What Now, After Work (Part I)?
What Else Is There?
Just in the past week, I’ve done three Zoom sessions on the current state and near future of work, with two sets of academics and an editor from Popular Science. So I’ve decided to update the talk I gave in various places between 2017 and 2019 (Bucknell U, U of Chicago, UC-Santa Barbara, UI-Chicago, Finlandia U). It’s not an academic lecture. And I recount my own work history as a way of addressing Hannah Arendt’s problem with mere laboring. Here’s Part I, two more to follow.
Now what, after work? I’m going to make this question personal and uncomfortable—for me, not for you—because I’ve retired but I can’t stop working (I can’t afford it yet). Not only that. I’ve been working for a wage my whole life, since I was 12 years old. That’s probably why I wrote a book called Fuck Work. I had to retitle it because Amazon wouldn’t list it if the f-word was the first word. At least that’s what the publisher told me.
I’m sick of working for the wrong reasons. By now we all ought to be, because the job market is broken and can’t be fixed. I’m pretty sure it started expiring along with all others in the slow-motion collapse that began with the crash of October 1987 and ended with the catastrophe of 2008. Either that, or the job market has been perfected by forcing the value of labor time toward zero. I’ll come back to this choice of endgame in concluding, where I offer some conjectures on what we’re calling the “Great Resignation”—you know, the startling abstention from the job market that has economists and policy-makers completely perplexed.
We have long expected the market in labor, this job market, to build character (self-discipline, honesty, initiative, etc.) and to allocate incomes in a way that seemed justifiable—or at least explicable. Those expectations go together, of course, but they have, at long last, become worse than bad dreams because we can’t seem to wake ourselves from their attendant delusions. To act upon these dreams and delusions is to evade the real world, not to change it.
Let me illustrate briefly. You’ve heard it all before. 25 percent of working adults in the country are at or below the poverty line. 40 to 50 percent of them are eligible for food stamps. The official unemployment rate is below 5%—we’re at what used to be known as full employment—but the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero, and income inequality, the economic plague of our time, hasn’t changed a bit (it’s only worsened). According to Oxford and MIT economists, about 50% of job classifications that now exist will die of computerization by 2025, including many “non-routine cognitive tasks,” like the thinking you do as you drive to work or report a story or sell a pair of shoes or walk a beat. Or just deal with a situation not already installed in the hard drive. I, for one, am sure that a computer could write a better, more comprehensive bibliographic essay than I ever did in grad school.
There’s more—or less, depending on your point of view. Labor force participation rates by adult males are stagnant or falling. Life expectancy among white males in the South is declining as they lose the narrative of their lives, according to Angus Beaton—and they’re losing that narrative because they can’t organize their lives by their time on the job. Because there aren’t enough good jobs to get them out of bed and off oxycontin. Or maybe they’re selling the stuff, knowing that it’s the best-paying job in the county. I am not condescending to these people. I was addicted to the stuff myself, and the withdrawal wasn’t easy.
In sum: having a job, if you can find one, is not going to teach you anything about character precisely because there is no longer any legible or justifiable relation between effort and reward, between work and income. Not when the gangsters on Wall Street destroy Main Street’s assets, launder drug cartel money, peddle bad paper downstream, prey or foreclose on gullible borrowers—and still collect their obscene bonuses. In 2012, a TV interviewer asked me, “Aren’t those guys on Wall Street the best and the brightest, your A students?” I though for a few seconds and said, “We’re supposed to reward them for wrecking the world economy? No, they fail this course.” I would now add: Let them eat cake.
Why then is everybody from Left to Right, from Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Edsall to Tyler Cowen, Greg Mankiew, and Niall Ferguson—you can now add the cretinous, traitorous Republicans in Congress like Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert—why are they all in favor of “full employment” and thus restoring a legible relation between effort and reward, work and income? By different means, of course, private or public investment, but still. What makes them think that shitty jobs for everyone solves any social problem?
In answer, let me get all historical if not medieval on your ass, just for a minute. Perhaps we’re all prisoners of the Protestant Ethic. But if we are, we’re all of us, Left to Right, equally the captives of the Marxist tradition, which insists that human nature resides in our capacity to produce value and transform environments through work. It’s probably time for us to reevaluate this unconscious affiliation, especially if, like any good Republican, you’re worried about the leftward drift of public policy.
Or, you could say that the disintegration of the job market is nothing new, for two good reasons. On the one hand, the expulsion of live workers—living labor, as Marx would put it—from ”good-paying” jobs in manufacturing has been happening since the 1920s, without competition from lower-paid Chinese or Mexican labor forces. Sure, deindustrialization accelerated in the 1970s, and the outsourcing of jobs since then under the hammers of “globalization” has become a familiar phenomenon. But the extrication of human labor from goods production got measurable a hundred years ago, and so did the income effects. That decade of the 1920s was the chronicle of a death foretold.
