The United States economy is in bad condition for much of the population, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by watching the news or listening to the president, especially if you live in the comforable economic segregation of a college town, a tech hub, a suburb, or a gentrified neighborhood. As the middle class shrinks, many fall into the working class and many others into poverty. The majority of Americans are some combination of unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid (Alt-Facts of Unemployment) — with almost half the population being low wage workers and 40 million below the poverty line. No one knows the full unemployment rate, as the permanently unemployed are excluded from the data along with teens (Teen Unemployment). As for the numbers of homeless, there is no reliable data at all, but we do know that 6,300 Americans are evicted every day.
Most of these people barely can afford to pay their bills or else end up on welfare or in debt or, worse still, entirely fall through the cracks. For the worst off, those who don’t end up homeless often find themselves in prison or caught up in the legal system. This is because the desperately poor often turn to illegal means to gain money: prostitution, selling drugs, petty theft, etc; or even minor criminal acts (remember that Eric Garner was killed by police for illegally selling cigarettes on a sidewalk); whatever it takes to get by in the hope of avoiding the harshest fate. Even for the homeless to sleep in public or beg or rummage through the trash is a crime in many cities and, if not a crime, it could lead to constant harassment by police, as if life isn’t already hard enough for them.
Unsurprisingly, economic data is also not kept about the prison and jail population, as they are removed from society and made invisible (Invisible Problems of Invisible People). In some communities, the majority of men and many of the women are locked up or were at one time. When in prison, as with the permanently unemployed, they can be eliminated from the economic accounting of these communities and the nation. Imprison enough people and the official unemployment rate will go down, especially as it then creates employment in the need to hire prison guards and the various companies that serve prisons. But for those out on parole who can’t find work or housing, knowing that at least they are being recorded in the data is little comfort. Still others, sometimes entirely innocent, get tangled up in the legal system through police officers targeting minorities and the poor. Forcing people to give false confessions out of threat is a further problem and, unlike in the movies, the poor rarely get legal representation.
Once the poor and homeless are in the legal system, it can be hard to escape for there are all kinds of fees, fines, and penalties that they can’t afford. In various ways, the criminal system, in punishing the victims of our oppressive society, harms not only individuals but breaks apart families and cripples entire communities. The war on drugs, in particular, has been a war on minorities and the poor. Rich white people have high rates of drug use, but no where near an equivalent rate of being stopped and frisked, arrested and convicted for drug crimes. A punitive society is about maintaining class hierarchy and privilege while keeping the poor in their place. As Mother Jones put it, a child who picked up loose coal on the side of railroad tracks or a hobo who stole shoes would be arrested, but steal a whole railroad and you’ll become a United States Senator or be “heralded as a Napoleon of finance” (Size Matters).
A large part of the American population lives paycheck to paycheck, many of them in debt they will never be able to pay off, often from healthcare crises since stress and poverty — especially a poverty diet — worsens health even further. But those who are lucky enough to avoid debt are constantly threatened by one misstep or accident. Imagine getting sick or injured when your employment gives you no sick days and you have a family to house and feed. Keep in mind that most people on welfare are also working and only on it temporarily (On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc). Meanwhile, the biggest employers of the impoverished (Walmart, Amazon, etc) are the biggest beneficiaries of the welfare that is spent at their stores.
So, poverty is good for business, in maintaining both cheap labor subsidized by the government and consumerism likewise subsidized by the government. To the capitalist class, none of this is a problem but an opportunity for profit. That is, profit on top of the trillions of dollars given each year to individual industries, from oil industry to military-industrial complex, that comes from direct and indirect subsidies and much of it hidden — that is to say, corporate welfare and socialism for the rich (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars, Investing in Violence and Death). These are vast sums of public wealth and public resources that, in a just society and functioning social democracy, would support the public good. That is not only money stolen from the general public, including stolen from the poor, but opportunities lost for social improvement and economic reform.
