Back to Work

While technological change has been destroying categories of jobs and reshaping the world’s work force for centuries, lately the process is accelerating.

In the past, some new category of jobs has always emerged to largely absorb the workers displaced as some other category was mechanized/industrialized. So mechanization and industrialization of farms drove workers to factory jobs (and factory work increased as the former farmers now had more cash to spend on factory-made stuff). Then, as the factory jobs vanished (when factory owners relocated to places with cheaper available labor) the workforce transitioned into so-called “service” industry jobs.  But now that those jobs are also being outsourced/mechanized, the obvious question is what will replace them?

This post and related podcast at NPR provide some food for thought.  Are we moving toward a time when, thanks to robots and devices, there simply isn’t enough paying work to go around?  And if we continue to eliminate the need for workers, aren’t we thereby erasing the means by which we make those workers into the consumers necessary to make the economic machine function?

The concept of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI) has been generating a lot of discussion lately.  The idea is that every person would be guaranteed enough income to meet their basic needs, thus eliminating the necessity of employment for those unable to find work or those satisfied with a life at that income level. Proponents argue that there won’t be enough income-producing work to go around in the future and that the GMI would eliminate the necessity of working out of fear–presumably freeing people to pursue more meaningful work (or, I suppose, to spend all their time watching television). In theory, because most people would not be content to live on $12,000/year, they would still pursue and compete for jobs that would that would provide the money for more luxurious lifestyles.  The concept is predicated upon the elimination of our current $1 trillion annual “safety net” spending, which is why some on the right have been receptive to it.  But however interesting the proposal may sound, it’s not likely to get much traction. The economic feasibility of it is questionable.  And even as we slide ever deeper into a culture of dependency, by and large we still accept the idea that we should have to earn our keep.  It is interesting however to reflect on what a world might look like if people could choose their work with their basic needs (food and shelter) already met.

Whatever direction we may take, if we are headed to a future where waiters and check-out attendants go the way of elevator operators and gas station attendants, we may have millions of people with a lot of time on their hands.

I wonder if we might see the tide turn again in favor of agriculture.  Maybe we’ll end back where we started. Back to the garden.

All of which brings to mind a letter to the editor Wendell Berry wrote in response to an article advocating a shorter work week.  It is full of wisdom and among my favorite things he has written:

The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.

Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.

It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.

I don’t think anybody can honorably object to the proposition, in theory, that it is better “to reduce hours rather than lay off workers.” But this raises the likelihood of reduced income and therefore of less “life.” As a remedy for this, Mr. de Graaf can offer only “unemployment benefits,” one of the industrial economy’s more fragile “safety nets.”

And what are people going to do with the “more life” that is understood to be the result of “less work”? Mr. de Graaf says that they “will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less.” This happy vision descends from the proposition, popular not so long ago, that in the spare time gained by the purchase of “labor-saving devices,” people would patronize libraries, museums, and symphony orchestras.

But what if the liberated workers drive more?

What if they recreate themselves with off-road vehicles, fast motorboats, fast food, computer games, television, electronic “communication,” and the various genres of pornography?

Well, that’ll be “life,” supposedly, and anything beats work.

Mr. de Graaf makes the further doubtful assumption that work is a static quantity, dependably available, and divisible into dependably sufficient portions. This supposes that one of the purposes of the industrial economy is to provide employment to workers. On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.

So there could be fewer working hours to divide, more workers among whom to divide them, and fewer unemployment benefits to take up the slack.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.

We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky


21 comments on “Back to Work

  1. Jeff says:

    “On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.”

    Wendell Berry has a better understanding of the essential principles of capitalism than the entire lot of “liberal”, “conservative” and “progressive” pundits who spout their platitudes every day will ever have. It’s too bad that so few people read him. If you don’t want to tackle Marx’s Capital, read Berry – the two men are on the same wavelength.

    We aren’t going to solve anything until the cause of our predicament, capitalism, is addressed. But I hold out little hope that that will ever happen, because capitalism is a secular religion in this country. To speak badly of capitalism is to commit blasphemy.


    • Bill says:

      One of Mr. Berry’s best books is a collection of essays titled “What Are People For?” He’s been talking about how our economic system aims to replace humans with machines for a long time.

