End of Work as Endtimes

Work, a topic that comes up a lot. The US is a society obsessed with work as identity and as a way of life, not just as a means to an end. We idealize work ethic, the greatest praise being that an individual is hard-working and the harshest criticism being that someone is lazy.

We broaden it as an entire cultural ethos, the supposed Protestant work ethic, even though Catholic Americans seem just as obsessed with work. The traditionally Catholic Hispanics used to be stereotyped as lazy, but I doubt that was ever true. The stereotype is now changing and Hispanics are perceived as hard-working, which is their ticket into mainstream American society and their pathway to assimilation not just as Americans but also into potential whiteness.

Black Americans, of course, aren’t given the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness, no matter their real or perceived work ethic. It has been assumed by centuries of whites that blacks are inherently lazy, a justification for slavery and then later forms of prejudice and oppression, including the reinstatement of slavery through chain gangs. The reality, however, is that the whites who complain the most about others being lazy are probably projecting. This country was built with the labor of minorities, along with poor (often ethnic) whites, both supposedly being without the proper work ethic of upper class WASPs. I imagine many of those upper class WASPs wouldn’t know real work if they ever saw it.

There is endless weirdness, besides bigotry, around American notions of work and all that goes with it. In recent years, some have begun to worry about the end of work. It is through work that we have defined our society. The end of work sounds like the end of the world as we know it, which I suppose is true. If machines took over most human work, then what would we do? The fear is the lazy masses, without anyone forcing them to work for survival, would just laze about and do nothing productive at all. We better build work camps to keep the masses occupied or else they might start thinking about creating a free, democratic society.

Even many left-wingers can’t seem to imagine anything genuinely different. Labor has been the pillar of left-wing politics for long before Marx was born. We talking about the lower class as the working class. That is what they are. They are what they do, work. They have no inherent value beyond that. Organizing the masses inevitably means labor organizing or so it has meant in generations past.

I get the sense that there is something odd about all this. It’s not just the obsession with work, as identity and ethic. It’s one of those issues that seems to be about something else entirely. Most of the time when people talk about work I don’t think they’re actually talking about work. It’s maybe a symbolic conflation, like abortion, pointing toward something else. That something else has to do with the social order and social control.

To give this some contrast, consider hunter-gatherers. They don’t worry about work. In fact, they do as little as possible for survival and they probably never think of it as work. Almost everything hunter-gatherers do is a social activity. It’s the social part, not the work part, that defines who they are. Hunter-gatherers don’t have specialization, as everyone does a little bit of everything. Besides, most of their time is spent doing social things, as the most important part of being human in a tribal society is the fact that you belong to a tribe. That is who you are. Work is only important for what it accomplishes for the tribe and one’s place in the tribe, not as an end in and of itself.

What if modern society ends up back where we all started? Hunter-gatherers don’t work that much in order to maintain their lifestyles. What if in the future we too won’t work much to maintain our lifestyles? Would that be such a horrible thing, that like hunter-gatherers we spent more time with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities?

The hyper-focus on work is one of the most bizarre aspects of modern society. If you can’t imagine life beyond work, the problem is in your mind not in the world. Just because cars will eventually start driving themselves, civilization isn’t going to collapse nor will the moral fiber of humanity be rent asunder. Calm down. I’m sure humanity will somehow survive the end of work.

Americans will probably find other ways to work endlessly, such as mowing their lawns more often. That is the future of the US, Americans mowing their lawns everyday because robots took over their jobs. Sure, those future Americans could buy one of the new fancy robot mowers, but then they’d lose all meaning to their existence. To preoccupy themselves, Americans will have mowing contests to prove their human worth and to prove their being part of respectable society.

31 thoughts on “End of Work as Endtimes

    • What exactly is your point? There are no excuses about underemployment. I’ve written for years about the problems of unemployment and underemployment. I’ve never once tried to make an excuse. My point has always been that we need to face reality, maybe something you’re not willing to do. Many of the jobs that have been lost won’t be coming back and the loss of jobs will increase over time. That is reality. We could always create artificial, unecessary work just to keep people busy. That is one solution. We should simply be honest with ourselves. Is that too much to ask, being honest?