Worse still, it isn’t only theft from living generations for the greater costs are externalized onto the future that will be inherited by the children growing up now and those not yet born. The United Nations is not an anti-capitalist organization in the slightest, but a recent UN report came to a strong conclusion: “The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.” Large sectors of the global economy are a net loss to society. Their private profits and social benefit are a mirage. It is theft hidden behind false pretenses of a supposedly free market that in reality is not free, in any sense of the word.
As a brief side note, let’s make clear the immensity of this theft that extends to global proportions. Big biz and big gov are so closely aligned as to essentially be the same entity, and which controls which is not always clear, be it fascism or inverted totalitarianism. When the Western governments destroyed Iraq and Libya, it was done to steal their wealth and resources, oil in the case of one and gold for the other, and it cost the lives of millions of innocent people. When Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State intervened in Haiti to suppress wages to maintain cheap labor for American corporations, that was not only theft but authoritarian oppression in a country that once started a revolution to overthrow the colonial oppressors that had enslaved them.
These are but a few examples of endless acts of theft, not always violent but often so. All combined, we are talking about possibly thousands of trillions of dollars stolen from the world-wide population every year. And it is not a new phenomenon, as it goes back to the 1800s with the violent theft of land from Native Americans and Mexicans. General Smedley Butler wrote scathingly about these imperial wars and “Dollar Diplomacy” on behalf of “Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers” (Danny Sjursen, Where Have You Gone, Smedley Butler?). Poverty doesn’t happen naturally. It is created and enforced, and the ruling elite responsible are homicidal psychopaths. Such acts are a crime against humanity; more than that, they are pure evil.
Work is supposedly the definition of worth in our society and yet the richer one is the less one works. Meanwhile, the poor are working as much as they are able when they can find work, often working themselves to the point of exhaustion and sickness and early death. Even among the homeless, many of them are working or were recently employed, a surprising number of them low-paid professionals such as public school teachers, Uber drivers, and gig workers who can’t afford housing in high-priced urban areas where the jobs are to be found. Somehow merely not being unemployed is supposed to be a great boon, but working in a state of utter fear of getting by day to day is not exactly a happy situation. Unlike in generations past, a job isn’t a guarantee of a good life, much less the so-called American Dream. Gone are days the days when a single income from an entry level factory job could support a family with several kids, a nice house, a new car, regular vacations, cheap healthcare, and a comfortable nest egg.
As this shows, it’s far from limited to the poorest. These days most college students, the fortunate few to have higher education (less than a quarter of Americans), are struggling to find work at all (Jordan Weissman, 53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed—How?). Yet those without a college degree are facing far greater hardship. And it’s easy to forget that the United States citizenry remains largely uneducated because few can afford college with tuition going up. Even most college students come out with massive debt and they are the lucky ones. What once was a privilege has become a burden for many. A college education doesn’t guarantee a good job as it did in the past, but chances for employment are even worse without a degree — so, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
It’s not only that wages have stagnated for most and, relative to inflation, dropped for many others. Costs of livings (housing, food, etc) have simultaneously gone up, not to mention the disappearance of job security and good benefits. Disparities in general have become vaster — disparities in wealth, healthcare, education, opportunities, resources, and political representation. The growing masses at the bottom of society are part of the permanent underclass, which is to say they are the American caste of untouchables or rather unspeakables (Barbara Ehrenreich: Poverty, Homelesness). The mainstream mention them only when they seem a threat, such as fears about them dragging down the economy or in scapegoating them for the election of Donald Trump as president or whatever other distraction of the moment. Simple human concern for the least among us, however, rarely comes up as a priority.
Anyway, why are we still idealizing a fully employed workforce (Bullshit Jobs) and so demonizing the unemployed (Worthless Non-Workers) at a time when many forms of work are becoming increasingly meaningless and unnecessary, coming close to obsolete? Such demonization doesn’t bode well for the future (Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration). It never really was about work but about social control. If the people are kept busy, tired and stressed, they won’t have the time and energy for community organizing and labor organizing, democratic participation and political campaigning, protesting and rioting or even maybe revolution. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we ever harnessed a fraction of the human potential that is wasted and thrown away, if we used public wealth and public resources to invest in the citizenry and promote the public good, we could transform society over night. What are we waiting for? Why do we tolerate and allow this moral wrongdoing to continue?
