Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Are We Working So Much?

It's the 21st century – why are we working so much? (Guardian):
If there's one thing practically all futurologists once agreed on, it's that in the 21st century there would be a lot less work. What would they have thought, if they had known that in 2012, the 9-5 working day had in the UK become something more like 7am to 7pm? They would surely have looked around and seen technology take over in many professions which previously needed heavy manpower, they would have looked at the increase in automation and mass production, and wondered – why are they spending 12 hours a day on menial tasks?

It's a question which isn't adequately answered either by the right or by the official left. Conservatives have always loved to pontificate about the moral virtue of hard work and much of the left, focusing on the terrible effects of mass unemployment, understandably gives "more jobs" as its main solution to the crisis. Previous generations would have found this hopelessly disappointing.

In almost all cases, utopians, socialists and other futurologists believed that work would come near to being abolished for one reason above all – we could let the machines do it...Surveys have long shown that most workers think their jobs are pointless, and looking at the heavily contested vacancies at the average jobcentre – call centre staff, filing clerks and above all the various tasks of the service industry – it's hard to disagree.

Yet the utopian vision of the elimination of industrial labour has in many ways come to pass. Over the past decade Sheffield steelworks produced more steel than ever before, with a tiny fraction of their former workforce; and the container ports of Avonmouth, Tilbury, Teesport and Southampton got rid of most of the dockers, but not the tonnage.

The result was not that dockers or steelworkers were free to, as Marx once put it, "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner". Instead, they were subjected to shame, poverty, and the endless worry over finding another job, which, if it arrived, might be insecure, poorly paid, un-unionised work in the service industry.
Some good comments:

Utopian is the word and a wonderful world it could be with the incredible advances in technology that have occurred over the last century. Unfortunately, self preservation and advancement is a primitive and very powerful force inherent in the soul and no doubt DNA of all mankind and those who have reached the very top of the capitalist tower; the plutocratic puppet masters of western democracy; the promulgators and perpetuators of the system that we all live under can only see profit from technological advancement. They cannot even begin to comprehend a world where the majority receive decent living wages, live in nice houses and have access to good healthcare and education and food...for working less hours. Technological advancement = bigger profits and less wages to pay. It also enables them to kill people all over the world more efficiently and subjugate any troublesome entities present in the populations of their own countries. I don't think Mr Wilde would have been impressed at all.
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Pre-agrarian pre-conquest people worked and work, on average, 17 hours a week. Moreover they would find the distinction we make between work and leisure absolutely ridiculous.

The reason why humanity is enslaved by the insane need to get somewhere go far back, but a good starting point is very obviously, as the second comment in this thread suggests, because an iniquitous system, and those who benefit from it, demands the systematic impoverishment of the mass of humanity.
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One reason we work so hard is to be competitive with 7 billion other people. There used to be only 2 billion in the 1930s! They all want our jobs!
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Back in the 80s, in the early days of the IT revolution, futurologists blithely told us that we were heading into a 'leisure society' in which all of us would have to work less arduous hours because computers and robots would be doing much of the work.

What we have got in fact is a society in which most of the population still works long hours for less pay, and the unlucky ones live a life of enforced impoverished idleness.

And this absurd system will stay that way for the time being because that's how the 1% like it.

Until, that is, they realise that robots can't consume the things that they create, and that driving down wages by the cynical use of macro-economic policies designed to create mass unemployment and poverty, actually reduces demand and threatens to send the economy into a death spiral.

Marx got a lot of things wrong, but if he was alive today he'd call it one of the contradictions of global capitalism, and he'd be right.
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Strongly agree Owen, well said.

But a few days ago on another thread I suggested a modest maximum hours cap on full time workers and was met with howls of indignation from those who want to be able to work as long as they like so as to make as much money as they possibly can.

The problem is not our obsession with work. It's our obsession with money.
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Science and engineering have brought great benefits but they have always tended to overstate the rate of progress.

I can remember two predictions in particular from the 50s. By 2000, we were told, we would all have flying cars and nuclear-produced electricity would be too cheap to bother metering.

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