Why don’t we strive for more free time? Free time is great. You can watch the latest bleak Nordic crime thriller on Walter Presents or you can head to your local bookshop/café/art gallery for a gingerbread latte, a look at a 21st century take on surrealist painting and a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or head to a pub for what I assume is everyone’s favourite past time: a pint of locally brewed craft beer and a pulled pork sandwich made with sourdough bread. Why wouldn’t you strive for life to be like this all the time?
Most people don’t strive for more free time to do these things. We strike for more money. Money helps you do these things and having more of it means you can do them more often, so we work harder and try to get promoted so that we have more money and can do more of the things we like. This ignores the fact that more work means less time for the things we like. That doesn’t matter. More money, not more free time, is the route to happiness.
How we get our money is fundamental to how we construct our identity. When someone asks me: “what do you do?” I don’t say: “I lie away at night worrying about the future of an internationalist left-wing movement in an age of increasing nationalism”. I say that I work in marketing, but both are true.
Our jobs, or where we get our money from, define us. We spend more waking time with our colleagues than with our loved ones. Many people spend more time at work than with their children. Much has been made of the social and personal value of work and that it provides dignity. There are certainly powerful political implications of people losing their jobs. The economic impact on places where there is less work is also self-evident. Work is important.
The nature of work in the West has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Manufacturing industries have declined and have been replaced by call centres and warehouses that pay less. Many industries have moved production overseas where costs are lower. Stripping away workers’ rights and crushing the power of trade unions (coupled with inflation) has put downward pressure on wages. It has also meant that the jobs that are available are less secure.
Automation is partly responsible for this. Jobs that used to be done by hand can now be done more efficiently by machines. The machines are also getting smarter, which means that they can do more jobs. Automation has taken the jobs of those making cars or staffing checkouts, but it is entirely possible that before long automation can be taking the jobs of translators or accountants. How long before it takes the jobs of doctors or copywriters? (okay, that last one is just my anxiety).
Last year the Bank of England said that as many as 15 million British jobs could be lost to machines. The growth in online shopping has already caused the loss of 62,000 job losses in the retail sector. The situation calls for radical thinking now - and not when all the jobs are gone, the tax base has collapsed and a few corporations who make the machines have all the money.
If automation continues at the predicted rate it will fundamentally change our society, because it will break the link between work and reward that has dominated the West since the industrial revolution. In the future, there will be no reward for work as there won’t be any work. All the reward will go to a few rentiers (please note that rentiers are different to renters as the former makes money off the later, usually without doing much).
There are policy proposals that could tackle this looming crisis. There is basic income, which should be explored vigorously. At the recent Labour conference, Jeremy Corbyn made it clear that Labour will be devising policy to tackle the problems of jobs lost to automation. It is certainly encouraging to see radical thinking on this issue from a party that could be in power soon. However, even a policy as radical as basic income does not go far enough in tackling the challenge of a fully automated world.
If money is the only thing we value and work is the only way most can attain money (this is a good 18-word summary of human civilian, apart from Bhutan, maybe, where they really like happiness) then when there is no work no one will create anything of value. There will be a lot of free time, but we don’t value free time. We value work. Basic income removes the need for work, which will be useful if there is no work, but it doesn’t tackle the fact everything of value comes from work. It doesn’t solve the problem of how do you have dignify in a world without work?
To tackle this, we need to get dignity from sources other than work. We need to find value in all the things we do when we’re not working. We need to find a way to explain the value of free time or creativity as self-evidently as the value of money. We need a system that rewards people (not necessarily financially) for painting or writing or playing with their children or going to a café or drinking pint of salted caramel stout.
The changes our society faces as machines do more and more of the work are beyond our ability to understand them if the only lense through which we can see the world is one of jobs, work and wages. Tony Judt wrote in his book Ill Fairs The Land about the need to think about cost and benefit of actions or policies not just in money terms but in social, moral and artistic terms. This is broad outline of the challenge we need to confront.
A simple wage economy and profit motive won't explain the world of the future. We need to think about other things we value. We need change how we think about jobs and money. Then maybe we can get to a place where we strive for more free time and not more money.
Robot arm image from Pixabay