The end of work?

In: Uncategorized

11 Mar 2013

This is a box attached to my cover story from this week’s Fund Strategy magazine.

The debate about robots, particularly their purported negative effects, has close parallels with discussions of the end of work.

In itself the reduction in working hours or the elimination of work entirely can be seen as either welcome or as dangerous. It can be viewed as harnessing technology to set humanity free from toil or alternatively as machines, including robots, robbing us of work and even purpose.

Historically more optimistic social thinkers were generally positive about humans having to spend less time working and engaging in less physical toil. Nineteenth century economic writers such as David Ricardo and Karl Marx raised the spectre of machines replacing human labour.

Over the very long term the world has moved some way in the optimists’ direction. Robert Fogel, a Nobel prize-winning economist, has estimated that average working hours in the US fell from 182,100 per lifetime in 1880 to 122,400 in 1995 (The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death 1700-2100, p71).

Even the more recent figures indicate at improvement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average annual hours worked by employed person in the US fell from 1,829 in 1979 to 1,758 in 2011.

Of course such averages can mask divergent trends. In recent decades more women have entered the labour force and more people are employed in part-time work. The latter category includes many who are on poor pay overall. In any case the world is still a long way from the end of work despite the welcome long-term trend.

More pessimistic thinkers have usually taken a more negative view of such trends either raising the spectre of forced idleness or the decline of community. For example, Andre Gorz, a French green, wrote on the “end of the working class” in 1980 while Jeremy Rifkin, a high profile American green, had a book published on “the end of work” in 1995. More recently Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, wrote of the dangers of “a world without work” (New York Times, 23 February 2013).