Is Working Less the Solution to Being "Workless"?

Louise Tarrant argues less work is not weakness, but a sign of prosperity and a necessity to the coming automation.


Louise Tarrant, a union representative of United Voice members, wants us to work less so we can create work for those who don't have it. However, she believes we need to create a new social contract to help us see the value of less work.

Her paper outlines several pivotal points in history where citizens demanded better, like an 8-hour work day and a 5-day work week. But in our modern society, people still toil for 40 hours or more a week with no guaranteed boost in their quality of life. As Godfrey Moase, the Assistant General Branch Secretary at the National Union of Workers in Melbourne, Australia, said in his own essay for the Green Institute series, “We live within a broken system where there is no necessary connection between hard work and wealth.”

Many believe Universal Basic Income could be a great tool for talking about how we solve many of those inequality issues. However, Tarrant is somewhat ambivalent in how Universal Basic Income will play a role in the future of our society. She’s sees it more as a means by which to create less work for more people. Her main argument for less work has been the point of many: the rise of automation.

Jobs automation has so far moved in two waves since the 19th century: replacing the unpleasant and dangerous, replacing the dull, and soon we'll have AI capable of replacing employees who make decisions. Jobs are set to slide as our technology advances. 

"Compare 1990 when the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees to 2014 when the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees," writes Tarrant. "That’s thirty times the value and one tenth the workforce!"

In America, the loss of jobs has hit the heartland the most. Many believe it is a significant factor in Trump’s electoral victory. Would those people be content with working fewer hours, sustained by a base UBI?

Here are a few of Tarrant's proposals to curtail hours:

  • Cap maximum hours—although this would disproportionally impact male workers as they currently work longer hours;

  • Have a more flexible approach to shorter hours—but this is more likely to increase wage inequality as it likely favours highly skilled and senior positions;

  • Cut the number of working days in a week. Utah recently trialled a four-day week for government workers and, although the trial has since ended, it was liked by the workers and had appreciable and varied impacts from lowering the carbon footprint and reducing commute times to improving health outcomes for the workers involved; or

  • Cut the hours worked per day. Sweden is trialling six-hour shifts in a few places. Early indications are that, like the Canadian Mincome trial of the 1970s, improved health and reduced use of medical services is a noted feature of the trial to date. 

    Find a balancing act between those in society who feel chronically overworked and those who are under- or unemployed seems noble and essential. Tarrant's preference for dividing the remaining labor opportunities rather than phasing out the human work force altogether is rooted in the idea that people want to work. Receiving a cash stipend may not result in mass idleness, as many fear, but may only have an "incredibly modest effect".

    Influential British economist John Maynard Keynes viewed reductions in paid working hours optimistically, interpreting such a trend as a sign of great societal advancement. "He projected that the standard of living of the western world would multiply at least four times between 1930 and 2030, by which time people would be working just 15 hours a week," writes Tarrant.

       

     

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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.