfillment" change as we age. We derive pleasure from different things at different times of life. At the moment I don't particularly enjoy my work, but I do enjoy providing for my family. At this point in time, it gives me a sense of purpose. But I know what I want to do when the kids have left home.
posted by My Dad at 1:29 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


I love work. I fukken hate jobs.
posted by Cookiebastard at 2:19 PM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


Unless there's some sizable underbelly of people hiding away somewhere that really enjoy retail work, secretarial work, admin, and shelf stacking, no, most of us can't do fulfilling work. It's great if you derive a meaningful satisfaction from your job - which doesn't have to be a high falutin well-paying or artistic affair* - but most jobs are fucking shitty (and they tend to be the poorly paid ones too).


*(Best job I ever had was as an assistant groundskeeper. It was fantastic and I loved doing it.)
posted by Dysk at 2:27 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Unless there's some sizable underbelly of people hiding away somewhere that really enjoy retail work, secretarial work, admin, and shelf stacking, no, most of us can't do fulfilling work.

TASKS can be shitty, but people can still find contentment, if nothing else, from just about anything if there are needs being met: income to live on obviously, benefits, the camaraderie of a positive workplace, a sense of purpose, some measure of fairness in the assignment of shit tasks, a little praise, respect and engagement now and again from management and society.

If a job is nothing but menial tasks, temporary (insecure), low-paying and without benefits, and there's no respect from management ... AND society points at you and smirks ("losers!")... well, that can make any task into a shitty job.
posted by Artful Codger at 2:54 PM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


If a job is nothing but menial tasks, temporary (insecure), low-paying and without benefits, and there's no respect from management ... AND society points at you and smirks ("losers!")... well, that can make any task into a shitty job.

Precisely. Part of what we have to do culturally is stop looking down on "retail work, secretarial work, admin, and shelf stacking" and start recognizing that those things are socially valuable occupations precisely because they are needed.

(We also need to give those jobs the working conditions that white-collar professional workers currently enjoy, and separate basic material/physical security from career choice, as has been said repeatedly throughout the thread, but those alone are not sufficient--people in those occupations deserve respect, and will rebel against being given "handouts" without it, even if it makes "economic sense" for them.)
posted by acroyear2 at 3:04 PM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


Humans are never satisfied.

I'm satisfied. If the rest of my life involves the same balance between paid work, leisure and consumption that mine does now, perhaps with a bit less paid work, I'll remain a happy camper.

I am keenly aware of how fortunate that makes me.

The mind turns today's basic needs into eternity's perpetual needs. It turns basic standards into fantastic ones.

It's not "the mind" that incessantly ratchets up the degree of consumption required to satisfy a person; it's the marketing industry, and it's been doing it very effectively since the end of World War II.

There's a strong correlation between my own levels of personal satisfaction and the extent to which I've managed to insulate myself from the psychological corrosion of advertising exposure.
posted by flabdablet at 3:35 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


The pendulum has swung politically and stylistically the other direction now.

I'm not sure that I agree. At least not in American industry. We might see some shift from consultants to employees. But the insight in Coase's theory of the firm isn't just about institutional knowledge or open-ended employment contracts. It's about firms bearing the cost of productivity slack in labor.

Compare the model of retail employment vs teacher employment.

In one, we create millions of jobs for people who are marginally attached to the workforce each holiday season. Students, single-income families, people struggling with chronic underemployment. Ignore that it's exploitative, you're also getting a terrible deal at the margins. Retail gets 30-50% of their revenue during the holiday season, yet a bulk of their employees are relatively untrained and unfamiliar with the product. That's lower conversion for foot traffic to sales, and lower units per transaction. Just when you want to have maximum productivity, you're introducing low quality inputs.

For teachers, we intuitively understand the pitfalls to matching hiring too closely to demand. You don't fire the entire staff each May, and hope that you can ramp up in September, just because you don't have students over the summer. Instead most schools smooth their pay over a full calendar year, so that they don't lose their teachers over a three month gap in work. (I'm ignoring the political trend to push teaching towards the gig economy, because I think most people here agree that's a false efficiency)

Retailers should build that slack into their employee base. But that would require paying a high enough wage during the non-holiday period that employees would not want to seek additional employment that might make them unavailable during the holiday period. That would require a huge shift in our norms, in corporate culture, regulatory schemes, and social norms.
posted by politikitty at 3:53 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


One thing I always notice about articles like these is that their writers never bother to propose this approach for the people who make the things they use in the process of writing these articles.
posted by E. Whitehall at 4:51 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


That's lower conversion for foot traffic to sales, and lower units per transaction. Just when you want to have maximum productivity, you're introducing low quality inputs.

I remember about 2000, Circuit City fired all their best-performing floor sales people, because they were more expensive than, I guess, people who had been turned down for rental car desk jobs. Of course, they may have known they were liquidating the business by then and just didn't care.
posted by thelonius at 7:06 PM on November 28, 2016


https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=bWyu

is a curious graph, it shows the "1 in x people" job rate for information workers (blue) and mfg (red) over time.

e.g. during the dotcom bubble around 1 in ~30 had information sector employment, now it's 1 in 45.

As late as '73 roughly 1 in 4 had mfg work (!), now it's 1 in 10.

Contrary to the ideologies of some, the economy isn't some finely-worked piece of German engineering that solves our problems. It's a collection of forces too complex to fully fit into our braincase, and it can fuck us up good.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 7:21 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Precisely. Part of what we have to do culturally is stop looking down on "retail work, secretarial work, admin, and shelf stacking" and start recognizing that those things are socially valuable occupations precisely because they are needed.

For the record, I mention those jobs because they comprise the majority of my working life and virtually all of my employment prospects. Socially valuable though they may be, they're shit work.
posted by Dysk at 7:48 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Dysk, some people would kill for those jobs. Some people do them and are content.

Why not do groundskeeping again, or landscaping, maybe?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:25 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Can we presume that if Dysk is currently doing work they don't enjoy, as opposed to some other work they do, that maybe there are external factors involved?