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A commenter below shared a documentary (How poor people survive in the USA) from the DW, a German public brodcaster. It is strange to watch foreign news reporting on the United States as if it were about a developing country that was in the middle of a crisis. Maybe that is because the United States is a developing country in the middle of a crisis. Many parts of this country have poverty, disease, and mortality rates that are as high or higher than what s seen in many countries that were once called third world. And inequality, once considered absolute proof of a banana republic, is now higher here than it ever was in the original banana republics. In fact, inequality — that is to say concentrated wealth and power — has never been this radically extreme in any society in all of history.
It’s not about a few poor people in various places but about the moral failure and democratic failure of an entire dysfunctional and corrupt system. And it’s not limited to the obvious forms of poverty and inequality for the consequences to the victims are harsh, from parasite load to toxic exposure that causes physical sickness and mental illness, stunts neurocognitive development and lowers IQ, increases premature puberty and behavioral problems, and generally destroys lives. We’ve known about this information for decades. It even occasionally, if only briefly and superficially, shows up in corporate media reporting. We can’t honestly claim ignorance as a defense of our apathy and indifference, of our collective failure.
Poverty isn’t a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash
by Rutger Bregman
Why are poor people more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do poor people make poor decisions? It’s simply because … they’re poor. In this piece, I look at research from North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains to Tamil Nadu in the South of India to examine a revolutionary theory that looks at the cognitive effects of living in poverty. What I found is that it can correspond to losing 14 IQ points. Or, to put it in another way, poverty has the same cognitive effect as losing a night’s sleep. The difference is, you can catch up on that sleep, but you can’t take a break from poverty. And the traditional ways governments try to tackle poverty don’t help either because they usually focus on helping a person overcome a lack of something, through education, financial guidance, or job programmes. But poverty and poor decisions aren’t a lack of anything except money.
On Conflict and Stupidity
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Parasites Among the Poor and the Plutocrats
Stress and Shittiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Lead Toxicity is a Hyperobject
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Trauma, Enbodied and Extended
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
Public Health, Public Good
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Low-Wage Jobs are the New American Normal
by Dawn Allen
It’s clear that the existence of the middle class was a historic anomaly. In 2017, MIT economist Peter Temin argued that we’re splitting into a two-class system. There’s a small upper class, about 20% of Americans, predominantly white, degree holders, working largely in the technology and finance sectors, that holds the lion’s share of wealth and political power in the country. Then, there’s a much larger precariat below them, “minority-heavy” but still mostly white, with little power and low-wage, if any, jobs. Escaping lower-class poverty depends upon navigating two flawless, problem-free decades, starting in early childhood, ending with a valuable college degree. The chances of this happening for many are slim, while implementing it stresses kids out and even makes them meaner. Fail, and you risk “shit-life syndrome” and a homeless retirement.
Some major Western economies are close to full employment, but only in comparison to their official unemployment rate. Relying on that benchmark alone is a mistake: Since the global financial crisis, underemployment has become the new unemployment.
In a recent paper, David Bell and David Blanchflower singled out underemployment as a reason why wages in the U.S. and Europe are growing slower than they did before the global financial crisis, despite unemployment levels that are close to historic lows. In some economies with lax labor market regulation — the U.K. and the Netherlands, for example — more people are on precarious part-time contracts than out of work. That could allow politicians to use just the headline unemployment number without going into details about the quality of the jobs people manage to hold down.
Measuring underemployment is difficult everywhere. To obtain more or less accurate data, those working part-time should probably be asked how many hours they’d like to put in, and those reporting a large number of hours they wish they could add should be recorded as underemployed. But most statistical agencies make do with the number of part-timers who say they’d like a full-time job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide an official underemployment number, and existing semi-official measures, according to Bell and Blanchflower, could seriously underestimate the real situation.