      He has labored in obscurity for a long time, but I’m encouraged to see him becoming more widely known and widely read. I think people are starting to see the truth of what he’s been saying all these years.

      I’d say that his critique is more generally aimed at industrialism, rather than more narrowly at capitalism. I read him to be an agrarian, championing (among other things) individual and community self-reliance.


      • Jeff says:

        Capitalism underlies industrialism. Industrialism is not possible in a non-capitalist economy. Marx wrote a lot about the base and the superstructure, for a very good reason. Capitalism is the base; industrialism is the super-structure.


  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, I believe too much idle time will not benefit society. Self motivation has not improved with more time on the hands of the unemployed in our country. I have known people that were vibrant and productive before retirement that become couch potatoes and in a couple years are dead. I believe we were designed to work hard and go to sleep tired. Cubical culture has raised the stress level and lowered the physical exercise level. We talk a lot about food on this blog so I don’t need to express any thoughts about that. I happen to have found a career that fit my skills and talents that I really liked for 41 years. Each day I couldn’t wait to get to work to see what the challenges would be. So was I really working? The only reason I retired was because of being drawn to another challenge that was more satisfying. That was short term mission trips to help with disaster rebuilding. Those days are over and now the draw is to vacant lot gardening. All these areas fit my skill set and God given talents. Being on the handle end of a garden spade or hoe will indeed put me to sleep tired at the end of the day. In my humble opinion, responsibilities seem to have enriched my life more than idle time.

    Have a great back to work day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Excellent Dave. What you describe is a calling. I think Wendell Berry nails it in his letter–there is some fulfilling excellent meaningful work for all of us. Work is not something we should dread or avoid. If we dread or avoid work the problem is the work we dread, not work itself. The cure is better work.

      We’ve moved to a cultural model that defines work as a necessary evil, something to be avoided if possible and terminated as quickly as possible. We have demeaned and degraded work, rather than seeing it as an opportunity for fulfillment. Your story is a great illustration of what work should be.


  3. I think there are going to have to be dramatic changes. What they are and how we get there is the question. The rebalancing of who gets what, meaningful work, decent pay, adequate and affordable health care and education, and international approach to international problems, with lots of etc including a healthy food supply– all need to be resolved. Curt


    • Bill says:

      Absolutely. There is no shortage of good work to be done.
      By the way, I thought of you today. We had visitors on the farm today–two Tanzanian farmers and an American former-Peace Corps volunteer who was serving as their guide. A lot of great work has been done in the years since those first few classes started blazing trails.


  4. daphnegould says:

    Another argument against a shorter work week is that France instituted a 35 hour work week (down from 39) to try to reduce unemployment. It didn’t work. Companies didn’t hire more people. Though admittedly part of that is because it is so hard to lay off anyone in France that companies are reluctant to hire anyone.

    I keep hoping that one of the Scandinavian countries would vote in a GMI. Without having it happen somewhere, we won’t really know the result.


    • Bill says:

      Something like a GMI is probably inevitable if we are destined to have ever growing numbers of unemployed. But the devil is in the details. As I recall one of the things that would go away if a GMI existed is in the minimum wage. That might have the effect of increasing employment, or not (as in the French example).


  5. shoreacres says:

    Nothing reminds me just how far outside the norm I live than a post like this. I love working, and I love the freedom of running my own business. I enjoy the flexibility I have, and can’t imagine retiring.

    Of course, I did reduce my standard of living considerably in order to gain freedom and flexibility, and sometimes I wish I could do things I can’t afford. But I’ve also noticed that I don’t gripe, whine, or complain quite as much as certain of my friends. I’m never bored, though I’m often tired, and I have the dual satisfaction of seeing my jobs well done and being appreciated by my customers.

    It is true that I have a “cushion” now, which might be an analog to a guaranteed minimum income: social security. At 68, I’m slowing down a little, and don’t want to put in the 60-70 hour weeks that were standard when I was starting the business. And, of course, I’ve raised my prices over the years. That helps, too. But I never raised them until I felt the service I was offering was more valuable.