I swear to fucking god, this idea that we're all independent actors with complete freedom of choice will be the death of our goddamned civilisation.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:43 PM on November 28, 2016 [14 favorites]


While I'm sure Dysk has chosen the best job given their life circumstances, I still think they overstep in declaring it shit work most people would despise. If you separate the actual tasks from compensation, hours/workload, and social standing, that job would be a lot more desirable than Dysk's experience would otherwise suggest.
posted by politikitty at 9:18 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


our deepest human desire, to be free of externally imposed authority or obligation, to be self-sufficient

I'd prefer being useful, respected, and trusted by people who I could trust to help me, personally. Which has the benefit of being materially possible, unlike self-sufficiency.
posted by clew at 9:59 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Even assuming that people need to do something more useful than watching TV/playing games to feel fulfilled, does it follow that they need to be compelled to do this by the threat of homelessness and starvation? If the alternative was a life of modest dignity, would these people who need work to actualise them end up falling through the cracks and spending all their time sitting in their underwear on the sofa and suffering for it in the long term?
posted by acb at 3:25 AM on November 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


Dysk, some people would kill for those jobs. Some people do them and are content.

Not a single one of the people I've ever worked with in any of these jobs, I can assure you. But maybe that magical uniform does exist - even so, there are hundreds and hundreds of us who despise it for every one of them, and we'd kill to get out of having to do that kind of job.

Why not do groundskeeping again, or landscaping, maybe?

Because I'm an idiot and I hate myself, obviously. Those are totally options that are open to me. Jesus fucking Christ.


If you separate the actual tasks from compensation, hours/workload, and social standing, that job would be a lot more desirable than Dysk's experience would otherwise suggest.

I'm not sure this is possible, really, without a complete rethink of society from the ground up. And even then - taking things from one end of a big room and putting them on a shelf at the other end, waiting for someone to pick one of the up, then repeating the process? It's mind destroyingly boring, no matter how you tart it up.
posted by Dysk at 3:42 AM on November 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


If you separate the actual tasks from compensation, hours/workload, and social standing, that job would be a lot more desirable than Dysk's experience would otherwise suggest.

Not unless you take the stance that paid work is inherently good and being a Hardworking Taxpayer makes you a valuable person.

Theres nothing desirable about being, say, a fruit picker. It's a physically demanding, mind numbing job. No one is that Pollyanna-ish.

The idea that most work is fulfilling is ludicrous.
posted by threetwentytwo at 4:32 AM on November 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


It reminds me of the stupid interview question about "why you want this job" where the correct answer is never about finally having more than 45 quid a week in your pocket and always about how you have a passion for customer service/have always wanted to make cold calls/be called a retard several times a day and other such lies.
posted by threetwentytwo at 4:47 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Theres nothing desirable about being, say, a fruit picker. It's a physically demanding, mind numbing job. No one is that Pollyanna-ish.
The idea that most work is fulfilling is ludicrous.


Fair enough. But absent automation or a stream of willing workers from less advantaged countries... fruit-picking would have to pay better, and then more would take it as a work option.

As per the OP, we are heading towards a point where there simply won't be enough paid work, requiring that something like a Basic Personal Income is provided to all, which could usher in a much greater participation in volunteering.

As anyone who's ever done volunteering knows, most of the tasks involved are usually simple or menial. Not far off of "retail work, secretarial work, admin, and shelf stacking". Eg - a food bank. Yet people show up and do them for free. Why would that be?

The framing, obviously. Being able to choose what to do and when is better than being forced by circumstances to do something you don't want to do. I get that.
posted by Artful Codger at 5:24 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


waiting for someone to pick one of the up, then repeating the process? It's mind destroyingly boring, no matter how you tart it up.

I had a temp job one where I discovered the term "bored to tears" was not actually a metaphor.

The folks that should have a quite a high income: garbage collectors.
posted by sammyo at 5:28 AM on November 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


The framing, obviously. Being able to choose what to do and when

I wouldn't frame this as choice -- I'd frame it as purpose.

I loathe phone calls. Yet I phone bank. And I would continue to phone bank for my party, regardless of whether you payed me or if that were the only thing in my life, because I know these things matter.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:54 AM on November 29, 2016


While I'm sure Dysk has chosen the best job given their life circumstances, I still think they overstep in declaring it shit work most people would despise. If you separate the actual tasks from compensation, hours/workload, and social standing, that job would be a lot more desirable than Dysk's experience would otherwise suggest.

I quite enjoyed working in a coffee shop - nicely paced work, active, social. But it paid minimum wage and couldn't guarantee full hours, so I had to move on. My boss also liked the work - so she figured out how to make a living at it (by becoming a manager).

Similarly, I know people who have loved being cooks, or office admins, or telephone interviewers.

Manual agricultural labour, however -- there is a reason that it has historically been the lot of the poorest in every society, if not slaves. That stuff sucks.
posted by jb at 5:58 AM on November 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Manual agricultural labour, however -- there is a reason that it has historically been the lot of the poorest in every society, if not slaves. That stuff sucks.

If that is all that you do in a day, but I actually enjoy doing manual agricultural labor. I grow about 50 kilos of potatoes and enough beetroot parsnips carrots and onions to feed myself and my wife for easily half the year. I do it for fun as I can easily afford the groceries, but I like the challenge of growing stuff. I also have a lot of fruit bushes and every year make about 2 years eating of jam and give a year of it away to friends and family. I also make 2 gallons of cider and 4 gallons of country wines along with about 5 gallons of apple juice. Not to mention the flowers and other things around the house, and my herb patch and a lot of other things.

Now I would HATE it if I had to do it day in and day out for long hours, but picking 3 kilos of redcurrant in a few hours is rather enjoyable. Picking 100 kilos of redcurrants in 3 days is hell. Digging out a tree stump over a few weekends is a nice challenge, digging out tree stumps solidly for a month is hell.
posted by koolkat at 6:51 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yeah, but listen. We're not talking about hobbies here, we're talking about jobs.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:17 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


I quite enjoyed working in a coffee shop - nicely paced work, active, social.