The need for governments to show improvement on jobs since the global crisis has led to an absurd situation. Generous standards for measuring unemployment produce numbers that don’t agree with most people’s personal experience and the anecdotal evidence from friends and family. A lot of people are barely working, and wages are going up too slowly to fit a full employment picture. At the same time, underemployment, which, according to Bell and Blanchflower, has “replaced unemployment as the main indicator of labor market slack,” is rarely discussed and unreliably measured.
Governments should provide a clearer picture of how many people are not working as much as they’d like to — and of how many hours they’d like to add. Labor market flexibility is a nice tool in a crisis, but during an economic expansion, the focus should be on improving employment quality, not just reducing the number of people who draw an unemployment check. An increasing number of better jobs, and as a consequence wage growth, becomes the most important measure of policy success.
The War on Work — and How to End It
by Edward L. Glaeser
In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. And in some locations, like Kentucky, the numbers are even higher: Fewer than 70 percent of men lacking any college education go to work every day in that state. […]
From 1945 to 1968, only 5 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 — prime-age males — were out of work. But during the 1970s, something changed. The mild recession of 1969–70 produced a drop in the employment rate of this group, from 95 percent to 92.5 percent, and there was no rebound. The 1973–74 downturn dragged the employment rate below 90 percent, and, after the 1979–82 slump, it would stay there throughout most of the 1980s. The recessions at the beginning and end of the 1990s caused further deterioration in the rate. Economic recovery failed to restore the earlier employment ratio in both instances.
The greatest fall, though, occurred in the Great Recession. In 2011, more than one in five prime-age men were out of work, a figure comparable to the Great Depression. But while employment came back after the Depression, it hasn’t today. The unemployment rate may be low, but many people have quit the labor force entirely and don’t show up in that number. As of December 2016, 15.2 percent of prime-age men were jobless — a figure worse than at any point between World War II and the Great Recession, except during the depths of the early 1980s recession.
The trend in the female employment ratio is more complicated because of the postwar rise in the number of women in the formal labor market. In 1955, 37 percent of prime-age women worked. By 2000, that number had increased to 75 percent — a historical high. Since then, the number has come down: It stood at 71.7 percent at the end of 2016. Interpreting these figures is tricky, since more women than men voluntarily leave the labor force, often finding meaningful work in the home. The American Time Survey found that non-employed women spend more than six hours a day doing housework and caring for others. Non-employed men spend less than three hours doing such tasks.
Joblessness is disproportionately a condition of the poorly educated. While 72 percent of college graduates over age 25 have jobs, only 41 percent of high-school dropouts are working. The employment-rate gap between the most and least educated groups has widened from about 6 percent in 1977 to almost 15 percent today. The regional variation is also enormous. Kentucky’s 23 percent male jobless rate leads the nation; in Iowa, the rate is under 10 percent. […]
The rise of joblessness among the young has been a particularly pernicious effect of the Great Recession. Job loss was extensive among 25–34-year-old men and 35–44-year-old men between 2007 and 2009. The 25–34-year-olds have substantially gone back to work, but the number of employed 35–44-year-olds, which dropped by 2 million at the start of the Great Recession, hasn’t recovered. The dislocated workers in this group seem to have left the labor force permanently.
Lost in Recession, Toll on Underemployed and Underpaid
by Michael Cooper
These are anxious days for American workers. Many, like Ms. Woods, are underemployed. Others find pay that is simply not keeping up with their expenses: adjusted for inflation, the median hourly wage was lower in 2011 than it was a decade earlier, according to data from a forthcoming book by the Economic Policy Institute, “The State of Working America, 12th Edition.” Good benefits are harder to come by, and people are staying longer in jobs that they want to leave, afraid that they will not be able to find something better. Only 2.1 million people quit their jobs in March, down from the 2.9 million people who quit in December 2007, the first month of the recession.