    • Bill says:

      I don’t recall the percentages, but polls show a sizeable majority of people dislike their jobs (hate wouldn’t be too strong a word) and would quit them immediately if they could. Your story (like Dave’s) is a great example of what Wendell Berry means, I think. If there is a problem, it is not with work, but with bad work. Bad, meaningless, unsatisfying work is work that should be dreaded, avoided, etc. But that is not true of all work, despite culture telling us that we should minimize work to maximize “life.” What will become of us when we have finally achieved the technological goal of replacing all human work with machines? Those of us who enjoy work will always have work to do, of course. But what to do with the millions of people, now liberated from work, who have bought into the claim that work is inherently bad–something to be avoided or minimized? We’re going to have to wrestle with these questions over the next few decades.


  6. ain't for city gals says:

    I’m not going to get on my soapbox…all I know is everything I have and the life I can now live was done by hard work….though I enjoyed most of it. I think a lot of it came from my parents just making enough and if I wanted anything I had to work for it… a lesson that is not learned so much nowadays. The best lesson we can teach little ones is to work….I take care of two little ones 3 days a week….I often say to them let’s go do some work…sometimes it is sweeping the patio….sometimes it is just going for a walk…but they are going to know the meaning of work. Hopefully the joy of it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      We have a strong work ethic in my family too. I worked on the farm from as soon as I was old enough to carry a tobacco leaf, and it was long hard hot work. We were expected to buy all of our own school clothes and books from the time I was 8 or 9 years old. When I got old enough to have a drivers license I took a job in town too. It’s always been that way. It makes me smile when I hear people complain about their 9 to 5 job. I’ve never worked a mere 8 hours a day in my life.


  7. EllaDee says:

    We need to value work, all work whether it be interesting, glamorous, boring, monotonous, well paid, barely paid, unpaid, done by ourselves or someone else. I worked for years unpaid for my Dad doing menial work… why would he pay someone else when he had a daughter who he housed, fed & clothed anyway! and I don’t mean that badly. I’d always helped in the house, why not outside and how to work is a lesson that’s stuck.
    While we can blame others somewhat we also have earlier generations who worked very hard often too hard and ourselves who may have tried to make it ‘easier’ for future generations with the best of intentions for them to work less or better.
    I don’t have kids but the best thing I ever did for my sisters was getting them both jobs. One sister has gone from that first very basic job to make a rewarding career. For the other it gave her experience of a different place and life, from which she made her own better informed choices.
    Work isn’t about just the task, income & status. The most boring job can be enjoyable done with the right attitude & people. The most highly paid & coveted, stressful and meaningless.
    Not having to work was once aspirational. Now, for many, getting a job is aspirational.


    • nebraskadave says:

      You and Bill’s comments touched on a trend in the work force. The attitude that work is a bad thing and needs to be avoided is rampant these days. Attitude about work is the key factor in whether a job is good or bad in my opinion. During my career days, I witnessed co workers spending more time trying to convince the boss that it’s not under their job description or that some one else is more qualified to do the task than it would take to just do the task. I never understood that logic.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      I’m a strong believer in doing good work. It’s part of me to the core. I hope I have good work to do my entire life. A life of good work is something to aspire to, not a life of no work.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Joanna says:

    Whilst I heartily agree with much of what has been said here, there is a slight problem for the future regarding work in quite a few countries. Many times we hear that the population is increasing and so assume there will be plenty of people to work. But there are fewer and fewer young people being born, certainly in Europe and that is why the population is expected to plateau eventually. Most of Europe though is well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple, although I don’t think the US is. Improved health care means people are living longer too, so will have to just carry on working as there won’t be enough young people to support them. Now there’s a thought!


    • Bill says:

      Excellent point. There are some demographic shifts underway that will dictate the future in powerful ways. Years ago I read a book by Pat Buchanan titled The Death of the West which was an interesting analysis of the situation. If I recall correctly the U.S. is right at zero population growth (thanks primarily to immigration). But Europe and Japan are facing a declining population and shrinking labor force. That’s an interesting fact to put into the mix.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] the letter to the editor below, Wendell discusses work: the difference between good work and bad and the traditional idea of […]


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