A Post-Work Society: The Potential of Technological and Social Advancement In Labor Reduction
By David Metcalfe
November 1, 2019
This article was inspired by one of my all time favourite series of essays from Duke University Law School, in the journal “Law and Contemporary Problems” entitled, “Work After The End Of Employment”.
A Brief History of Societal Development and Human Labor
The sustainability of human life has always been dependent on labor in some form. In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, individuals would expend their labor in hunting animals and gathering natural food and supplies. As agriculture and the domestication of animals developed, human labor was expended primarily towards farm work. Over time, specialization of human labor and technological advancement developed together in tandem: the ability to create and use metals resulted in blacksmiths, the ability to use medicines and surgical techniques to minimize or cure disease resulted in doctors, and so forth. But social development also created new types of human labor: the development of the “rule of law” created a need for lawyers, judges, and a variety of administrators, the development of collective social security resulted in orphanages, schools, police officers, construction workers, and so forth.
The question of whether technological and social advancement reduces human labor has been generally answered historically by, “physically yes, mentally no.” Basically, the amount of physical labor an average person does in the 21st century is dramatically less than what the average person would have done in previous civilizations. However, the average individual’s application of intelligence is much greater now than ever. Societal advancement has exchanged physical labor for mental labor, due to the increasing complexity of all aspects of society.
But while this may be true in a very general sense, many advancements have actually increased physical labor, such as the building of the pyramids by the Egyptians several thousand years ago, or the labor increases during WWII to develop, build, transport, and implement military technology. In the modern day, things like oil production and housing construction, which rely heavily on physical labor, have a direct correlation between increased industry and increased physical labor.
The other potential limitation of assuming this narrative is the idea that hunter-gatherer societies may have actually not worked that much, in terms of hours. The reason I don’t think that idea is contradictory (assuming it’s even true in the first place) is that while they may have worked less, they got significantly less production in goods and services. Obviously, having a meager existence of bare survival will take less labor than the advanced societies that were to come about later on. In the modern day, if an individual wanted only to barely survive, they could expend significantly less work than anyone in a hunter-gatherer society would have. I think it is clear that the resulting production of goods and services from one hour of human labor is much greater now than in hunter-gather societies, so proportionally, there is still less work. And lastly, even if hunter-gatherers only worked 4-6 hours per day, all of that work would have been physical labor. In our modern society, while the average person works about 6-8 hours a day, a huge percentage are not expending physical labor.
What Workers Want
It seems that humans generally like to work, but the type, duration, and context of that work is highly subjective. I’ve known many people who love to sit in an office for 8 hours every day and do calculations and data entry. I’ve known other people who would consider that hell on earth. I’ve known many people who love to do hard, physical work for as much as 16 hours per day. I’ve also known people who don’t want to do any work, and would be completely content to just watch movies and play video games all day, every day. This is to say, there cannot be an objective, “one size fits all” definition of what work humans should and shouldn’t do.
In free market economies, work is an exchange of individual labor (costs time and effort) for money (benefit of resource acquisition). Any work done by an individual is basically a cost-benefit analysis: is my time and energy worth what I’m getting in return? So, as in any cost-benefit decision, the individual seeks to minimize the cost and maximize the benefit. However, as I said, since work is highly subjective, not everyone views work as a “cost”; or people view its cost quite differently. But one fundamental is that everyone wants financial compensation in exchange for their work.
Another fundamental is that individuals will seek to maximize their financial compensation. So, if there are two equal jobs, and one pays more than the other, the individual will take the higher paying job. This means that employees and employers have a certain bargaining relationship, wherein employers, seeking to maximize profits, want to pay their employees as little as possible, and employees, seeking to maximize their income, will want to make as much as possible. Ideally, a balance will be found between what is economically profitable for the business and what is sufficient financial compensation for the employee.
Aside from the immediate financial things, people want to be treated well. They want to be respected by their coworkers, given credit for things they do well, and given opportunity for advancement. Workers also want their career-life balance to work together harmoniously. For example, they want to be able to have and raise children while still keeping their jobs. They also generally like holistic benefits, like a 401k, paid maternity leave, and healthcare coverage. How an individual is treated, the satisfaction they feel from their work, how things in their life co-ordinate with their work, and various benefits, while not bringing immediate compensation, all affect the value an individual gets from their work.