My experience is that there's a world of difference between working at a cafe or restaurant, and working at a supermarket or shop. I didn't really care for either that much, but the former was a lot less shitty, and I know people who outright enjoy that kind of job, whereas I know nobody that enjoys 'pure' retail (and I know far more people working the latter category of jobs).
posted by Dysk at 7:27 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but listen. We're not talking about hobbies here, we're talking about jobs.

If the problem is not enough work to go round, why not organise work places so that each individual doesn't have a bigger time commitment to their job than they would for a hobby?
posted by Dysk at 7:29 AM on November 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's clear that our economic system is a taped-together relic of the agricultural age. The types of changes we need are so broad and drastic, I can't conceive anyone with actual political power having the courage to investigate them. I know UBI is popular here and in the rest of my small lefty bubble, but beyond that you might as well try to convince penguins they need parachutes. Are there real steps we can take at this stage?
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2016


Are there real steps we can take at this stage?

Well, we could become an isolationist and xenophobic country with massive wage inequity and uncertain social support that propels most of the population back to a pre-industrial subsistence living.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 9:01 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Nah. Something actually useful.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:13 AM on November 29, 2016


>why not organise work places so that each individual doesn't have a bigger time commitment to their job than they would for a hobby?

A three or four-day week would have made a couple of the more boring adminny jobs I've had *way* more tolerable. (I think I'd probably not ever have complained, in that case. And I *totally* complained, to myself, most days.) But if the job requires continuity of complex tasks, I think it's probably not easy to find a way of negotiating that between two people. And one person would get fewer days and less money. Unless they rotated weeks (and I can just imagine some manager or other having strong feels about why that would be impossible or a terrible idea etc).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:17 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


We're not talking about hobbies here, we're talking about jobs.

Just wanted to clear up that some of my more evangelical moments above (e.g., about cooking etc.), were about work (understood very broadly as some kind of goal-oriented, meaningful labour, sometimes with a social aspect) as a healthy and important thing for probably many people. I've hated plenty of jobs. (Especially adminny jobs. And though like Dysk, I personally can't imagine ever liking the tasks involved, and having good company wasn't really enough to make me "enjoy" that kind of job, I think there are people who can be fine with it. Or for whom the regularity of the job and lack of stress [though boredom can definitely also be stressful] compensate for other disappointments.)

But outside of toxic or to-the-bones exploitative situations, IME, having some kind of job - some kind of structure to the day - is less bad than not working at all, for me and most people I've known. (Granted, there are far too many toxic and horrendously exploitative situations, which is of course not accidental in a system in which labour laws have become meaningless.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:02 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


And since we're clarifying things, my remark was in reference to the "but agricultural work can be fun sometimes" statement. Sure, it's a hobby some people enjoy. But it's still a shit job.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:19 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but listen. We're not talking about hobbies here, we're talking about jobs.

But the Jetsons' were built on an economic model where people worked 9 hours a week. That's definitely closer to hobby time commitment, and a long way towards breaking that burnout.

And it's not just a cartoon fantasy. That's built on the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes, and the idea that the increase in productivity could lead to people choosing leisure time over compensation.

Yes, it would be a large shift in how we approach labor. But our current model shows a lot of cracks, and there is political will for something, even if society hasn't really decided what that change should be.

Right now, labor law is based on paternalism. And that gives us some decent protections we don't want to roll back. But it also creates a dynamic where the Haves don't get those protections, and thus see those protections as something deficient Have Nots need, because they're weak and deficient. Why does the middle class need overtime, if the upper class proves their value by working 100 hour weeks to make partner?

We need to shift from paternalistic protections to widespread social norms. A few well placed malpractice suits against insurance companies who allow/coerce sleep deprived doctors to provide substandard care, which leads to the third leading cause of death. Require law firms to discount billed hours after 30 hours a week, while simultaneously requiring overtime for lawyers working beyond 40 hours a week. (This builds in an assumption that 25% of your time is for firm maintenance, not providing direct value to the client) All future bailouts should include labor requirements: ensure employees are making the median market rate and not working hours that would lead to impaired judgement and catastrophic mistakes.

We need to break the relationship between benefits and employment. It's ridiculous that as an independent contractor, I can only save 5k for retirement a year tax deferred, but as an employee, I can save 18k. Or that it remains the best way to get quality health insurance. This makes it easier for people to start their own business, and reduces costs for big business, so it isn't an impossible sell for Corporate America. And by reducing labor costs for the marginal employee, they are better positioned to hire more people for fewer hours.

And I know that sounds a lot like Reaganomics. I default to conservative watchwords because I learned liberalism to argue against Republicans. But that was a completely laissez faire approach, justifying the chips falling where they may. What I'm proposing is closer to Social Security. You create a system that virtually eliminated poverty among senior citizens by creating a large enough safety net, the middle class will be self interested in guaranteeing it's long term survival. (And even with current erosions, that's a really long run for a welfare program in the United States. So well done, FDR.)
posted by politikitty at 11:45 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


A slightly different take on politikitty's comment is benefits-by-the-hour; instead of our current system, in which benefits usually depend on working more than 29? hours a week, pretend you're working 40h/wk, and expect you to work 60h/wk as soon as you get them, we should pro-rate benefits by hours actually worked. Suddenly there's less advantage to chopped-up scheduling for hourly workers and also less advantage to overworking the salaried. (Hourly accounting ends if you have more than 2% of un-dilutable equity in the firm, or make more than some large, large amount a year.)
posted by clew at 3:09 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


actually the limit on tax-deferred retirement savings for self-employed workers is $50,000+

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solo_401(k)
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 6:39 PM on November 29, 2016


But the Jetsons' were built on an economic model where people worked 9 hours a week.

9hrs a week isn't going to pay the rent.

Housing costs are driven by competitive bidding, on the buy and on the lease.

You may only want to work 9 hrs, but someone working ten will take over your lease when it's up.

