Jobs. You just have to say the word and objections to anything seem to evaporate. A slight lift in the employment figure and the nation breathes a sigh of relief. But why, in a time of rapid automation, does work still dominate our thinking? In Part 2 of this series (you can read Part 1 here), Mike Dowson challenges our assumptions about jobs.
If you arrived from outer space, and plugged a human language translator into Earth’s chatter, you’d probably notice something odd. It appears we humans believe our well-being depends on the possession of a ‘job’.
This might seem strange to you, coming from an alien world. Surely you’d be looking at the health of Earth’s biosphere, and the distribution of life-giving resources. And those measurements look bleak right now.
But Earth’s human inhabitants don’t see it like that. No, what humans want are jobs, and even the planet itself can be sacrificed, if necessary, to provide them.
How peculiar. Earth’s other complex organisms like to expend the minimum effort necessary for survival. Most of their time is devoted to eating, sleeping, grooming, playing and having sex. But millions of humans spend countless hours doing unrewarding things, and often with others they don’t particularly like.
What’s more, as human technology advances, there aren’t so many useful things to do. So humans must invent trivial, useless jobs to keep everyone working.
Only some of the humans – people like farmers, scientists, engineers, healers, teachers, carers and creative people – provide everything important. And most of them spend a lot of their time on tasks of dubious value for others called managers.
Even worse, much of the work humans do harms other humans, by luring them into traps like gambling, obesity, and substance abuse. Other jobs exist just to clean up the resulting damage. And some jobs are now destroying the habitat on which all humans depend.
Why would a species do this? Is it some sort of adverse mutation? As you looked a bit closer, you might see the logic of it.
When ordinary humans work, a small, privileged subgroup, who claim to own the workplaces, get wealthier. It makes no difference what the jobs are. The harder people must work just to survive, the more the wealthy ones get for nothing.
Governments help by holding back services and pensions, so no-one can survive without working, which drives wages down, increasing profits for the wealthy ones. And when ordinary humans want some modest security, like a house, they must borrow money from a bank, and pay it back, plus extra, from their earnings. The wealthy ones are shareholders in the bank, so they win again.
The strangest thing of all is that the ordinary humans go along with this. Although there are many more of them, they seem to think they have no alternative. They even have names for their subservient state, such as ‘freedom’, and ‘prosperity’, which make it sound appealing.
The seas rise, their crops fail, fires and floods destroy their homes. But still they insist the stability of the biosphere must be sacrificed so they can work.
Communities fall apart. Children suffer. Addiction, suicide and mental illness spread. And still they demand the subjugation of their loved ones to a life of toil.
What will happen, as the ordinary humans exhaust themselves to convert more of their precious planet into needless excess for the wealthy ones? How will they survive, as Earth becomes uninhabitable, for everyone but a glorified few?
Time to report to your home planet. No need to worry about a potential human menace. They won’t last long. Tell the star fleet to stay at home.
Why did humankind do this? To answer that question, we must go back a long way.
The Origin of Work
Author Jeremy Seabrook looked at word roots in European languages. He found that terms for work reveal old associations with bondage, suffering and even torture. But in more ancient languages, there are no words for work.
In extant hunter-gatherer societies, work doesn’t really exist. It takes little time and effort to obtain food and maintain shelter, and these activities are interwoven with relationships, celebration and ritual. Necessity must have required our ancestors to do things they didn’t enjoy. And there’s evidence of coercion going way back, even to our primate relatives. But those characteristics are not endemic in all human societies. It seems they became established in the transition to settled agriculture.
According to the American scientist Jared Diamond, settled agriculture was a very mixed blessing. It led to concentrations of population, which encouraged technological development and skill specialisation. But along with that came greater exposure to food scarcity, dietary ailments, parasites and infectious disease. Life expectancy fell, and didn’t improve again until relatively recent medical advances.
It also consolidated the principle of private property, another concept less familiar to interdependent hunter-gatherers. Crops had to be planted, tended and harvested. Reserves and livestock had to be stored and protected. From that came entrenched hierarchy, exploitative elites, conquest, and slavery.
People got used to performing tedious, dangerous tasks for benefits that were deferred and often mostly claimed by others coercively.
Today, most land is acquired through inheritance. But what about the people who owned it to begin with? How did they get it? Isn’t it obvious? They took it. For at least 10,000 years the more aggressive among us have been claiming the world for themselves. Isn’t this what we mean when we say Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia?
Expanding across the globe, the European ruling and mercantile classes killed or dispossessed the other peoples they encountered. They exploited displaced commoners at home. They kidnapped Africans and Islanders to labour in their plantations abroad. They supplied colonists in Australia with Britain’s own poor, unwanted subjects.
If not for new technologies, this might still be how it is. But machine power and market economies required educated, motivated people. And what motivated them was a share of the spoils. The plutocracy gradually realised that people with some freedom and money to spend were not only more compliant, but increased demand for the very extractive industries that had enriched them.
As economies became more mechanised, more people got a stake in the pillage of the Earth. Much of the world is now descended from displaced commoners made good, who followed explorers like Captain Cook into the ‘New World’.
About half a century ago, our productivity reached the point where it was technically possible for all Australians, without exception, to have the things we needed for a comfortable existence. We could have continued to win back our time for the things we love. We could have repaired the damage we had caused to the Earth. We could have helped Indigenous people overcome the appalling legacy of colonialism. Many of us could still have become wealthy. No-one had to miss out. We almost pulled it off.
But how would the rich get richer, just by being rich, if the bounty went to the millions of ordinary people who produce it?