  1. It’s because of comments like the above by Greenbriar that I wrote this post. The main point of this post was hidden in a single paragraph. I chose to not emphasize it because I wasn’t sure what to make of what I was intuiting. Here is the paragraph in question:

    “I get the sense that there is something odd about all this. It’s not just the obsession with work, as identity and ethic. It’s one of those issues that seems to be about something else entirely. Most of the time when people talk about work I don’t think they’re actually talking about work. It’s maybe a symbolic conflation, like abortion, pointing toward something else. That something else has to do with the social order and social control.”

    When someone like Greenbriar makes a comment like that, it’s obvious that the real issue(s) is being obscured. It really isn’t about work. No one in the world gives a flying fuck about underemployment. That simply represents how people pay the bills and take care of basic needs. If someone doesn’t make enough money in a society like ours, they can go hungry or even become homeless. But what is missed is the simple fact that a society like ours isn’t the only kind of society that has or could exist.

    Our collective imagination is crippled, whether as moral imagination or radical imagination. We don’t even know what we’re talking about. And so we can’t begin to grasp what are the possibilities. Meaningful discussion becomes near impossible.

    • It’s not that I’m pretending to know more than others. I honestly don’t know what the point is. My sense is that work isn’t the real issue.

      If so, then what is the real issue? What kind of society is this? And what kind of society might be better? What does ‘work’ represent? And how can we discuss it in a more open, direct way to get at the real issues?

      These questions need to be seriously considered and then fully answered. Or failing that, we should acknowledge that we simply don’t know.

    • In your original comment, you didn’t ask a question. How could I have answered a question you didn’t ask?

      In fact I am what many would consider underemployed in a shit job. I only have part time hours as a parking ramp cashier. I’m not thirty-something, though, as I just turned 40.

      All of that is irrelevant. The post isn’t about me. The problems I see in my life and the world around me wouldn’t be solved by my working more hours.

      I could find another job working janitorial or something. If I was willing to work crappy enough jobs, I probably could work several jobs. But none of that would change the loss of jobs for so many others, especially the loss of good jobs.

      As increasing numbers have become unemployed and underemployed, still others are working long hours in multiple jobs just trying to get by. The good paying factory jobs that my grandfather had are becoming rare.

      You still haven’t dealt with a single issue that I brought up in my post or my comments. You haven’t even shown any evidence that you read my post. Why are you avoiding the topic? Do you have a point?

      Obviously, you’re unhappy about your life. I understand. Life sucks. But guess what? That doesn’t make you special. There is no justification in attacking me or dismissing my views.

    • I really don’t know why we are arguing or what we are arguing about. That goes back to what I was trying to communicate in my post. Of course, I understand that it might be my fault for failing to communicate well. If so, I apologize. It gets frustrating. From my perspective, it seems 99.9% of debates/arguments/disagreements are meaningless or about something else entirely. It’s not even clear that you and I actually disagree about anything and yet here we are defending ourselves against perceived attacks by the other. What is the point? I just don’t know.

  2. Yeah, you don’t hide it very well there fella.

    Just count me out of that “life sucks” loser talk. Working for a living is damn hard but some of us take pride in it. My wife and I put food on the table for two kids, one on the way.

    “You try, you fail. You try, you fail. The real failure is when you stop trying.”

    • Don’t hide what well? Are you simpleminded?

      You are the one who was complaining. Don’t project your personal issues onto me. I was writing about societal issues, not complaining about personal issues. I didn’t even mention personal issues. You’re the one obsessed with your personal problems… whatever they are I don’t know as you apparently don’t want to talk about them… I guess it’s a sore point, maybe being hidden behind false pride or something, not my problem anyway.

      You don’t even know me. And you obviously have comprehension issues. You don’t even know what my post was about and yet you act like you have me figured out, despite my being a total stranger. I never claimed I didn’t work hard and that I stopped trying. I didn’t even say I didn’t have a family. There was nothing about this post that indicated my life is necessarily any different than yours. This post wasn’t about my life.