“Unfortunately, the wage problems brought on by the recession pile on top of a three-decade stagnation of wages for low- and middle-wage workers,” said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group in Washington that studies the labor market. “In the aftermath of the financial crisis, there has been persistent high unemployment as households reduced debt and scaled back purchases. The consequence for wages has been substantially slower growth across the board, including white-collar and college-educated workers.”
Now, with the economy shaping up as the central issue of the presidential election, both President Obama and Mitt Romney have been relentlessly trying to make the case that their policies would bring prosperity back. The unease of voters is striking: in a New York Times/CBS News poll in April, half of the respondents said they thought the next generation of Americans would be worse off, while only about a quarter said it would have a better future.
And household wealth is dropping. The Federal Reserve reported last week that the economic crisis left the median American family in 2010 with no more wealth than in the early 1990s, wiping away two decades of gains. With stocks too risky for many small investors and savings accounts paying little interest, building up a nest egg is a challenge even for those who can afford to sock away some of their money.
Expenses like putting a child through college — where tuition has been rising faster than inflation or wages — can be a daunting task. […]
Things are much worse for people without college degrees, though. The real entry-level hourly wage for men who recently graduated from high school fell to $11.68 last year, from $15.64 in 1979, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. And the percentage of those jobs that offer health insurance has plummeted to 22.8 percent, from 63.3 percent in 1979.
Though inflation has stayed relatively low in recent years, it has remained high for some of the most important things: college, health care and even, recently, food. The price of food in the home rose by 4.8 percent last year, one of the biggest jumps in the last two decades.
Meet the low-wage workforce
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman
Low-wage workers comprise a substantial share of the workforce. More than 53 million people, or 44% of all workers ages 18 to 64 in the United States, earn low hourly wages. More than half (56%) are in their prime working years of 25-50, and this age group is also the most likely to be raising children (43%). They are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, and many face economic hardship and difficult roads to higher-paying jobs. Slightly more than half are the sole earners in their families or make major contributions to family income. Nearly one-third live below 150% of the federal poverty line (about $36,000 for a family of four), and almost half have a high school diploma or less.
Women and Black workers, two groups for whom there is ample evidence of labor market discrimination, are overrepresented among low-wage workers.
To lift the American economy, we need to understand the workers at the bottom of it
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman
These low-wage workers are a racially diverse group, and disproportionately female. Fifty-two percent are white, 25% are Latino or Hispanic, 15% are Black, and 5% are Asian American. Females account for 54% of low-wage workers, higher than their total share of the entire workforce (48%).
Fifty-seven percent of low-wage workers work full time year-round, considerably lower than mid/high-wage workers (81%). Among those working less than full time year-round, the data don’t specify if this is voluntary or involuntary, and it is probably a mix.
Two-thirds of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25-54, and nearly half of this group (40%) are raising children. Given the links between education and earnings, it is not surprising that low-wage workers have lower levels of education than mid/high-wage workers. Fourteen percent of low-wage workers have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 44% among mid/high-wage workers, and nearly half (49%) have a high school diploma or less, compared to 24% among mid/high-wage workers. […]
The largest cluster consists of prime-age adults with a high school diploma or less
The largest cluster, accounting for 15 million people (28% of low-wage workers) consists of workers ages 25 to 50 with no more than a high school diploma. It is one of two clusters that are majority male (54%) and it is the most racially and ethnically diverse of all groups, with the lowest share of white workers (40%) and highest share of Latino or Hispanic workers (39%). Many in this cluster also experience economic hardship, with high shares living below 150% of the federal poverty line (39%), receiving safety net assistance (35%), and relying solely on their wages to support their families (31%). This cluster is also the most likely to have children (44%).
Low-wage work is more pervasive than you think, and there aren’t enough “good jobs” to go around
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman
Even as the U.S. economy hums along at a favorable pace, there is a vast segment of workers today earning wages low enough to leave their livelihood and families extremely vulnerable. That’s one of the main takeaways from our new analysis, in which we found that 53 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64—accounting for 44% of all workers—qualify as “low-wage.” Their median hourly wages are $10.22, and median annual earnings are about $18,000. (See the methods section of our paper to learn about how we identify low-wage workers.)
