The breathless announcement of ‘the end of work’ has been a feature of capitalism almost from its inception. It has featured especially prominently during every capitalist crisis of the twentieth century. From Keynes’ ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ (1930) and Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’ (1932),* to Clive Jenkins and Barrie Sherman’s The Collapse of Work (1979) and Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), to Jeremy Rifkin’s (seriously mistimed) The End of Work (1995), we have seen some variety of the claim that there is a tendency for the working class to be replaced by machines. The most recent entrant to this motley crew is Ross Douthat, whose recent column in the New York Times carried the title ‘A World Without Work.’
The rhetorical thrusts and parries of Douthat’s op-ed make it difficult to follow, though his bottom line appears to be that the ‘end of work’ is a secular trend that represents a wider cultural malaise: it is “of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship.” In other words, it is the product of a series of voluntary individual choices to withdraw from social life. This social disintegration is a threat to human well being – “it’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work” – and this is because, while it appears it is easier to survive without working (“steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before”), we lose all of the personal benefits of work. These benefits are everything from ambition (“it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity. [A nonworking working class may not be immiserated; neither will its members ever find a way to rise above their station.]), to “structure” “a place to meet friends and kindle romances” and “a path away from crime and prison for young men.”
Douthat is worth paying attention to because he is not giving us the run-of-the-mill concern with unemployment but rather raising the specter of the rejection of employment. He thinks the voluntary withdrawal from the labor market is the defining feature of our economy: “the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up.”
The conflation of “wanted and unwanted” leisure is already something of a black-eye for Douthat’s argument. To the degree most current ‘leisure’ is unwanted, it is forced idleness, not voluntary withdrawal. People know that it would, under current circumstances, be better to have a job, but they despair at finding one. Despite record high profit rates, corporations sit on huge loads of cash instead of investing it, and since that is the only source of job growth in this economy, those who want a job but can’t find one are helpless. Unwanted leisure is not expanding from the bottom up, it is forced from the top down.
But let’s put this to one side for now because, at another level of facts, Douthat is lost in a mirage. What Douthat calls “work-force participation” has declined only relative to the highs of the early 2000s and is still significantly above the halcyon days of this nation-of-joiner’s post-war boom. Here is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ graph of labor-force participation rates going back to 1948, the earliest data point.
Before 1973 the labor-force participation rate never beat 60% while now, though below its 2000 peak of 67%, it is still at a steady 63-64%. There is no end of work, but rather a one-off decline and then plateau. Even with this decline we continue to labor-force rates plateauing higher than back in the good old days. (Employment-to-population figures tell the same story.) So the historical trend of increasing participation in the labor market, due to the entry of women in the work force, is what still dominates our political economy. Work persists.
Worse yet for Douthat, is his claim that “the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.” Let’s say that Douthat is actually talking about this one-off decline after the recession – since that is the only actual economic fact that conforms to his story. Douthat never explains how material prosperity suddenly lead to a 4% decline in labor-force participation, but there are two options: welfare benefits and ‘getting by.’ Why those two options would suddenly and spontaneously be attractive to people in 2008 he never says, but that is because he can’t. The problem is not the lack of demand for jobs due to superior alternatives, which is what Douthat’s claim amounts to, but rather the persistent lack of supply, which has led especially new entrants to the labor market to temporarily withdraw or postpone entry (ie go to college). This shows up, for instance, in the steep decline in household formation among young people who, lacking adequate income or job security, have fallen back on living with their parents or group housing. In other words, the ‘problem’ registered in the post 2008 numbers, is not material prosperity and government benefits but, rather, economic stagnation. This may be a prosperous society but it is not a dynamic one, nor is it one in which people are unaware of the social disadvantages of getting a job.
The issue here is not just that Douthat gets his facts wrong but that his facts are (mis)assembled to tell a particular kind of story. Like many end of workists before him, Douthat gives the strong impression that the natural tendency of capitalist economy is to bring about an end of work. These statements are always over-reactions to one aspect of capitalist development that miss a larger whole. The natural tendency of the capitalist economy is to generate immense material prosperity alongside unemployment and over-work. While there are fantastic machines, which generate material wealth and replace human workers, this is only one-side of the coin – not evidence that “we’ve gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before.” In fact, a supermajority remain dependent on the labor market for satisfaction of needs, and will remain so unless the political economy is radically transformed. And, further, it is a serious mischaracterization of the situation to say that those who have decreased their dependence on the labor market have done so voluntarily.
That there is no natural tendency towards a leisure society, and that much leisure is in fact forced idleness, is important because it means a society based on free time is one that will require political struggle. It will not naturally evolve through more machines and cultural changes. Moreover, it means that instead of thinking we face some kind of social disintegration due to a cultural shift away from work, community and church, we face a problem of power and control in economic life. Only Douthat’s lack of imagination, combined with mischaracterization of historical trends, lead him to present us with two alternatives – present underemployment (and overwork) or a return to “a grinding job” and all its auxiliary social benefits. Nobody thinks that unemployment is a good thing, least of all those of us who think escaping crappy jobs and nasty bosses is a good thing. Douthat seems to think that “the right not to have a boss” can only take the form of withdrawal from the labor market – a retreat from the world of work itself. But that presumes a current structure of ownership over means of production that there is no good reason to assume. Some jobs may necessarily be grinding, but many of the undesirable aspects of work have to do with subjection to someone else’s will. Change ownership and control and work itself can change. And while drudgery may not disappear, it need not define anyone’s life. There is no reason why we cannot have both more free time and better, more self-developing jobs. The obstacles to that world are social and political, not natural. Douthat, however, wants to leverage on obvious point about the social advantages of the world of work to limit our expectations and lower our horizons.
It is true that the immense wealth, and remarkable, labor-saving machines, of our society make a leisure society possible. But that world of freedom, in which we can be both free at work and free from work, is not one that will naturally appear. It is something people will have to fight for.
*To be fair to Russell, he doesn’t quite belong in this crowd because he appreciated that the leisure society was not something we were naturally approaching so much as a possibility that could only be achieved through political change.