      The loss of jobs exists in reality. That remains true, whether or not you want to face reality. Machines and computers are taking over many jobs. One of the largest sectors of work in the US is that of drivers. It won’t be long before trucks, cabs, trains, etc will all be self-driving. It is already happening. Factory jobs and mining jobs are also being mechanized out of existence. This is simply the reality we face.

      Working harder and taking pride in your work won’t change this. It is happening and will continue to happen, at an ever increasing speed. It’s simply where our society is at the moment. Why are you afraid of facing these difficult questions? Do you really think the problems will go away by shoving your head into the sand? Even if you’re unwilling to face reality, your kids won’t have that luxury.

    • You seem to have some weird assumptions. You think that these are problems that only concern losers. Yet this issue has been written about by diverse people, from various ideological and class backgrounds. If anything, the bias in such discussions has been mostly dominated by the voices of the middle-to-upper classes heard in mainstream media.

      My own thoughts here were instigated by a discussion I had with my father, a man who has been successful by the standards of mainstream society — and yet he understands that the world he knew when his career started is not the world that his own grandchildren will experience. My father and I are quite different from one another, but we both share this concern about what society will be like when work increasingly disappears for so many.

      It has nothing to do with working hard and taking pride. My parents worked hard and took pride. They raised me to do the same. Working hard and taking pride is common among many people. I’ve never lost a job, been on welfare, been in debt, dealt with serious medical bills, faced homelessness, etc. That doesn’t stop me from understanding and sympathizing with those who are worse off than I am. It would take an asshole to judge others they don’t know and understand.

      I’m not sure why this is so hard for you to comprehend, when it is so easy for so many others to comprehend. It doesn’t take a ‘loser’ to be able to think intelligently about complex societal issues.

    • You’re not very smart, are you? You have yet to make an intelligent point. What does my age have to do with anything. BTW it’s ‘forty’ and not ‘fourty’, not that I’m one to mock another’s lack of ability to spell correctly.

      You seem to have some odd notion about people. I work a job that pays the bills. Unlike many people, I’m actually lucky to have a secure job that pays well and has good benefits. I have a job that many people would be glad to have, in a time like this when job security and good benefits are becoming ever more rare.

      For some reason, you believe that my having a standard working class job means that I’m a loser who is lazy and lacks pride, a strange belief as most Americans are working class. I must assume you’ve never had a working class job in your life and have never had to do real work in your life. I’ve done many jobs in my life. I know what real work is like. Most people are simply worried about getting by in life and not worried about what assholes like you think.

      Out of curiosity, why should I stop thinking intelligently about complex societal issues just because I turned forty? My dad is in his 70s and he is still thinking intelligently about complex societal issues. Why does being a mature adult in your mind mean being simpleminded and ignorant? We obviously have different assumptions about human worth and the purpose to which it should be applied.

    • That is typical. In the near future, as many jobs disappear, that will put pressure on those with the remaining jobs. It will create an imbalance of power. With so many unemployed, employers will be able to demand almost anything and their political power will increase. With loss of work, there will be a loss of human value for most people since in our society all human value is based on work. And without human value, political influence and democratic representation will likewise go by the wayside. It will continue along that path until it finally gets so bad that the inequality won’t be sustainable any longer.

  3. have you read brave New World? it’s my favorite book.

    Basically people need something to do or else they get restless. And there needs to be a ”caste system” rather than making everyone alpha because someone has to do the menial jobs

    • I’ve read it, but it was probably back in the late 1990s. I don’t remember the details of the story.

      I’ve never thought humans would stop doing ‘work’ just because employment becomes rare. Even tribal people work and no one has to pay them to do so. Most of the ‘work’ people do even in our society is unpaid: childcare, eldercare, housework, home maintenance, yard work, church activities, volunteering, etc.

      One of my sister-in-laws spends her every free moment doing ‘work’ such as training her dogs for flyball competitions. My parents are retired and they still work nonstop. Americans, in particular, love work. It doesn’t matter if it is paid work or not. I spend my time doing serious research and writing about it, which includes spending a lot of money on books to do research, and yet I don’t get paid for it. Most people I know are constantly doing things in their free time, not just sitting around watching tv and drinking beer all day.