The existence of low-wage work is hardly a surprise, but most people—except, perhaps, low-wage workers themselves—underestimate how prevalent it is. Many also misunderstand who these workers are. They are not only students, people at the beginning of their careers, or people who need extra spending money. A majority are adults in their prime working years, and low-wage work is the primary way they support themselves and their families.
Low-wage work is a source of economic vulnerability
There are two central questions when considering the prospects of low-wage workers:
- Is the job a springboard or a dead end?
- Does the job provide supplemental, “nice to have” income, or is it critical to covering basic living expenses?
We didn’t analyze the first question directly, but other research is not encouraging, finding that while some workers move on from low-wage work to higher-paying jobs, many do not. Women, people of color, and those with low levels of education are the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs. In our analysis, over half of low-wage workers have levels of education suggesting they will stay low-wage workers. This includes 20 million workers ages 25-64 with a high school diploma or less, and another seven million young adults 18-24 who are not in school and do not have a college degree.
As to the second question, a few data points show that for millions of workers, low-wage work is a primary source of financial support—which leaves these families economically vulnerable.
- Measured by poverty status: 30% of low-wage workers (16 million people) live in families earning below 150% of the poverty line. These workers get by on very low incomes: about $30,000 for a family of three and $36,000 for a family of four.
- Measured by the presence or absence of other earners: 26% of low-wage workers (14 million people) are the only earners in their families, getting by on median annual earnings of about $20,000. Another 25% (13 million people) live in families in which all workers earn low wages, with median family earnings of about $42,000. These 27 million low-wage workers rely on their earnings to provide for themselves and their families, as they are either the family’s primary earner or a substantial contributor to total earnings. Their earnings are unlikely to represent “nice to have” supplemental income.
The low-wage workforce is part of every regional economy
We analyzed data for nearly 400 metropolitan areas, and the share of workers in a particular place earning low wages ranges from a low of 30% to a high of 62%. The relative size of the low-wage population in a given place relates to broader labor market conditions such as the strength of the regional labor market and industry composition.
Low-wage workers make up the highest share of the workforce in smaller places in the southern and western parts of the United States, including Las Cruces, N.M. and Jacksonville, N.C. (both 62%); Visalia, Calif. (58%); Yuma, Ariz. (57%); and McAllen, Texas (56%). These and other metro areas where low-wage workers account for high shares of the workforce are places with lower employment rates that concentrate in agriculture, real estate, and hospitality.
Post-Work: The Radical Idea of a World Without Jobs
by Andy Beckett
As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households. In the US, the average wage has stagnated for half a century.
As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as “working in a non-graduate role”. In the US, “belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s”, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)
Work is increasingly precarious: more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes; more corporate “restructurings” for those still with actual jobs. As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership – for much of the 20th century, the main successes of mainstream western economic policy – work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises. For many people, not just the very wealthy, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home.
Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.
The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world – despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.
Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health: “Stress … an overwhelming ‘to-do’ list … [and] long hours sitting at a desk,” the Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming notes in his book, The Death of Homo Economicus, are beginning to be seen by medical authorities as akin to smoking.
Work is badly distributed. People have too much, or too little, or both in the same month. And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations. “The crisis of work is also a crisis of home,” declared the social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in a 2017 paper. This neglect will only get worse as the population grows and ages.
And finally, beyond all these dysfunctions, loom the most-discussed, most existential threats to work as we know it: automation, and the state of the environment. Some recent estimates suggest that between a third and a half of all jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence in the next two decades. Other forecasters doubt whether work can be sustained in its current, toxic form on a warming planet. […]
And yet, as Frayne points out, “in some ways, we’re already in a post-work society. But it’s a dystopic one.” Office employees constantly interrupting their long days with online distractions; gig-economy workers whose labour plays no part in their sense of identity; and all the people in depressed, post-industrial places who have quietly given up trying to earn – the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust.
