Throughout history, work has been the common lot of humanity—at least, outside of the idle rich and those who could not find any. It was celebrated by the Calvinist capitalists described in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as a means for people to achieve their “own salvation.” Labor for its own sake was embraced by the Marxist canon as well—work, wrote Friedrich Engels, “is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.”
If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.
~Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
Yet today’s baffling shortage of workers in high-income countries may presage something different: a post-work society, in which only a select few labor. For most, economic maintenance would come from some form of universal basic income (UBI). This notion has been tried as part of the COVID-19 relief program and in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better initiative, which allows benefits for those who could join the workforce but don’t care to.
This idea is arising at a propitious time. A strong majority of people in 28 countries around the world, according to a recent Edelman survey, believe that capitalism does more harm than good. More than four-in-five worry about job loss, particularly from automation. Rising inequality and general fear of downward mobility have boosted support for expanded government and greater re-distribution of wealth.
As early as 1995, author Jeremy Rifkin suggested that automation would eliminate work for most and create the basis for a society where “large numbers of people could be liberated from long hours in the formal marketplace.” This would allow them to focus on “leisure activities,” a kind of technological utopia for the masses.
It’s a compelling vision in some ways, but right now it looks dystopic. The ranks of what Marx called the “reserve army of the unemployed” are simply disengaging. A decade ago, Gallup’s Jim Clifton wrote about The Coming Jobs War, in which he predicted a global struggle for diminishing employment. Now there is plenty of work but people are not interested. In the US, labor participation rates have fallen from 80 percent in 1950 to 61 percent now, down from 64.4 percent in 2010. Nearly one-third of American working-age males are not in the labor force, suffering high rates of incarceration, or drug, alcohol, and other health issues.
And, to be sure, opportunities may be further reduced by technology, which could accelerate the loss of many kinds of jobs that once provided a means of upward mobility: postal workers, switchboard operators, machinists, computer operators, bank tellers, travel agents. For the 90 million Americans who work in such jobs—and their counterparts elsewhere—the future could be bleak. By 2030, Oxford Economics predicts that 20 million factory jobs worldwide will fall to automation—1.5 million in the US, 2.5 million in the EU, and 12.5 million in China.
The pandemic clearly accelerated this process, notably in the service sector. With the shift to online and takeout food, chains like McDonald’s are perfecting electronic delivery systems that reduce the need for human labor. Large capital investments are necessary for such adaptations, which—as France’s Thomas Piketty has noted—favors larger corporations as opposed to smaller family businesses.
Globalism, automation, and its effects
A plausible future scenario is a society in which a small, hyper-productive technical and managerial elite delivers food, housing, and pleasure to the plebes, like those in the later centuries of the Roman Empire. Their only role in society would be to take and not threaten the imperial state—a system that only worked due to the presence of slaves and huge territories to pillage.
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Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Homepage photo: Henry & Co. via Unsplash.