Work, social class, and peak jobs
Reader “JayMan” pointed out to me an article at TechCrunch about peak jobs, meaning that technology is replacing jobs faster than it’s creating them, and this is a trend that’s not going to reverse. And even though, in theory, this should be a great thing for mankind that we can now live our lives without being burdened by the drudgery of work, because we are wedded to the idea that able-bodied people should have to work in order to deserve the bounty of our highly productive technological society, we are unable to deal with declining jobs in a fair and equitable manner.
This article is significant not because it says anything I haven’t already written about before, but because it indicates that the idea is starting to float around the internet.
And another topic I want to cover again is the social class implications of work. Here’s an analogy. Back when a suntan indicated you were a manual laborer, probably in agriculture, it was low class to have a suntan. But after industrialization moved jobs indoors to factories, and after the invention of air travel, a suntan came to mean the opposite, that you were rich enough to afford plane travel to a sunny vacation spot, and suntans became desirable again. Regarding suntans, I suspect we are moving in the opposite direction now. Tanning salons have led to the Jersey Shorification of suntans, and now bobos prefer more intellectually edifying travel than lying on the beach while absorbing skin-cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, so suntans are becoming low class again.
Similarly, having to work used to mean you were low class because if you didn’t work you would die. People aspired to a life of leisure and not working. In the 1930s, we passed labor legislation that strongly encouraged a forty-hour workweek. Someone in the 1930s might have predicted that eighty years in the future people would work even less and there would be a thirty-hour workweek or even a twenty-hour workweek. Such a person would have been completely wrong. There have been no legal changes to the number of recommended hours in a workweek. And we see the strange phenomenon that the forty-hour workweek is a protection for only blue collar workers. More prestigious white collar workers, “exempt” from the wage and hour laws, get to work more than forty hours per week.
There has also been a large increase in labor force participation since the 1930s, in which mothers are now expected to go to work rather than stay at home and devote themselves to keeping house. Labor saving household appliance such as vacuums and clothes washers have freed women to work outside of the home rather than freeing them of the burden of working.
The creation of welfare and a “safety net” have significantly contributed to this change. As I wrote above, poor people had to work or starve to death. But today, public benefits ensure that no one starves to death even if they don’t work. In this new social milieu, working has become a desired privilege for the rich rather than a burden for the poor.
Because the elites now see work as desirable and self-actualizing rather than a burden, and it’s the elites who control the direction of society, they are not going move society in the direction of moving away from the idea of work.