Housing is the main treadmill The Man has us on. Everything else is an order of magnitude smaller, other than higher education and health care I guess (but I'm old enough to have gotten the former for free and not old enough to have gotten hit by the latter yet)
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 6:42 PM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


> IoT is definitely going to be a security nightmare for the foreseeable future but I'm not sure that we are necessarily headed for a Cyberpunk future where shadowrunners hack into drone trucks to steal goods.

We're already there with human driven vehicles, with the hack of Deliveroo. The credit card details themselves weren't leaked though, so the way hackers were able to take advantage of the situation was to have "free" meals delivered all over the place. Sharing gains from ill-gotten access via private IRC channels/web forums is relatively common.
posted by fragmede at 7:56 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Now I would HATE it if I had to do it day in and day out for long hours, but picking 3 kilos of redcurrant in a few hours is rather enjoyable. Picking 100 kilos of redcurrants in 3 days is hell. Digging out a tree stump over a few weekends is a nice challenge, digging out tree stumps solidly for a month is hell.

I'll second this. I have an engineering degree and can get good paying work so i'm lucky in that regard, but my favorite "jobs" have been low paying farm labor jobs. Working outside, wonderful people, body engaged. It's simply the scale of the operation that makes things meaningful or not. A small scale organic farm where the daily work is always changing is great. Lots of problem solving, lots of physical body movement, lots of collaboration with others. And fantastic perk of free food, meaning, earth connection, blah blah blah...

To me, anything large scale is dehumanizing, be it a farm, business, restaurant, manufacturing facility or retail shop.
Less opportunity for creativity, less variation in tasks, more rigidity in social stricture, etc.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks a lot about what people report as meaningful in their work lives. And variety of tasks is pretty important. The Luddittes weren't anti-technology for the sake of being anti technology. They were against technologies that made workers into dullards. Machines that removed variety and subtlely from the labor.

and that betrand russell article from 1932 is wonderful. thanks for that link!
posted by danjo at 4:46 AM on November 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


9hrs a week isn't going to pay the rent. Housing costs are driven by competitive bidding, on the buy and on the lease.

That implies that housing is only driven by demand, and not supply.

If you're working maybe 3 hours a day, you'll accept a much longer commute. And I recognize that I'm not talking about a quick cultural shift, so I don't think it's a big leap to imagine autonomous cars at that point. Not everyone will want a two hour commute. But I live in San Francisco, and I'm always struck by how many people see city living as a type of golden handcuffs. I have coworkers who choose a 2-3 hour commute, without the benefit of a shorter workweek. They want the benefits, both job availability and cultural hub.

Right now, we praise the person who is willing to stay late and go the extra mile. But we're seeing European companies reaping productivity gains by reframing that trait as maladaptive. It's a red flag in the same way that being overextended on credit. If Tenant A able to pay a comparable rent by working 20-50% more than Tenant B, Tenant B is the safer bet. Tenant A is at risk to make mistakes, or even be seen as inefficient, and is at higher risk for job loss. Tenant B is able to afford a shorter workweek, and if things get tight, they are in a better place to take on more hours.

A shift in compensation from income to leisure would also go a long way to reduce income inequality. You can't inherit or hoard leisure time. It's immediately consumed. But with income, you can build a nest egg that compounds over time. If everyone is only allowed to work one day in their life, the discrepancy in wealth on that first day of retirement is a drop in the bucket compared to 50 years later. So while the initial benefits in that cultural shift are more obvious to the privileged class (since they are better situated to adjust to a mother of a market realignment), the long term benefits are something that progressive taxation* is poorly situated to address in a sustainable way.

*This is another of my pet peeves. Progressive taxation and well funded government programs are usually supported (or not) in lock step. But progressive taxation is highly variable, and subject to market shifts. Well-funded government programs need, well, reliable funding. I'm all for doing both. But we should recognize that most European countries get there by also having regressive taxes that surpass the ones we have in America at the state, local, payroll level.
posted by politikitty at 10:55 AM on November 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


A shift in compensation from income to leisure would also go a long way to reduce income inequality. You can't inherit or hoard leisure time. It's immediately consumed. But with income, you can build a nest egg that compounds over time. If everyone is only allowed to work one day in their life, the discrepancy in wealth on that first day of retirement is a drop in the bucket compared to 50 years later.

This is a ridiculous impossibility.

First of all, you can't stop people from working on the basis of freedom. People are allowed to have fun whenever they want to and allowed to work whenever they want to. Someone else working is upsetting to you, that's a problem with you.

Second, you can't stop people from working in practice. If your kid needs an operation, do you want the surgeon to tell you "well, I can only work 9 hours a week". Of course not, so what do you do? You throw him some money under the table or you beg him or whatever. You want your kid to live and the law is stupid.

And anyway, no one cares about income inequality due to differing amounts of work. Do poor people have it worse than rich people? Obviously. If no one is allowed to do much work (as you propose), would there be so much relative poverty? Nope. But that's because everyone would be poor! Extremely poor. You're basically talking about slicing 80% of the GDP away and expecting the standard of living to stay the same. Yes, people are somewhat richer for having more leisure, but everything is way, way more expensive. Say goodbye to affordable anything.

When we talk about inequality, we are talking about inequality in compensation that is not commensurate with effort or economic justice. Do people owe a fraction of their income to the economy in which they participate? Yes, and that is what taxation is about.

Your example with the tenants is also problematic because it suggests that landlords should be prejudiced against low-hourly-wage hard-working tenants in favor of high-hourly-wage, "lazy" tenants. I don't think that's a good idea.

Also, for the same reasons as above, this was a problematic comment:

What really needs to happen: People who don't need jobs stop taking them from people who do. Young people, upper-middle-class and above, whose parents can afford to support them outright their whole lives. Retirees who have ample pensions but want to stay in the game. That kind of thing. Just get out of the way, and let people who need jobs have them. Fuck your pride.

