How can we make post-work work?

In 2013, Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote of “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.” (A World Without Work, Feb 23 2013)

Douthat’s column paints the post-work world as a kind of Utopia in which a decreased reliance on steady employment means that leisure time increases from the bottom up, and longer working hours become the exclusive domain of the wealthy in a tantalising inversion of traditional exploitation of labour capital. However, we exist in a culture that almost inextricably links self-worth and fulfilment to employment status and income. The Breadwinner has significant social value; to remove this without replacing it may indeed be counterproductive and lead to a severe crisis of identity for many workers. As technology improves and becomes cheaper, research suggests blue collar workers in particular are feeling less confident about their masculinity. Yet at the same time, this attitude implies that women who are breadwinners share the guilt of this emasculation. According to Ashley C. Ford in Refinery 29, “having a wife who earns more, or is the sole earner, may mean a loss of dominance at home, as well; dominance that some men feel is their due.” (Millennial Women Are Conflicted About Being Breadwinners, May 2 2017.)

Before we can make real progress toward a more egalitarian society that values people above things and accepts technological advancement as beneficial to humanity, we must first separate masculinity from “the worker”. In concert with this separation will be the rethinking of “woman as homemaker”, replaced with a cooperative model that may well even see us living in a new kind of tribalism. James Hamblin of The Atlantic believes that we are making microscopic shifts towards a less materialistic, more accepting society but “as in all things, the solution seems to be some abandonment of expectations, both consumer and gender-driven.” (The Health Benefits of Decoupling Money and Masculinity, August 19 2016.)

We should, however, be careful to make this a selective ungendering. On many occasions I’ve been frustrated by a gender-biased comment like “you’re pretty smart for a woman” or “would you like to check with your husband first?” Equally, I know that many men whose wives are the “chief breadwinners” are forced to explain why they’re “allowing” their wives to pursue a career — and those are just the judgments that heterosexual couples are subjected to. But it’s still incorrect to say that gender is unimportant, just as it’s incorrect to discount differences in race, age, neurotype, religion… we need diversity and should celebrate it, because each person’s experience brings something new to the dynamic. What we do need to do, though, is remove the barriers that are placed in front of those who deviate from the “norm” so that interactions are truly equitable. We are going to need that equity as we travel together toward a world in which variant social interaction becomes increasingly vital.

The world of work is evolving every second. We need to evolve also, and we can’t possibly do so if we are holding too tightly to the things that anchor us in the past. It’s not — yet — too late to closely examine the value of the institutions that make up our world and discard those ideas that are already obsolete. Instead of focussing on the technical skills that are rapidly becoming the domain of machines, we need to identify the “soft skills” that underpin our attitudes toward work and determine which are going to help us move forward — and we need to do it together, because maintaining connection is what will keep us moving forward.

We are all, in varying degrees, already cyborgs. Machines are part of our everyday existence. If you fear losing humanity to technology, then you have little choice but to value the human above all — the human that is now, not the human of the 20th Century 40 hour uniformed wage. The diverse, dynamic organism that transcends its individual parts, but values them all nonetheless.