      I’ve made the point that even in the poorest, most unemployed communities people are constantly working. They do illegal work such as fixing cars or mowing lawns for cash. They work for organized crime groups, sell drugs, pimp and prostitute, etc. They endlessly hustle one way or another to make ends meet or to gain some extra money. If you get enough unemployed people, you can even find that you have a revolution. Think of what all those over-educated and under-employed Millennials are doing with their free time. People love to work and they are quite imaginative in what kind of work they do, whether or not it is socially approved or even legal.

      That is why work is intimately tied up with the social order and social control.

  4. Maybe it’ll be like the matrix, where there is a grace period of humans living the life while robots do all the work, before they get enslaved by robots

    • Maybe as human jobs get mechanized humans will also get mechanized. The robots won’t just take our jobs but also our minds. There might be some truth to that. I’m sure the merging of the human and machine will happen, which will alter what it means to be human.

    • Interestingly, the Pentagon has funded more than a half century of research based on the view of humans as machines in terms of the human-machine interface. The cognitive revolution led to computers having become a key paradigm for understanding such things as human language and the power language has over the human mind. The ultimate goal is to create a common language between humans and machines, which forces the human to be reduced to the machine level.

  5. I think that the elite have decided to ignore history and use the propaganda machine to try to terrify people into obedience.

    It may not be working much longer, as the inability of Clinton to overcome Trump shows. The tragedy is that Trump is unlike to solve America’s problems and will make a lot of problems worse.

    • Perhaps the most dangerous part of being very rich is that nobody is willing to tell you that you are wrong.

      That is a real danger with the current elites. Same with Trump. I don’t think that he is the kind of person that will take “you’re wrong” very well. Neither will Clinton.

      • Those who are in a position to tell them they are wrong and do so, who can be heard and not ignored are (when possible) fired, blacklisted, ostracized, and have their careers destroyed. Problem solved. Speaking truth to power won’t lead you to have a long successful career in either big biz or big gov.

  6. There is another problem.

    Apart from being unlikely to solve America’s problems, a possible Trump presidency would set even more Americans into greater despair. That could lead to something much darker and more authoritarian.

    • At this point, I think almost any choice that has been offered us by the ruling elite, “[a]part from being unlikely to solve America’s problems, …would set even more Americans into greater despair. That could lead to something darker and more authoritarian.” After all, that is the result the ruling elite want. So they aren’t going to offer us any choices that won’t lead to that result, one way or another.

  7. That was a doozy, so I’m just firing off my responses as they form in mind:

    Maybe the hardworking musicians, performers, visual artists etceteracide will have the last laugh after years of “fluid content distribution” i.e our current global aesthetic flatland, where “pay to play” is the reality for most creative projects unless it’s doing graphic design for boutique juice bars or something ( which is more “cultural creative” anyways ) . I remember reading an old issue of NME or Melody Maker online once where they were portraying Richard Ashcroft in his “Mad Richard” early 90s daze, and he was going on about how “its time for the Prometheus types, those with the creativity and guts to rise and the unadventurous ( bands, presumably ) to sink”. Perhaps with some Basic Income and dandy new empthogens and entheogens we’ll finally have the “global orgy” of Cronenberg’s mad chemist, just with a better soundtrack?

    Incidentally I recently read some Julius Evola , a man I (mostly) despise, yet he writes some great passages about the meaning of the words “labor” and “lazy”; how they’ve shifted from their Latin roots to accommodate the “Protestant work ethic” , especially driven by the American attitude, which he viewed as an unmitigated disaster. It is interesting that the stuffy old Romans had a notion of “beneficial laziness”, whether in mystic contemplation or the Stoic ideal of a “safe refuge of noble thoughts”. According to Evola, the Romans saw laziness as only detrimental in extreme excess. Of course they were a slave society, as Evola notes, so any form of “labor” was seen as lowly and something to be avoided. The Asiatic Greek world had more varied attitudes towards slavery ( at least according to the historical fiction about King Mithridates I’m reading, where he liberates the slaves in his territories to prove how different and “Greek” he is compared to the Romans ), and it’s likely the Romans borrowed their ideals of stillness and contemplative “laziness” from their neighbors.