People are free to work (personal liberty), you can't stop them if you try, and moreover, whenever people work and earn money, they constitute labor supply (so it seems like they're taking jobs) but they also constitute labor demand (because they spend the money they make). Don't blame retirees with pensions or rich kids for unemployment please.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:30 AM on November 30, 2016


I got around to reading that paper by Russell and there are so many good lines but I think I like this one the best:

"This sort of thing [is] the result of regarding the virtue of hard work as an end in itself, rather than as a means to a state of affairs in which it is no longer needed."

The whole thing is really really good though.
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:52 AM on November 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


Personal liberty is way beside the point. People can always make bad decisions. The problem is when bad decisions are rewarded.

When you are paying that surgeon under the table, there's a cost beyond that money under the table. Right now that cost is borne by the millions of people who are dying due to avoidable medical errors.

That's a market failure, because both the surgeon and consumer are acting in their narrow self interest, and refusing to take into account the larger social ramifications of their actions.

People are incredibly blind to the diminishing value of their labor. People know that other people shouldn't work to the bone. But they are continually unable to see that in themselves. You wouldn't bribe a surgeon to operate on your child if you knew they were drunk. Yet we know that people operate at a similar cognitive capacity for a significant amount of their work week in today's culture.

And I totally can't see "it suggests that landlords should be prejudiced against low-hourly-wage hard-working tenants in favor of high-hourly-wage, "lazy" tenants". as more than a lazy, knee jerk reaction than genuine critique. I am all for policies that ensure the poorest have access to a respectable standard of living. But I find it hard to envision any economic system that would create an incentive for the landlord to choose the riskier tenant.

That's not to say that there aren't be landlords who cater to less established tenants. But that's usually somewhat exploitative. They don't want to be bothered with the upkeep and ongoing maintenance. They want to cycle through tenants, so they can take advantage of increasing rents. They are invested in a certain neighborhood culture (which can either be hella racist or fighting gentrification).

But that isn't genuinely choosing the riskier tenant. That's recognizing the risks and costs of catering to a more privileged tenant, and building a business model that reflects the preferences and comparative strengths of the landlord.

I don't think that landlords should be prejudiced towards privileged people. But I recognize that many put credit worthiness above other attributes. That same bias would stop them from just choosing the person who is willing to work more hours, if we truly change the the social norm to acknowledge the harm in working so many hours.
posted by politikitty at 12:30 PM on November 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


People are incredibly blind to the diminishing value of their labor. People know that other people shouldn't work to the bone. But they are continually unable to see that in themselves. You wouldn't bribe a surgeon to operate on your child if you knew they were drunk. Yet we know that people operate at a similar cognitive capacity for a significant amount of their work week in today's culture.

That's a reasonable argument if we were talking about a maximum of, say, a twelve hour workday. Your argument was for a three hour workday! In no world is going over a three hour workday going to lead to diminished "cognitive capacity". Anyway, your argument wasn't about safety, it was about "income inequality", which is what I was responding to. If it's about safety, then that seems to be specific to doctors. No one is worried about the overworked store employees dangerously stacking shelves!
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:37 PM on November 30, 2016


It's not about safety. Safety is simply a good way to make it clear that the costs and the benefits are tangible.

Toyota has seen productivity gains in shifting from 40 hours a week to 30 hours a week. While an employee might think they are more productive by working 8 hours a day, the empirical evidence shows that's not the case. Here's a case study that shows working part time improves cognitive function.

I don't know why it's so hard to imagine a surgeon would see a decline in efficacy after a relatively short time. I get that it feels wasteful, but that's social norms talking, not facts.

We are taught to pace ourselves, so that we don't burn out. But that means that we are holding back at the time we are most capable, in the hopes of pushing through exhaustion later on. How much more could we do, if we didn't have to pace ourselves? If we could be our best selves for three hours and then recharge? Why is that immediately laughable and undesirable?

And my argument wasn't about income inequality. It was that income inequality would be an additional beneficial side effects to changing these damaging social norms.
posted by politikitty at 1:39 PM on November 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


People are free to work (personal liberty), you can't stop them if you try, and moreover, whenever people work and earn money, they constitute labor supply (so it seems like they're taking jobs) but they also constitute labor demand (because they spend the money they make). Don't blame retirees with pensions or rich kids for unemployment please.

Why not? Among many other parties, they are to blame for their particular contribution to the problem. Perhaps not for unemployment as such, but certainly for selfishly limiting opportunities for people who could really use them, by making a finite number of positions far more finite than necessary. Qualified people are stuck working shit jobs (problem A) because all the good ones are taken (problem B). Helping to fix problem B would also help fix problem A, would it not?

Personal liberty can be limited. That's what laws are for. Failing that (obviously it'll never happen in this case), there's always morality. Asking people to take responsibility for their respective contributions to the worsening of the world around them is a perfectly okay thing to do.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:42 PM on November 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh, and as for the canard, "they also constitute labor demand (because they spend the money they make)," they already do that with the money they already have.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:46 PM on November 30, 2016


No one is worried about the overworked store employees dangerously stacking shelves!

The employees are, because they get hurt and killed doing it*. Apparently you don't care because they "freely chose" to work those jobs. I don't want to live in an economy designed along those lines because I don't think it's just or necessary.

* According to the OSHA weekly fatality/catastrophe report, two workers are crushed to death every month on the job. Includes warehouse jobs but may not be specific to them.
posted by clew at 1:59 PM on November 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


We are taught to pace ourselves, so that we don't burn out. But that means that we are holding back at the time we are most capable, in the hopes of pushing through exhaustion later on. How much more could we do, if we didn't have to pace ourselves? If we could be our best selves for three hours and then recharge? Why is that immediately laughable and undesirable?

That's not laughable, but why not just let the market sort it out? I have friends that negotiated four day work weeks or shorter hours. There are employers and employees who are convinced that that's what they both want. What it sounded like you were saying is that we should prevent people by law from working more than a certain amount. We already have a world where people can negotiate how much they want to work. If your point is that many employers are unconvinced, maybe you don't know better than them?

Oh, and as for the canard, "they also constitute labor demand (because they spend the money they make)," they already do that with the money they already have.

