Lighter work for all

14 June 2022

Work is something that very few of us can avoid. At its best, it creates space and time for us to develop and use valuable skills, to socialise, and to be creative. At its worst, it degrades us, robs us of our freedom and humanity, and even sends us to an early grave.

But what if work could be made lighter for all? What if instead of a source of toil and trouble, it could be made into a positive force in life – one that everyone could gain from and enjoy doing?

This is a question I explore in my new book. I argue that there is scope to improve the quality of work alongside reducing work hours. Better and less work can be – and must be – achieved simultaneously. The realisation of this goal, however, will require us to rethink and reorganise work as well as technology, and to adopt new ideas about what it means to work and live well in society.

From alienation to ‘useful work’

In the book, I draw on the work of past thinkers. From Marx, I take the idea of alienating work. Work is resisted because it is experienced as a forced activity – it is something that we are required to do and over which we have limited control. This fact does not reflect anything universal in work itself, but rather reflects on the nature of work under capitalism.

I also take from Marx another critical thought, the idea of transforming work – of negating alienation and moving to a system that allows for work that is rewarding and meaningful in itself. This, in effect, requires thinking beyond the constraints of capitalism and building a more democratic system of ownership and governance. A cooperative economy of the future would bring meaning to work and obliterate the divide between work and life.

I draw particular insight from the writings of the nineteenth-century artist and social reformer William Morris. Like Marx, Morris believed that work was distorted by capitalism and that fundamental reform in society would be needed to create what he termed as ‘useful work’. Such work would not just meet the material needs of society – it would also help to nurture and realise the talents and capabilities of people.

Morris saw a specific role for technology, not in continuously advancing production and consumption, but in progressively cutting work hours and minimising drudgery.

Automation was about reducing the pain of work, not eliminating work itself. An important use of technology was to create conditions where people would embrace work as opposed to reject it.

Morris recognised the limits to technological progress and how work that lacked intrinsic appeal might persist in society. Two solutions were offered here. Firstly, this work could be allocated across workers. This would remove the stigma attached to doing drudge work – it would also help to equalise the burden and responsibility for performing it. In addition, it would provide the opportunity for more workers to access better remunerated and more satisfying work. Secondly, society could decide collectively that necessary work which caused pain could be simply curtailed or avoided altogether. Sacrifices in production and consumption could be seen as a price worth paying for a higher quality of work.

In the writings of Marx and Morris, we find not a rejection of work, but a plea for its transformation. This is aligned with a radical vision of overhauling the current economic system and shifting to a society that fulfils our needs as producers, not just as consumers.

Reworking the future

The above vision has been lost in modern debates. Criticisms of ‘bullshit jobs’, for example, miss the need and possibility for reform in the nature of work. Narratives about mass automation and possible post-work societies paint an overly deterministic picture of the future of work and overlook how changes in the uses of technology require shifts in how workplaces are owned and controlled.

In mainstream circles, by contrast, appeals to ‘good work’ come at the expense of measures to reduce work hours. They also prevent progress in the content of work by creating an acceptance that work must be good even where its content is bad.

The message I would convey is a general one, namely that work can be enhanced in qualitative terms. Work is not all good, nor is it all bad. Rather there is scope to change how we work and the experience we gain from it. This entails reducing the time it takes up in our lives – work time reduction remains a key goal in a progressive society. But it also means transforming the workplaces in which we work and the place of work in our lives.

Finally, it means changing the role and purpose of technology, using it not to exploit workers but to enrich life.

The goal should be to develop and use technologies that reduce toil, extend the opportunity for meaningful work, and increase free time.

Making work lighter for all, in the end, calls for us to question capitalism and to strive for a different society that democratises work and technology. Only under truly democratic conditions can our work and non-work lives be made into sources of fulfilment and joy.

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