Last October, research by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that UK unemployment is three times higher than the official count of those claiming the dole, thanks to people who come under the broader definition of unemployment used by the Labour Force Survey, or are receiving incapacity benefits. When Frayne is not talking and writing about post-work, or doing his latest temporary academic job, he sometimes makes a living collecting social data for the Welsh government in former mining towns. “There is lots of worklessness,” he says, “but with no social policies to dignify it.”
Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In today’s lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell. As with free-market capitalism in general, the worse work gets, the harder it is to imagine actually escaping it, so enormous are the steps required.
Many Britons work too much. It’s not just the 37.5 hours a week clocked up on average by full-time workers; it’s the unpaid overtime too. According to the TUC, workers put in 2.1bn unpaid hours last year – that’s an astonishing £33.6bn of free labour.
That overwork causes significant damage. Last year, 12.5m work days were lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The biggest single cause by a long way – in some 44% of cases – was workload. Stress can heighten the risk of all manner of health problems, from high blood pressure to strokes. Research even suggests that working long hours increases the risk of excessive drinking. And then there’s the economic cost: over £5bn a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive. No wonder the public health expert John Ashton is among those suggesting a four-day week could improve the nation’s health. […]
This is no economy-wrecking suggestion either. German and Dutch employees work less than we do but their economies are stronger than ours. It could boost productivity: the evidence suggests if you work fewer hours, you are more productive, hour for hour – and less stress means less time off work. Indeed, a recent experiment with a six-hour working day at a Swedish nursing home produced promising results: higher productivity and fewer sick days. If those productivity gains are passed on to staff, working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily entail a pay cut.
Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you
by Peter Fleming
The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center recently used activity trackers to monitor 8,000 workers over the age of 45. The findings were striking. The average period of inactivity during each waking day was 12.3 hours. Employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. The authors concluded that sitting in an office for long periods has a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning.
When researchers at University College London looked at 85,000 workers, mainly middle-aged men and women, they found a correlation between overwork and cardiovascular problems, especially an irregular heart beat or atrial fibrillation, which increases the chances of a stroke five-fold.
Labour unions are increasingly raising concerns about excessive work, too, especially its impact on relationships and physical and mental health. Take the case of the IG Metall union in Germany. Last week, 15,000 workers (who manufacture car parts for firms such as Porsche) called a strike, demanding a 28-hour work week with unchanged pay and conditions. It’s not about indolence, they say, but self-protection: they don’t want to die before their time. Science is on their side: research from the Australian National University recently found that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing.
Is there a healthy and acceptable level of work? According to US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most modern employees are productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry. Pang argues that the workday could easily be scaled back without undermining standards of living or prosperity. […]
Other studies back up this observation. The Swedish government, for example, funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.
All this is encouraging as far as it goes. But almost all of these studies focus on the problem from a numerical point of view – the amount of time spent working each day, year-in and year-out. We need to go further and begin to look at the conditions of paid employment. If a job is wretched and overly stressful, even a few hours of it can be an existential nightmare. Someone who relishes working on their car at the weekend, for example, might find the same thing intolerable in a large factory, even for a short period. All the freedom, creativity and craft are sucked out of the activity. It becomes an externally imposed chore rather than a moment of release.
Why is this important?
Because there is a danger that merely reducing working hours will not change much, when it comes to health, if jobs are intrinsically disenfranchising. In order to make jobs more conducive to our mental and physiological welfare, much less work is definitely essential. So too are jobs of a better kind, where hierarchies are less authoritarian and tasks are more varied and meaningful.
Capitalism doesn’t have a great track record for creating jobs such as these, unfortunately. More than a third of British workers think their jobs are meaningless, according to a survey by YouGov. And if morale is that low, it doesn’t matter how many gym vouchers, mindfulness programmes and baskets of organic fruit employers throw at them. Even the most committed employee will feel that something is fundamentally missing. A life.