A World Already Without Work

Derek Thompson had a piece in The Atlantic about the possibility of robot-fueled declines in employment. The most interesting part of the piece is not speculations regarding whether it will occur, but rather how it would make people feel. Thompson provides a rather pessimistic take on that front:

Hunnicutt’s vision rests on certain assumptions about taxation and redistribution that might not be congenial to many Americans today. But even leaving that aside for the moment, this vision is problematic: it doesn’t resemble the world as it is currently experienced by most jobless people. By and large, the jobless don’t spend their downtime socializing with friends or taking up new hobbies. Instead, they watch TV or sleep. Time-use surveys show that jobless prime-age people dedicate some of the time once spent working to cleaning and childcare. But men in particular devote most of their free time to leisure, the lion’s share of which is spent watching television, browsing the Internet, and sleeping. Retired seniors watch about 50 hours of television a week, according to Nielsen. That means they spend a majority of their lives either sleeping or sitting on the sofa looking at a flatscreen. The unemployed theoretically have the most time to socialize, and yet studies have shown that they feel the most social isolation; it is surprisingly hard to replace the camaraderie of the water cooler.

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

This is a take I see often, not just from Thompson. It suffers from a serious problem though: it’s factually incorrect.

The jobless world is already the majoritarian experience of people who live in the United States. In 2013, 50.4% of the American population was not in the labor force. If you counted those in the labor force, but not currently in a job, the number would be higher still. This jobless bloc consists almost entirely of children, students, retired people, disabled people, caretakers, and jobseekers. If you want to know what it’s like to live in a world without work, just look around. Half the people you see already live it and they are not, by and large, made miserable by it.

Thompson’s analysis ignores the largest populations of the existing jobless, focusing instead on working-age jobseekers and to a lesser degree on retired people. Both of these populations strike me as very ill-fitting comparators for an actually jobless world.

Of course jobseekers who are involuntarily unemployed in a society where most of their friends are employed and employment is the major life activity and source of identity will feel pretty bad. But the conditions of a post-work world would be totally different: your friends wouldn’t all be working during the day, work would not be the primary activity of normal lives, and meaning would not be tied up in a non-existent institution. In a society where everyone participated in professional wrestling, you would probably feel pretty bad and left out if you were one of the few who couldn’t. But it would be a bit hasty to conclude from this that a world without professional wrestling would therefore mean everyone feeling pretty bad and left out.

Using retired people also has similar problems. Retired people are those who had previously gone through the churn of working life and then had it end. With work-based relationships ended, their children raised, diminished physical capacity, and a modest pensioner’s income, they somewhat predictably find themselves living relatively sedentary and uneventful lives. But it’s doubtful that is a great forecast for how, say, young families raising children would behave in a world where they have never known a life where job-having was a terribly common thing.

A better comparator for jobless living would not be the aged or the involuntarily unemployed, but rather young adults that don’t currently have jobs. Such people can be found in great abundance on the college campuses of our country. College students are at an age where, in prior points of history, they definitely would have been working. They also have not yet lived the working life yet, unlike the retired, and therefore have not placed their meaning and entire social life in the working sphere. Despite not working and even having somewhat modest resources, it seems to me that this population tends to have very vibrant and active social lives. Not all do, underscoring the fact that a post-work world won’t be perfect, but by and large, they seem fine. At minimum, we don’t seem to think it is a great social crisis that so many 19-23 year olds are going without the dignity of labor.

Any theorizing about what a post-work world might be like is obviously very speculative at this point. But in carrying out such theorizing, it’s helpful to not proceed on the assumption that it is a super alien phenomenon. Children used to work, but now they don’t. College-aged adults used to work, but a lot of them now don’t. Few ever retired before, but now we have a significant retired population. Part of the process of becoming a rich society seems to be that significant chunks of the population are liberated from working, at least during long periods of their life. Even those not liberated often see partial liberation in the form of reduced work hours. Pushing the jobless from 50% of society to 70% or even 95% would be a change in degree, but not type.