Sooner or later we stop—whether we want to or not
A final installment on the culture of work from “Twilight’s Last Gleaming: Everyday Life in the Late American Empire.” Hope you’ve enjoyed the series. —Jim
And now a few words about those for whom work doesn’t work.
This problem can take a number of forms. The most widespread one is a sense of alienation that work imposes on just about everybody at one time or another. Boredom with sheer repetition. Frustration with colleagues, bosses/customers/clients/patients/the public. Disappointing outcomes in the wake of soaring hopes. And what’s often worst of all: getting demoted or fired.
In a world of scarcity—which is what the world has been for much of human history—there’s always a danger of that you’ll lack the raw materials to make a living, whether because you lack the skills or stable environment in which to ply a trade. This challenge can be all the greater when subsistence involves the need to support loved ones, a community that taxes its residents (literally or figuratively), or health considerations that range from illness to aging.
In ways that have never been completely understood or controlled, the advent of the Industrial Revolution brought with it economic cycles that routinely included periods of widespread unemployment. The experience of lacking work was both concentrated and amplified, its ripple effects radiating outward to affect economies as a whole. When serious enough, such economic dislocations also triggered political instability, inflamed social tensions, and disrupted familial relationships. It’s also true that some segments of a society—whether based on race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, or some other marker of identity—were more likely than others to be subject to discrimination. Being forced to work against one’s will is one evil. But being prevented from working isn’t much better, a problem which, like earlier ones, echoes through the culture of those afflicted. So it is that music historian Jeff Chang would note that “If blues emerged under conditions of oppressive, forced, labor, hip-hop culture would arise from conditions of no work.”
In the 21st century, the complexion of joblessness has been taking on a distinctive hue: that of a bloodless world where automation makes human labor increasingly superfluous. Again, this is not a new issue; anxieties about machines were widespread in earlier times, especially during the economic downturns of the late 19th century and the Great Depression of the 1930s. These anxieties were the flip side of utopian excitement that was also part of public discourse, as it is now. To some extent, modern societies have actually realized proposals that were indeed once utopian: weekends, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Workman’s Compensation, and a raft of welfare programs that insulate ordinary Americans from the sharp edge of brutal realities of poverty.
This focus on automation takes place amid a deceptively quiet, seemingly inexorable, and possibly alarming development in American life in this century: the steady decline in the size of the nation’s workforce in relation to the population as a whole. After peaking in 1999, with more than two-thirds of the working-age population in the labor market, that percentage has declined ever since, a trend that’s particularly notable for adult men. The automation issue, which, as usual with such demographic challenges, has been concentrated in the realm of unskilled labor, has been steadily creeping upward to capture increasingly complex tasks. My own profession of teaching has been relatively insulated, though the advent of Artificial Intelligence puts it in the cross-hairs along with a lot of other kinds of work. What economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” has long been a feature of capitalism that in theory can affect any segment of an economy, and we are living through a period where the sense of anxiety surrounding this dynamic is spreading and deepening.
That’s why those at the conceptual frontier of these problems have proposed a different solution: a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which would make the question of why someone lacks employment, and whether that’s a problem, superfluous. The human quest to generate sufficient surplus wealth so that everyone in a society can enjoy a subsistence level of comfort now seems tantalizingly within reach. If the concept of a career created the possibility of fulfilling work, we now seem on the cusp of a world where everyone can pursue fulfilling leisure.
This prospect is not imminent, however, and I think we’re too early in the process to fully understand its implications. I can see it happening, and I can see it becoming a commonplace reality in some American (and even global) future. It may be a very good future. But it’s not one I would care to inhabit.
“Work to live, not live to work,” goes the saying. But it’s not one I’ve ever put much stock in. I don’t really feel like I am living unless I’m working—unless there’s a notion that any activity in which I’m engaged, even if it’s a matter of recharging my metaphorical batteries, is part of building that cathedral I once imagined, even if it’s become steadily smaller. The construction metaphor is one that has defined other parts of my life as well: My marriage, my child-rearing, my religious faith: they’re all bodies of work. They represent my efforts to cheat death, attempts to achieve earthly salvation. Four hundred years after the Puritans arrived, their ethos continues to echo through people like myself—I don’t know how many of us there are, or what proportion of the population we represent, but it isn’t negligible. Not at the moment, anyway.
But you can’t cheat death. We all know that, but some of us know it better than others. I’ve never been one of those who does understand it particularly well. But as you get older, you begin to understand you damn well will. It begins to sink in that you can’t work forever, because even if your body and mind hold out—which they can’t for all that long—there will be others who want to take your place and convince or force you to stop. And you also understand that even your most cherished and achieved objectives are no less mortal than you are. If you’re fortunate enough to reach what societies have always understood as old age, you just don’t work anymore—or you don’t work the same way. That’s what it means to retire.
Some people look forward to this. I dread it. The indefinite stretch of time that some of us get between the time our formal working days end and we draw our last breath has, on average, grown longer as life expectancies have increased. Many older people—we call them “seniors,” an ironic echo of our school days—find ways to reinvent themselves. They find new, ad-hoc forms of employment; they volunteer; they develop new hobbies. Sometimes they spend more time with children (their own offspring and those of others), recycling parts of themselves for another generation. That’s the work ahead of me: trying to imagine, and implement, a new way of working—or not working—if and when I reach that point in my life. Which is getting closer more quickly than I would like.
In the meantime, my work continues in the form of the words you are now reading. I’m producing them in the hope that there will be some form of payoff. But if nothing else, they are fueling the machine that is my body. That’s what works for me. For now.
Coming up next: a series of posts on the life of play.
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