Posted by News Express | 19 February 2018 | 1,900 times
Increased automation has not reduced our workload: Why not, and what, if it did?
In 1930, the British Economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that by the end of the century, the average work-week would be about 15 hours. Automation had already begun to replace many jobs by the early 20th century, and Keynes predicted that the trend would accelerate to the point where all that people need for a satisfying life could be produced with a minimum of human labour, whether physical or mental. Keynes turned out to be right about increased automation. We now have machines, computers and robots that can do quickly what human beings formerly did laboriously, and the increase in automation shows no sign of slowing down. But he was wrong about the decline of work.
As old jobs have been replaced by machines, new jobs have cropped up. Some of these new jobs are direct results of the new technologies, and can fairly be said to benefit society in ways beyond just keeping people employed (Autor, 2015). Information technology jobs are obvious examples, as are jobs catering to newfound realms of amusement, such as computer game design and production. But we also have an ever-growing number of jobs that seem completely useless or even harmful. As examples, we have administrators and assistant administrators in ever larger numbers shuffling papers that don’t need to be shuffled, corporate lawyers and their staffs helping big companies pay less than their fair share of taxes, countless people in the financial industries doing who knows what mischief, lobbyists using every means possible to further corrupt our politicians, and advertising executives and sales personnel, pushing stuff that nobody needs or really wants.
A sad fact is that many people are now spending huge portions of their lives at work that, they know, is not benefitting society (see Graeber, 2013). It leads to such cynicism that people begin to stop even thinking that jobs are supposed to benefit society. We have the spectacle of politicians on both sides of the aisle fighting to keep munitions plants open in their states, to preserve the jobs, even when the military itself says the weapons the plant is building are no longer useful. And we have politicians and pundits arguing that fossil fuel mining and carbon spewing factories should be maintained for the sake of the jobs, let the environment be damned.
The real problem, of course, is an economic one. We’ve figured out how to reduce the amount of work required to produce everything we need and realistically want, but we haven’t figured out how to distribute those resources except through wages earned from the 40-hour (or more) work-week. In fact, technology has had the effect of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller percentage of the population, which compounds the distribution problem. Moreover, as a legacy of the industrial revolution, we have a cultural ethos that says people must work for what they get, and so we shun any serious plans for sharing wealth through means other than exchanges for work.
So, I say, down with the work ethic, up with the play ethic! We are designed to play, not to work. We are at our shining best when playing. Let’s get our economists thinking about how to create a world that maximises play and minimises work. It seems like a solvable problem. We’d all be better off if people doing useless or harmful jobs were playing, instead, and we all shared equally the necessary work and the benefits that accrue from it.
What is work?
The word work, of course, has a number of different, overlapping meanings. As used by Keynes, and as I used it in the preceding paragraphs, it refers to activity that we do only or primarily because we feel we must do it in order to support ourselves and our families economically. Work can also refer to any activity that we experience as unpleasant, but which we feel we must do, whether or not it benefits us financially. A synonym for work by that definition is toil, and by that definition work is the opposite of play. Still, another definition is that work is any activity that has some positive effect on the world, whether or not the activity is experienced as pleasant. By that definition, work and play are not necessarily distinct. Some lucky people consider their job, at which they earn their living, to be play. They would do it even if they didn’t need to in order to make a living. That’s not the meaning of work as I use it in this essay, but it’s a meaning worth keeping in mind, because it reminds us that much of what we now call work, because we earn a living at it, might be called play in a world where our living was guaranteed in other ways.
Is work an essential part of human nature?
It surprises many people to learn that, on the time scale of human biological history, work is a new invention. It came about with agriculture, when people had to spend long hours plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; and then it expanded further with industry, when people spent countless tedious or odious hours assembling things or working in mines. But agriculture has been with us for a mere 10,000 years, and industry for far less time. Before that, for hundreds of thousands of years, we were all hunter-gatherers. Researchers who have observed and lived with groups who survived as hunter-gathers into modern times, in various remote parts of the world, have regularly reported that they spent little time doing what we, in our culture, would categorise as work (Gowdy, 1999; Gray, 2009, Ingold, 1999).
In fact, quantitative studies revealed that the average adult hunter-gatherer spent about 20 hours a week at hunting and gathering, and a few hours more at other subsistence-related tasks, such as making tools and preparing meals (see Gray, 2009). Some of the rest of their waking time was spent resting, but most of it was spent at playful, enjoyable activities, such as making music, creating art, dancing, playing games, telling stories, chatting and joking with friends, and visiting friends and relatives in neighbouring bands. Even hunting and gathering were not regarded as work; they were done enthusiastically, not begrudgingly. Because these activities were fun and were carried out with groups of friends, there were always plenty of people who wanted to hunt and gather, and because food was shared among the whole band, anyone who didn’t feel like hunting or gathering on any given day (or week or more) was not pressured to do so.
Some anthropologists have reported that the people they studied didn’t even have a word for work; or, if they had one, it referred to what farmers, or miners, or other non-hunter-gatherers with whom they had contact did. Anthropologist Marshal Sahlins (1972), famously referred to hunter-gatherers as comprising the original affluent society: affluent not because they had so much, but because their needs were small and they could satisfy those needs with relatively little effort, so they had lots of time to play.
Ten thousand years is an almost insignificant period of time, evolutionarily. We evolved our basic human nature long before agriculture or industry came about. We are, by nature, all hunter-gatherers, meant to enjoy our subsistence activities and to have lots of free time to create our own joyful activities that go beyond subsistence. Now that we can do all our farming and manufacturing with so little work, we can regain the freedom we enjoyed through most of our evolutionary history, if we can solve the distribution problem.
•Lawrence Chukwuemeka Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org (07066375847).
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