    I wonder if any of those indefatigable labor activists of the early 20th century ever looked around at the workers in the strike camps, singing their folk songs and reciting tales, and had the thought “They aren’t simply workers. We’re complete human beings, we can’t be summed up as “a laborer” or a “worker”. The entire modern view is incomplete, if not completely mistaken.” If they did, they would probably have kept silent ; it was good of you to note that work defines identity for the left, probably moreso than it ever did for the right. Its strange that Chomsky can be so rigidly compartmentalized with his science and activism; the two went hand in hand for Kropotkin, who was a pioneer in evolutionary biology, positing his “Russian science’ of mutual cooperation within and alongside the competitive natural systems of Darwin.

    • Great response. You got the point I was making and added to it.

      I’m not sure about all of the specific impacts. Some kinds of work, of course, will likely become obsolete or experience massive decreases in need for humans involved: cab/bus/limousine drivers, train engineers, manual labor, factory machine operators, service jobs, data entry/management, low level management, etc. But others will be transformed. Creative work likely will increase and, if more people enter the field, might become highly competitive as it could be the last refuge of work for humans. In the future, maybe anyone who can work and wants to work might be in a creative field.

      I’m vaguely familiar with Julius Evola. Maybe I had a book by him a long time ago, but I can’t recall anything about it. Anyway, that is interesting, what you bring up about the change of meaning for those terms. It’s true that the Romans were a slave society. Then again, it’s also true that there have been and still are non-slave societies that aren’t obsessed with work, that don’t use work as a social identity, and aren’t dominated by Protestant-style work ethic. Hunter-gatherers who only ‘work’ a few hours a day don’t think of themselves as being lazy, as they simply have better things to do with their time, often social and communal activities.

      You wrote that, “it was good of you to note that work defines identity for the left, probably moreso than it ever did for the right.” That was a central point to me. Being someone on the political left, I find that frustrating. It’s come up before in my writing (see link below). Leftists are supposed to be the radicals, but the vision of so many leftists seems tame to me. Seeing people as workers is to remain fully within the status quo paradigm, even if one seeks to tweak the paradigm a bit to achieve other ends. This obsession with work as identity is a rather recent invention and yet how quickly it has come to dominate our society, so much that we’ve forgotten that not long ago the world used to be far different.


    • The distinction between radical and reactionary has been on my mind for a while. It relates to Richard Hofstadter’s writings, but Corey Robin wrote one of the most clear analyses. Recently, Mark Lilla’s book on the topic came out and I’ve started reading it.

      I used to fall into standard thinking about this. I saw reactionary as inherently on the political right and radical as inherently on the political left. Still, I was aware that going far enough to either extreme one easily becomes the other.

      I’ve come to a different understanding now. I see reactionary more broadly, as I’ve come to see liberalism as more broadly. We simultaneously live in a reactionary age and a liberal age, everything else being defined by or in contrast to this state of affairs.

      Most liberals and leftists are reactionaries, just as most on the political right are as well. The reason is simple. Most humans, in this society, are reactionaries. We are immersed in a reactionary worldview. Genuine radicalism is rare.

      To even question work as the defining feature of all human reality is a potentially radical act in our society. It doesn’t matter where on the political spectrum that questioning comes from.

  8. http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/42/can-we-live-long-and-prosper/

    “But to a significant degree, Saadia managed to overcome my skepticism by looking at productivity growth over the long haul. He notes that if the global economy grows by just 1 percent per year—a conservative estimate—the quantity of goods and services that an average worker produces today will increase sixteenfold by 2325. And that “can happen without any so-called singularity, whereby some magical new invention would turn us all into superhuman cyborgs who never die.”

    “It took us only 66 years to go from Orville Wright’s 12-second, 120-foot flight to Neil Armstrong’s first step on the surface of the moon. My great grandfather couldn’t have imagined an iPhone, but he also couldn’t have conceived of the Geneva Conventions or the International Criminal Court. In that context, maybe a future of Trekonomics isn’t so outlandish after all.”

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