And they constitute even more demand with the extra money they have. Next you're going to tell me that it just ends up in some bank, and then I'll explain to you that banks don't store money; the money is loaned out in mortgages and so on.

(By the way, the inverse of this is what happens in a recession: some people lose their jobs, then they can't buy as much stuff and other people lose their jobs and so on. What you're suggesting is kicking that downward spiral off by pushing some people out of jobs. You think that someone with savings and no income spends the same way that someone with savings and an income?)

The idea that people are "selfishly limiting opportunities for people who could really use them" is wrongheaded. Look at it from the employer's perspective. Wouldn't he want to hire the best person for the job? Value is lost when the best worker steps aside.

If we want redistribution, let's achieve it by taxation — not by creating market inefficiencies like hiring inferior workers who happen to be poorer.



And regarding the safety regulations, I'm obviously not arguing against those. I chose stacking shelves as an example because I figured no one could get hurt doing that.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:48 PM on November 30, 2016


I chose stacking shelves as an example because I figured no one could get hurt doing that.

Given how wrong you were about something so easily checkable, perhaps you should weaken some more of your assumptions.
posted by clew at 4:39 PM on November 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


That's not laughable, but why not just let the market sort it out? I have friends that negotiated four day work weeks or shorter hours. There are employers and employees who are convinced that that's what they both want.

"Let the market sort it out" has a rather horrible track record for many situations, especially employer/employee negotiations, which is why child labor laws, overtime regulations, etc. exist. The regulations didn't happen first, the abuses happened first. The regulations were there to stop the abuses.

Do you honestly believe that employers and employees are on equal footing in these negotiations? If an employee overplays their hand, they might be out of a job, or burn bridges by merely asking, which means they might not eat. If an employer overplays their hand, maybe the employee quits eventually (if they have other prospects) but they can in most cases just shift the work to other employees until the position is filled, or they just make a little bit less for a while.
posted by tonycpsu at 4:56 PM on November 30, 2016 [8 favorites]


"Let the market sort it out" has a rather horrible track record for many situations, especially employer/employee negotiations, which is why child labor laws, overtime regulations, etc. exist. The regulations didn't happen first, the abuses happened first. The regulations were there to stop the abuses.

Let's recap: Someone made an argument advocating for a three hour workday. I argued that you cannot impose that for a few reasons. They argued that it would be beneficial for all parties. I argued that if it's beneficial, the market will figure it out. Now you're arguing that the market won't figure it out because somehow the employer always has an advantage — but that advantage should have already been factored in to remuneration.

The market does sort these things out and most of my friends who had room to negotiate didn't negotiate for fewer hours — they negotiated for more money. That's what most people want, and most employers are a lot more amenable to paying more than they are to turning good full time employees into part time employees.

If you're convinced that the market will never figure it out and it needs to be imposed, we're back to where we started and I already explained why I don't think you can impose a fifteen hour work week and anyway it won't work if you try.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:10 PM on November 30, 2016


Look at it from the employer's perspective. Wouldn't he want to hire the best person for the job? Value is lost when the best worker steps aside.

-employers are male
-hiring practices are fair and practical
-poor people are poor workers

Nice.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:29 PM on November 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


You're basically arguing now that jobs are a crapshoot between equally skilled people and there's no reason why one person has one rather than another, and so richer people should step aside for poorer people. Whereas I'm operating on the belief that the market is efficient and if you were hired to do something, it's because you're the best person for the job at that price (that they could find when they were looking, etc.), so you shouldn't step aside because value would be lost.

No one is saying that "poor people are poor workers". And I think you really have to read carefully what I'm saying to understand why I'm not saying that. I'm saying that if someone is a better worker, and the market is efficient, then they would have that job instead of whoever has it. If you accept an efficient market, your step aside philosophy necessitates better workers stepping aside for poorer people.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:41 PM on November 30, 2016


We already have a world where people can negotiate how much they want to work.

No we don't, but your life must be frickin' awesome.
posted by Dysk at 5:54 PM on November 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


Your logic mirrors the Coase Theorem: where there are complete competitive markets with no transactions costs, an efficient set of inputs and outputs to and from production-optimal distribution are selected, regardless of how property rights are divided.

It's one of my favorite bits of economic literature. Not only is it elegant and transformative, it's really accessible and well written, which is bonkers for most economic papers.

But the thing about the Coase Theorem is that it doesn't exist in the wild. Negative externalities are often diffusely spread, which makes it hard for to negotiate with the affected parties. Power dynamics means there are always transaction costs which lead to an inefficient outcome. The brilliance of the theorem isn't by espousing how great the market is. By recognizing how the market is violating the Coase Theorem, you can model sustainable policy with minimal unintended consequences.

Ultimately, markets are a reflection of social preferences. So if social norms are unhealthy, the market will reward that unhealthy behavior. It's a pretty well known market failure. For example, employers can't arbitrage against the gender wage gap. Unless they hide the gender of their workers, consumers will assume the firm isn't as competent as the all male firm with higher labor costs. That's why I keep talking about social norms and shifts in liability rather than regulations. You're the one making the leap from "I'd like society to change" to assume I want to implement regulations.

I don't care that your friend negotiated for more money rather than fewer hours. I care that it has widespread negative consequences that get paid by people who never agreed to that deal. And I touched on why I don't think tax is a good method for change, so if you want to argue for it, you'll have to actually come up with an argument.
posted by politikitty at 6:52 PM on November 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


You're basically arguing now that jobs are a crapshoot between equally skilled people and there's no reason why one person has one rather than another,

I mean, this is mostly true. For every person who's got a job, there are another __________ who can do it just as well.

There usually isn't a good, objective reason for one candidate having a job over a hundred others with equivalent qualifications and experience (or potential to benefit from that experience, in the case of young people. But they're often shut out because of the lack of experience, catch 22).