The Big Scam
The last 40 years provide the answer. They wouldn’t. That’s why, if you’re young, and weren’t born into money, and despite even more dramatic productivity gains, you’re probably working in a less secure job, with fewer benefits, paying much more for housing, and carrying more debt.
If you’ve read “Game of Mates”, by Paul Frijters and Cameron Murray, you’ll know you’ve been robbed. But conmen couldn’t have done it alone, even abetted by venal politicians and self-serving bureaucrats. They needed help from your mum and dad.
Australia’s massive real estate bubble harvested wealth from future generations, and directed it into the pockets of today’s bankers, developers and speculators, thanks to the prevailing myth that rising house prices are a sign of personal and national prosperity.
What a vision for the country. World record private debt, with risky borrowing from overseas, to buy what we already had at inflated prices. Great economic management. Either our political class couldn’t tell the difference between productive enterprise and a Ponzi scheme, or they didn’t care. It’s hard to say which is more alarming.
But none of this would have been possible, if ordinary people, aspiring to their own modest landholdings, weren’t willing to sacrifice so much of their lives to work harder in the service of debt.
The Work Ethic
During millennia of servitude, we ordinary folk gradually forgot how to look after ourselves. We learned to police ourselves instead.
As a Roman slave, a medieval serf, or a Georgian mill worker, what we had to offer despots, for the right to go on living, was our labour. Work was survival under tyranny. In our need for self-esteem, it became the common person’s heroism.
The more arduous and unpleasant the work, the more working people feel vindicated. We pity the less able. We deplore the unemployed. We may envy the idle rich, and even seek to emulate them, but at work, we need no overlord to goad us.
Why is a job the way we contribute? And who decides what is valuable? Why is raising a child a pastime, while peddling sugary drinks to overweight kids is a good day’s work?
Who honestly believes that after centuries of the most astonishing technological development, we still can’t afford social dividends like proper paid parental leave or child care? How were single income families viable 50 years ago but not today?
And what about the kids trying to enter the workforce now? Are we proud that the most educated generation of all time has less chance of employment, home ownership, and raising families?
There’s nothing natural or unavoidable about these circumstances. We made them. In the age of automation, if we insist on old forms of employment as our goal, rather than human wellbeing, we enter a race to the bottom. We must compete for a diminishing resource, which inevitably leads to insecurity, loss of agency and fewer rewards.
Committed optimists assure us that a host of new professions will replace those that are automated. But in the current climate of declining wages, taxes and social services, the kinds of new jobs that appear will be determined, not by human need, but by the caprices of those who don’t need anything at all.
As wealth and income inequality approach levels normally seen in feudal societies, or despotic regimes, human worth will be increasingly measured by the opinions, purchase preferences and investment decisions of the very rich. And rich people seldom want what the rest of us want. In fact, they often want the opposite.
If you’re rich, you have little need for public schools, hospitals, libraries, galleries and parks. You have private versions of these. Affordable housing and cheap energy are useless. You’d rather people pay you a premium for your expensive offerings. Apart from a fast lane and fast broadband, if there’s anything else you want from the general population, it’s probably servants.
The ancient, agrarian compact between the powerful and everyone else is broken. Originally, in exchange for labour, oligarchs gave ordinary people protection, from their enemies, and from themselves. Later, in response to threat or opportunity, they granted more people a bigger stake. That’s where the middle class and the nouveau riche came from. Now, automation, globalisation and wealth concentration have thrown that trend into reverse.
A Better Way to Value Contribution
If ‘equipping kids for the jobs of the future’ is the best we can do, we’d better train them to be subsistence farmers. Civilisation won’t survive on new kinds of work that prop up predatory capitalism.
Gleeful futurists imagine returning from the cyber factory via manned drone to find C3PO fast-motion chopping the dinner carrots. If that happens, it will be because great numbers of other people languish in fetid, violent slums patrolled by Robocop.
The real jobs of the future are the jobs of today that are starved of support. They’re the activities that humans have performed since ancient times, the product of our evolution, the substance of healthy communities. Building things of value together. Protecting our bioregions. Caring for children, the less able and the elderly. Celebrating through sport, dance, music and theatre. Exploring the world through science and mysticism. Documenting the human experience with image and story.
Does anyone care today who cornered the market for olive oil in ancient Athens? Or who was Rome’s great real estate tycoon? Are we impressed by the size and number of their oxcarts? No. The ancients we celebrate are historians, philosophers, mathematicians and poets. They gave us the intellectual tools to build the modern world. And they were raised and supported by an invisible army of carers.
Of course the people who provide for our material needs should be rewarded. But should they flourish at the expense of carers and creators? And should the lion’s share accrue to those who already have the most, thanks to a rigged system?
If we only care about ourselves, and only for the next five minutes, it hardly matters. Otherwise, we need to make sure some of the great surplus of our productivity supports a basic living standard for everyone, whether they have one of the disappearing regular jobs or not, as we did in less affluent but more enlightened times. Some of them will be the unsung visionaries and innovators we need to help us thrive in the coming world.
It wouldn’t be technically all that difficult. Our economy is now sagging so much, under the weight of fat cats, that there is plenty of low hanging fruit. The reason we’re not already doing something is that the fat cats, and their flabby kittens in the leafy suburbs, fear some discomfort or inconvenience.
The irony is that if we don’t take corrective action, nature and the markets will do it for us, and that will be much worse. The simple steps we could employ right now would build resilience, boost confidence, and strengthen social bonds, vital factors for difficult times ahead, even for those who are already better off.
Those steps are the subject of the final article in this series, to be published Thursday.
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