For example. The net loss of jobs in goods production was roughly 2 million in the 1920s. Industrial output increased 60%, labor productivity by 40%. Net private investment meanwhile atrophied, so that the capital stock per worker was less in 1939 than in 1919—and less in 1955 than in 1939. Labor-saving machinery was amplified by capital-saving innovation. So profits doubled, but became pointless, so pointless that industrial corporations awash in them started lending money in the call loan market that inflated the stock market bubble. To the tune of 8.7 billion dollars. Meanwhile they opened time saving accounts at the banks, to the tune of 6.6 billion dollars, which of course went directly into the stock market, and inflated that growing bubble. When the industrial corporations yanked their call loans, the shit hit the fan. Oh, and by the way, by the end of the Roaring Twenties, 93% of the population had less disposable income than they had in 1922.
On the other hand, the job market has never been a free market, especially not in these United States of America. Here that market has always been overdetermined by systematic discrimination against people of color and against females. Do I need to recite that genealogy, from slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow to the labor unions, on toward the employment office? Do I need to remind anyone of the resolute exclusion of women from the paid labor market on extra-legal but awfully effective grounds?
Still, I think something new is happening, and it’s worth our attention. That something is a new intellectual and political urgency about (1) putting people back to work even as jobs disappear—not because of outsourcing and defective trade policy, as both the ex-president and the current resident of the White House would have it, but as a result of technological innovation; (2) about paying them a living wage; and (3) about getting something for nothing by means of a Universal Basic income (UBI). From Left to Right in the mainstream, “full employment” is the slogan. Meanwhile, activists east to west have drained all the idiocy from former discussions of a higher minimum wage—OMG, it will cause inflation! And a universal basic income is now a practical question, but not just in Finland.
What the urgent moral purpose of “full employment” and a $15 minimum wage miss is the most basic, salient fact of our time, which is the complete breakdown of the labor market. This is new. Republicans won’t let Democrats spend enough public money to fix it because they want the private sector “job creators” to solve the problem, but CEOs have so much profit in their coffers that they couldn’t invest enough of it. And besides, bottom line, corporate investment doesn’t create jobs except at the margins of the labor market. You can look it up in my last two books. Or you can consult the numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Commerce.
So, that UBI component becomes the substance of any rational debate about the future of work. There is no legible, justifiable relation between work and income, effort and reward, as these are pieced together by the labor market. We know this because 20% of all household income in the US is now composed of transfer payments from government—something for nothing. We know this because Wall Street bonuses rise no matter how much wealth the traders and the brokers and the analysts destroyed in binging on bad paper and subprime mortgages—something for nothing. We know this because we pay farmers not to grow crops.
The future of work looks bleak, because the job market has broken down. That much is clear. But the future of thinking about how we could become our brother’s keeper looks better, as we realize that the relation between work and income is something that is now subject to discussion—precisely because the job market has broken down, and precisely because we know how, practically speaking, to detach income from work. Yes, we’ve reached an economic crisis, stumbled into a moral cul de sac, maybe even encountered a spiritual impasse. How to get something for nothing and justify it without invoking luck, fate, or fortune—or better genes, better education, better habits? Our answers are already superior to Wall Street’s. They need to be.
But speaking of work history, or the history of work.
I used to win money in bars with roughnecks, shitheads, and friends by saying, “Bet I’ve had more jobs than you have.” The Lucca Grill in Bloomington, next door to Illinois State University, is where I first perfected this gambit, back in 1983, when I was a visiting professor there. Otis the guy from the Oklahoma oil fields—he taught me to drink beer on ice to avoid dehydration—was my first victim. Chuck the bartender (son-in-law of the owner) was the second. Vinnie the grounds crew chief was the third. I had tried out this bet in a 4:00 o’clock bar on North Halsted, in Chicago, and in another place on Southport, where I bartended. I took it on the road in 1983.
You look at me and you think, he’s the good cop: short hair, unblinking eyes, an impassive and yet interrogative attitude. Quiet, but friendly. You think maybe this guy is waiting for you to divulge something because he just sits there, nods his head, sometimes he smiles and says “Uh huh.” In bars, anyway, this first impression leads to great stories. Then, when people learn that I’m actually a mild-mannered professor, they laugh and loosen up, they tell me even more of their life stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hustler, but that’s when I make the bet—when I can tell from those stories that the jobs are the chapter titles in the stories of their lives.
The bet goes like this. You make a list of the jobs you’ve had, and I’ll do the same. Bet my list exceeds yours, and we’ll discount for age if you insist. If I win—I’ve never lost—you pay me 20 bucks and buy me a drink. If I lose, I pay you 40 bucks and buy you a drink.
Here we go. These are only the jobs I got paid for.