Opinion

Looking Up: Jobs may be going away, but work isn’t

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Looking Up: Jobs may be going away, but work isn’t

It’s all about the jobs, right? When you are talking about how this last presidential election turned out, it comes up over and over. It’s why some voters were, somewhat bizarrely, able to move their loyalties to from Sen. Sanders to the Republican candidate. It comes up repeatedly whenever you work at any approach to poverty amelioration that doesn’t involve job creation: “But what is really needed is jobs!”

And quietly underneath this, there’s the growing argument that we are going to run out of jobs. Automation and AI are picking up so much steam that there simply will be not enough “jobs” as we currently understand them. It’s not China, it’s the robots.

James Livingston, author of No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, thinks this not necessarily a bad thing. The requirement of getting your sense of identity and self-sufficiency through employment, he argues, has been used to maintain racial economic inequalities (have you watched 13th yet?), gender biases, and environmental unsustainability. Reducing the unemployment rate has not particularly correlated with increased economic justice, he points out.

If we chose to collect and distribute our resources—especially the huge dividends from automation—differently, Livingston argues, we could certainly provide for everyone without making them compete for soul-crushing, unpredictable-schedule retail jobs.

I’m with him that far. I support the idea of universal basic income—separating having one’s basic needs met from being formally employed. But I don’t think the increasingly common formulation that we’re going to see the “end of work” is necessarily accurate, or useful.

First, while there may be a shortage of jobs, and more to disappear, the amount of work that needs doing and isn’t getting done—or is getting done only by people working way more hours than is healthy and humane—is staggering. Imagine for a minute every scenario in which the words “understaffed” or “too large a caseload” come up. We need so many more teachers, school staff, social workers, therapists, public defenders, community organizers, nurses, caregivers (at home and in institutions), and skilled tradespeople who can fix and maintain our crumbling infrastructure.

If we are already talking about restructuring the economy so that income is decoupled from what the market is willing to pay for (and we are, in increasingly mainstream places, like The Washington Post), then we are talking about an economy in which work that needs doing can be prioritized and rewarded in ways that our current system doesn’t do.

Livingston acknowledges this somewhat when he talks about gender divisions. When labor to produce things becomes less needed, he writes, then “what we once called women’s work–education, healthcare, service–becomes our basic industry. . . .  The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper . . . becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary.” I’m not sure how that becomes merely an aside in an article talking about the end of work. That stuff is already necessary work—it’s merely unpaid or underpaid and undervalued. Imagine if it weren’t.

Secondly, we need to talk about climate change. Many people are talking about retraining coal miners and oil-field workers to work in renewable energy. This is absolutely necessary, and it’s important to note that the same amount of investment in renewable energy generates more jobs as investment in fossil fuel. But we need to go farther. Weatherization and energy-efficiency upgrades, mitigation measures as sea levels rise and extreme weather patterns increase, and desperately needed ecological restoration will all require large amounts of labor.

Successfully facing climate change will also involve shifting away from energy-intensive processes back to labor-intensive processes in many day-to-day ways—such as repairing things rather than replacing them, making things more locally and smaller scale to avoid the carbon footprint of shipping, growing food in less climate-damaging ways than industrial agriculture does, or using things that need to be washed rather than thrown away. Some of this would come in the form of reviving old skills and could look like “jobs.” Some would come under the category of “homemaking,” as argued by local author Shannon Hayes in Radical Homemakers. But that is work too.

I understand these may seem like abstract philosophical questions to be pondering at a time when basic institutions of democracy are under attack, fascism looms, white supremacy is emboldened, and the EPA might soon be headed by someone who doesn’t even believe climate change is a problem. True. But if we are to have the possibility of uniting around not only moral imperatives but an inclusive economic justice vision, we’ll need to confront them at some point. There are many lessons of this past election, but one of them is that ignoring economic realities does not inspire enthusiasm and turnout.

There’s work to be done. We all have something to contribute. Let’s fight for a world where we can do so.

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