Social capital, bias, and dumb luck make the determination most of the time. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and even weight come into it. And things like people using resume formatting the screeners dislike... I mean come on, they have to invent reasons to cut qualified people out of the running, because there are just too many good people for the available jobs.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:51 PM on November 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


"esprit de l'escalier and tonycpsu are walking down the street together. tonycpsu says “Hey, look, there’s a $20 bill on the sidewalk!” esprit de l'escalier replies by saying “That’s impossible — if it were really a $20 bill, it would have been picked up by now."
posted by tonycpsu at 8:24 PM on November 30, 2016 [8 favorites]


... same as in town.
posted by clew at 8:57 PM on November 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you accept an efficient market

then you're walking the planet with your eyes screwed firmly shut.
posted by flabdablet at 7:51 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]


"esprit de l'escalier and tonycpsu are walking down the street together. tonycpsu says “Hey, look, there’s a $20 bill on the sidewalk!” esprit de l'escalier replies by saying “That’s impossible — if it were really a $20 bill, it would have been picked up by now."


—except the difference is that no one has seen the $20 bill. It's a figment of politikitty's imagination — a dream of a world where people work 3 hours a day and are happier despite their poverty. Yeah, I'm skeptical that it's just there waiting to be picked up. Good metaphor though.

You're the one making the leap from "I'd like society to change" to assume I want to implement regulations.


Okay, I see what you're saying now. You think that if the social norms would change, people would realize that they were happier working fewer hours. But there are many people who can run this experiment in their own lives. Many people can choose to work part time and cut their expenses and for some of them, that's what they choose. Most people want more hours and more money. The social norms are to some extent the totality of millions of individual choices. People want to work 40 hour weeks so that they can take 40 hours of pay home. A lot of people work 50. A lot of people who are working 20 wish they were working 40. It just seems like your fantasy isn't shared by most people.

I care that it has widespread negative consequences that get paid by people who never agreed to that deal.


The only consequence is that a lot of "full time" jobs offered have a 40 hour a week expectation. Besides you and a handful of people, there's not anyone else protesting for the 15 hour a week "full time position", is there?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 9:07 AM on December 1, 2016


esprit de l'escalier: You think that if the social norms would change, people would realize that they were happier working fewer hours. But there are many people who can run this experiment in their own lives. Many people can choose to work part time and cut their expenses and for some of them, that's what they choose. Most people want more hours and more money. The social norms are to some extent the totality of millions of individual choices.

Social norms are also, to some extent, the judgments we place on ourselves and each other. It's not that I want to work more hours for more money, it's that I don't want my neighbours and romantic partners to look down on me. I would be happier if I worked fewer hours and wasn't condemned for it. That's the part of social norms that I would like to, but cannot by myself, change.
posted by clawsoon at 9:35 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


Social norms are also, to some extent, the judgments we place on ourselves and each other. It's not that I want to work more hours for more money, it's that I don't want my neighbours and romantic partners to look down on me.

Right, and it's good that you explain it like that.

About romantic partners, you can't do anything about that. Some people want a partner who values money, others want a partner who values leisure, etc. Whatever you become, you will end up attracting a different kind of person.

(My friend who negotiated his four day work week so that he could go surfing or skiing every Friday is probably not rich, but had no problems meeting a nice girl and starting a family.)

As for your true friends, they want your happiness — not for you to toil at living the life they think you should live. I think living in fear of the judgment (when that judgment has few real consequences) of others is something that everyone grows out of.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 10:09 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


—except the difference is that no one has seen the $20 bill. It's a figment of politikitty's imagination — a dream of a world where people work 3 hours a day and are happier despite their poverty. Yeah, I'm skeptical that it's just there waiting to be picked up. Good metaphor though.

The metaphor (actually a pretty well-known joke about economists) wasn't about any specific proposal in this thread, but about you are taking as an article of faith that the market for employment is so efficient that it will have already priced in every possible gap between what an employee is worth (which can be expressed in their salary, or how many hours below the 40 hour standard they could work and still demand that same salary.)

If you have anything other than faith to explain this opinion of yours, I haven't seen it. Against that belief, there is much contrary evidence, including rigidity of nominal wages, the gender gap, and the simple fact that unlike a commodities market where the price level can be set by repeated bids and asks in the course of minutes, finding out what you're worth in the job market requires many applications and interviews before you ever get a salary number, and it probably takes several of those (using the high bid from one as leverage at another) before you can be confident you're approaching the fair market value of your labor. This is not an efficient market by any definition.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:26 AM on December 1, 2016 [10 favorites]


esprit de l'escalier: As for your true friends, they want your happiness — not for you to toil at living the life they think you should live. I think living in fear of the judgment (when that judgment has few real consequences) of others is something that everyone grows out of.

There was one group I forgot to add: The judgment of my workmates and managers. Maybe I'd like to work 30 hours a week for 75% of my salary, but if I indicate that I'll be seen as "lazy" and end up with no job, or with a job where I only earn 50% of my former salary. (Modify as appropriate for workplaces where 50 or 60 hours a week is expected.)

The bimodal distribution of lawyers' salaries is an extreme illustration of this. If you're a recent graduate, you can have either a) a ridiculous workload for $160K or b) a reasonable workload for $50-60K. There's little in between. Social norms in the legal profession are particularly skewed, but there are similar norms in many other professions. Either you're willing to work a ridiculous number of hours and are thus worthy of a permanent, well-paid position, or you're lazy and you deserve no job or, at best, precarious and underpaid employment.
posted by clawsoon at 10:29 AM on December 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


I agree that "housing is [an important] treadmill The Man has us on", Heywood Mogroot III, but telecommuting, a declining population, etc. should all help. We want a world with housing prices semi-permanently in decline eventually.

Aside from transport, almost anything expensive most Americans buy regularly is pure rent seeking : Anywhere sane pays for higher education entirely with taxes, some places like France even pay their better students a government salary. There is nothing in healthcare nearly as expensive as the poorly regulated insurance along with its adverse consequences. A mobile phone or internet service runs like 10x as expensive in the U.S. as in Europe due to monopolization.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:46 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's a figment of politikitty's imagination — a dream of a world where people work 3 hours a day and are happier despite their poverty

Of course it's a dream world! I picked 9 hours a week because that's the amount of time George Jetson works for Spacely Sprockets. And he has a flying self driving car and a robot maid.

