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.
It's time we talked about working less. While some argue that we shorten the working week, others favor cutting out pointless, time-filler jobs altogether.
Abundant, paid work might be an old-world way of measuring prosperity. After all, many manufacturing jobs are being taken over by bots, leaving those without computer science or relevant degrees in the dust, without work. Chris Twomey, policy director of the non-profit organization Western Australian Council of Social Service, argues we shouldn’t be trying to create more jobs; instead, we should be working less.
Twomey's essay is one part of a series of essays put out by the Green Institute, all working together to create a larger conversation surrounding a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a plan that gives people unconditional, free money regardless of employment. The Green Institute remains agnostic on whether a UBI is what we need in order to fix many of the issues we face, including inequality and a shrinking job market. But they agree it’s a conversation worth having, if only to find a way to create a better, fairer society.
Technology is helping to make a future of less work possible, however, the noise of politics has created a distorted message. Our politicians are going around trying to bring back the jobs, says Twomey. Many in America’s heartland feel like President-elect Donald Trump will help bring the factories back from China. Here’s the problem, China is a scapegoat for the real issue. The factories have been coming back, and the jobs? Not quite as much. Because of the rise of automation, factories have been hiring only a fraction of the workers.
“Computers and automation are creating a world with fewer and fewer paid jobs, and more insecure work,” Twomey writes. “Education and training, supporting innovation, are important in this context. But they will not be sufficient. Working less, sharing jobs, and institutionally supporting people to do so, will be vital.”
The world is changing around us, which requires a shift in how we perceive work. Work is necessary, but do we really need 40 hours of it each week?
Here we arrive at the idea of fewer jobs, more shared work, and more meaningful work. “Technology has the capacity to free us from tedious and mundane work and enable us to pursue more meaningful and productive activities.”
Anthropologist David Graeber says our capitalist society has managed to create “bullshit jobs.” These are areas of industry that have little to no value other than to provide work for people to do – like a symptom of Soviet socialism. Middle managers who file inconsequential reports no-one will read. Unnecessary administrators who orchestrate meetings. Or take telemarketers. If all these were to go away, no one would miss them. This is what Graeber defines as a “bullshit job.”
“It seems to be this idea that work is a value in itself,” Graeber said in an interview.
What we need to realize is there’s also value in leisure from a health and environmental standpoint. Leisure is time to create, invent, educate, care for our family, and more.