A world without work might be totally awesome, and we have models for it, but getting there might be hard

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?” is fascinating and you should read it. But I’d like to discuss one small part, when Thompson writes: “When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, ‘I’m not sure that such a place exists.'”

I can imagine such a place: A university. At one time, most professors made enough money to meet their basic material needs without making extravagant amounts of money (there were and are some superstar exceptions). Today, a fair number of professors still make enough money to meet their basic material needs, though proportionally fewer than, say, 30 years ago. Still, universities have always depended on peer effects for reputation; they’ve tended to convince smart people to do a lot of meaningful activities that are disconnected from immediate and often long-term remuneration. Many professors appear to have self-directed lives that they themselves structure. The average person with free time doesn’t explore build-it-yourself DNA or write about the beauty of Proust or do many of the other things professors  do—the average person watches TV—but perhaps norms will change over time.

I don’t want to overstate the similarity between a potential low-work future and contemporary tenured professors—many professors find grading to be mind numbing, and not everyone handles self-direction and motivation well—but they are similar enough to be notable. In a world of basic incomes and (relative) economic plenty, we may get more people writing blogs, making art, and playing sports or other games. People may spend more time in gyms and less time in chairs.

The open-source software software community as it currently exists tends to intersect with large companies, but there are fringes of it with a strongly non-commercial or academic ethos. Richard Stallman has worked for MIT for decades and has written enormous amounts of important open-source code; the primary PGP maintainer made almost no money until recently, though he could almost certainly make tons of cash working for big tech company. Many people who make money in tech are closer to artists than is commonly supposed. Reading Hacker News and the better precincts in Reddit will introduce you to other open-source zealots, some of whom mostly blow hot air but others of whom act and think like artists rather than businessmen.

Many programmers say publicly that they consider programming to be so much fun that they’re amazed at the tremendous sums they can earn doing it. A small but literate part of the sex worker community says something similar: like most people they enjoy sex, and like most people they enjoy money, and combining the two is great for them. They may not enjoy every act with every client but the more attractive and attentive clients are pretty good. One could imagine an activity that is currently (sometimes) paid and sometimes free being used to occupy more time. I’ve met many people who dance and make their money putting on and teaching dances. If they had a guaranteed annual income they’d probably dance all the time and be very pleased doing that.

Already many professions have turned into hobbies, as I wrote in 2013; most actors and musicians are essentially hobbyists as well, at least in the revenue sense. Photographers are in a similar situation, as are many fiction writers. Poets haven’t been commercial for decades, to the extent they ever were (they weren’t when the Metaphysicals were writing, but that didn’t stop Herbert or Donne). Today many of my favorite activities aren’t remunerative, and while I won’t list them here many are probably similar to yours, and chances are good that some of yours aren’t remunerative either. Maybe our favorite activities are only as pleasurable as they are by contrast with less desirable activities. Maybe they aren’t. Consider for a moment your own peak, most pleasurable and intense experiences. Did they happen at work? If you worked less, would you have more?

In short, though, models for non-commercial but meaningful lives do (somewhat) exist. Again, they may not suit everyone, but one can see a potential future already here but unevenly distributed.

A lot of white-collar office work has a large make-work component, and there’s certainly plenty of literature on how boring it can be. If people really, really worked in the office they could probably do much of their “work” in a tiny amount of the allotted time. Much of that time is signaling conformity, diligence, and so forth, and, as Tim Ferris points out in The Four-Hour Work Week, people who work smarter can probably work less. To use myself as an example, I think of myself as productive but even I read Hacker News and Reddit more often than I should.

Some people already do what appears to me to be work-like jobs. People who don’t like writing would consider this blog to be “work,” while I consider it (mostly) play, albeit of an intensely intellectual sort. It already looks to me like many moderators on Reddit and similar sites have left the world of “hobby” and entered the world of “work.” The border is porous and always has been, but I see many people moving from the one to the other. (As Thompson observes, prior the late 19th or early 20th Century the idea of unemployment was itself nonsensical because pretty much anyone could find something productive to do.) Wikipedia is another site that has adverse effects in that respect, and I can’t figure out why many disinterested people would edit the site (my edits have always been self-motivated, though I prefer not to state more here).

One can imagine a low-work future being very good, but getting from the present to that future is going to be rocky at best, and I can’t foresee it happening for decades. There are too many old people and children to care for, too many goods that need to be delivered, too much physical infrastructure that needs fixing, and in general too much boring work that no one will do without being paid. Our whole society will have to be re-structured and that is not likely to be easy; in reality, too, there has never been a sustained period of quiet “normalcy” in American history. Upheaval is normal, and the U.S. has an advantage in that rewriting cultural DNA is part of our DNA. That being said, it’s useful to wonder what might be, and one can see the shape of things to come if we see radically falling prices for many material goods.


There’s one other fascinating quote that doesn’t fit into my essay but I want to emphasize anyway:

Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth. The post-work society I’ve described holds a warped mirror up to today’s economy, but in many ways it reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century—the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.

One response

  1. 15% of the US (at least) lives off food stamps. In some ways, that is pretty much the same thing as a “basic income.” Is this the direction you want the US to continue towards?

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