But it's based on Keynes' theories of what a post-scarcity economy would look like, if productivity continued the curve it began in the 40s. When we decided to go to the moon, we didn't have the technology to go to the moon. To get there, we didn't just science it up. We had to fund research and take millions of small decisive decisions to make it happen.

I'm suggesting that this is also innovation. And that while we won't get there by accident, there is a benefit to trying to get there.

The only consequence is that a lot of "full time" jobs offered have a 40 hour a week expectation. Besides you and a handful of people, there's not anyone else protesting for the 15 hour a week "full time position", is there?

Totally wrong. We know that there are consequences to our social norm. First off, higher wage jobs aren't bound to 40 hour weeks. We have doctors and lawyers and finance types and corporate execs making decisions that affect millions of lives, often when sleep deprived and not capable of making the best decision possible.

But they aren't held responsible. Medical errors are paid by the patient who suffers. Poor business decisions that affect the wider economy are just an acceptable risk to 60-80 hour work weeks by the people at the top. Benign negligence is protected under the law.

I work in a corporate tax department. I'm fortunate that America recognizes how difficult a job it is, and the risks inherent in doing a bad job, so I get a paycheck that is well above the median employee in America. But I have a super common chronic illness that is exacerbated by long hours (18% of Americans in any given year).

Social norms make it very difficult to get accommodation. I'm lucky that I strung up enough experience to convince employers my work product at 35 hours is comparable to most folks at 50-60 (which is a normal work week in a tax department, 80-90 during provision or return time). My manager is incredibly impressed with the work that I'm capable of. But he regularly coaches me that he can't push me for advancement because of a perception problem.

Since employers have imperfect information about employees, they put an inappropriate weight on image. They make the assumption that employees who want to work shorter hours are also workers who don't won't do the work. They make the assumption that marginalized folks don't have the skillset necessary, because they rely on their experience of who has done the job in the past. Even though we stop thinking women or people with disabilities or people of color are not capable of the job, we unconsciously see white attractive male who says they don't mind 60 hour work weeks as the ideal worker because it's a known quantity.

Look, I'm in awe that the market works as well as it does. With so many flawed people and so much imperfect information, I'm impressed it works at all. But it's made of people. And change is hard and risky. For all the First Mover advantage in the market, most of the first movers fail. The second movers see similar savings with a fraction of the cost. So the market sits on innovation longer than you seem to think would happen.
posted by politikitty at 11:54 AM on December 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


The only consequence is that a lot of "full time" jobs offered have a 40 hour a week expectation. Besides you and a handful of people, there's not anyone else protesting for the 15 hour a week "full time position", is there?

Totally wrong.


Nothing you said has anything to do with showing a multitude of people protesting for the 15 hour work week. What you gave were reasons that people in your shoes might protest. Social norms changing might be great for you. It has nothing to do with nearly anyone else. You need to rethink your position from a few other people's viewpoint.

Not everyone has your job or your understanding manager. You think someone waiting tables or standing at a cash register or working at a construction site wants half the hours? There's no way to convince their manager that they are "twice as efficient" if they work half the time. They would straight take a pay cut — and fewer hours is pretty much the opposite of what most people I know who work in service want.

You think schoolteachers can teach half their classes and head home? Where will the students go? You think janitors and shopkeepers and hairdressers and airline pilots and customs officers can just head home in half the time. Who is going to do the other half of the work that isn't getting done? Presumably, you'd have to pay them — I guess with all the money you're saving by paying the original half as much. Which is the definition of making everyone a part time worker.

And if you think that people would make the same amount somehow (an impossibility for most jobs), then consider what that would do to prices. Your service cost just doubled, so how much do restaurants now cost. Your shelf-stacker cost doubled, so how much do stores cost to shop in. Truck drivers are paid double now so how much does everything cost now? The whole plan is dramatically inflationary, which makes it a non-starter. Everyone would be suddenly so poor.

You see how ridiculous your idea is? You're looking at your schedule and fantasizing about how great it would be to have an extra twenty hours of free time. Yeah, no kidding.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 3:56 PM on December 2, 2016


This is quite a turnaround. First it was that people should be free to choose the workweek that works best for them. Now you're second guessing my manager in allowing me to be a productive member of society. How is society better off if I can't contribute to the economy?

Nothing you said has anything to do with showing a multitude of people protesting for the 15 hour work week.

But I've never said there was a multitude of people protesting for the 15 hour work week. I'm saying there's evidence it could be beneficial beyond my own narrow self interest.

1. Fewer medical errors which kills almost a hundred thousand people a year.
2. Lower medical costs, as long work weeks exacerbate many chronic illnesses.
3. Lower indirect medical costs. By taking an active role in creating a healthy environment, management actually smooths out their productivity. Healthier employees are less likely to leave you in a lurch because they suddenly have a health crisis if a company doesn't actively contribute to creating a health crisis.
4. Higher value per work hour - all else being equal, you get diminishing returns on work. Hour 40 is less productive than hour 10. This is true even for people who would categorize themselves as high performers who handle long hours well. This is because people are not good at having an accurate view of their strengths.

We are already seeing some small movement where European firms are seeing success in moving to a shorter workweek. They are seeing it benefit their bottom line. We're seeing them there, as opposed to here in America because they have a lot of institutional factors that make them relatively indifferent between hiring 1 employee for 60 hours or 2 employees for 30 hours each.

If you want to keep arguing, I'm out. I really enjoy trying to figure out how to fix market failures with minimal regulations. But you've shown that you are really unwilling to engage with my argument.
posted by politikitty at 5:04 PM on December 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


[esprit de l'escalier please back off a bit from the "I want to have a fight" and get back to "I want to have a discussion." Also, let's drop the debate tactic of "You think X? You're wrong!" when the other person has never said they "think X." Let's have an interesting, intelligent conversation about this, rather than personal attacks and creating false arguments to knock down, please.]
posted by taz (staff) at 12:04 AM on December 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


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