Legal Work: What Defines The Social and Economic Minimum For Workers?
During the African slave trade, Americans made Africans work for them. This reduced the amount of physical labor done by the white people, and cost them basically no money, because the Africans were not getting paid. Since labor creates economic production, the economy grew substantially. However, only a very small percentage of that money made its way to the actual labourers (the Africans were given enough for bare survival), and the vast majority went to the white slave owners.
In a post-slavery society, we like to think that the economy no longer functions this way. However, for a great many people in modern day America, their life is not all that different from the lives of slaves. And for very wealthy people, their life is not all that different from the lives of slave owners. Basically, a single mother working 8 hours a day as a waitress at “Applebees” might earn $10/hour with tips. She has expended a great deal of labor over the course of her day, and the $80 goes only to cover her very basic needs. Meanwhile, the manager at “Applebees”, who expends much less physical labor, makes $300/day. Furthermore, the CEO of “Applebees”, who expends no physical labor, makes $5,000/day. Just like the white slave owners earned their money from the labor of African slaves, in modern day America, owners of the means of production earn their money from the labor of the poor working class.
Now, what if, instead of paying the single mother $10/hour, she got reduced to $2/hour? There are two responses she could have. The first is to keep working, and eventually die from not having enough money for her basic needs. The second is to get a job elsewhere that pays more. However, she may not be able to get another job, as there may be no immediate opportunities for hire. In addition, that job still needs to be done, so even if she doesn’t do it, some poor individual probably will. The way we avoid that situation is through a minimum wage. Minimum wage is set at what is deemed to be enough to meet the basic needs of an individual, while not overburdening the businesses paying them.
But like I said, workers do not just want sufficient financial compensation, but also a good work environment and lifestyle. This is maintained by laws around acceptable workplace standards. These include things to prevent harassment, discrimination, excessive work, and promote a general culture of a work environment where people can feel good about themselves and what they do. There are also social programs that the government may provide to those who do not get their holistic needs met by their employer, such as Old Age Security, healthcare coverage, and child care.
To summarize, the social and economic minimum for workers is an approximate attempt for all workers to be able to meet their basic economic needs, have a positive work environment, and enjoy a good lifestyle.
Cutting Out The Middle Man: Novel Innovations and The Rise of Platform and Gig Economies
In the previous example I used of the waitress at “Applebees”, her well being is protected by three basic legal requirements: minimum wage, acceptable workplace standards, and social programs (either government or employer provided). The owners of the means of production want to pay her less in order to increase their profits, but legally, they cannot have an employee and treat her worse than the law requires.
But what if a company was able to get rid of the employee entirely and still make the same economic production? Or, what if they still needed the employee, but found a way to not have to meet the legal requirements of an employee?
This is the nature of platform and gig economies. A great example of a platform economy is “Amazon”. Instead of going to a store, people just buy things directly online. All of the jobs that occur at a store, from salesmen to janitor to cashier, are now gone from the purchasing process. This makes the profits higher for the owners, and enables them to lower prices for the consumers.
But in this process, a large number of people lose jobs. Sure, there are other jobs produced, like delivery drivers, shippers/receivers, customer service phone workers, and so forth. But unlike past advancements that resulted in a net increase of jobs, platform companies, like “Amazon”, actually create a net job loss. In addition, as things like drone technology for deliveries and computer systems capable of running shipping/receiving and financial processes improve, human labor will further decrease.
Gig economies still require human labor, but they get around typical work place restrictions. A great example of a gig economy is “Uber”. Taxi drivers typically are paid minimum wage, and they use a company vehicle, so they don’t pay gas, insurance or maintenance out of their own pocket. The expense of a taxi driver to a company probably works out to $15/hour. What “Uber” does is turns employed taxi drivers into unemployed, temporary workers. “Uber” drivers do not have a guaranteed minimum wage, and have to pay their own vehicle expenses. The cost of an “Uber” driver to the company is probably around $10/hour. This means they are able to lower prices for consumers and still make a good profit; thereby inevitably winning the market over taxi drivers.
Other examples of technology reducing human labor in recent years include “self-checkout” at “Wal-Mart”, mobile ordering at “McDonald’s”, and a variety of automated manufacturing at major production facilities for consumer products.
The Problems And Solutions To Labor/Worker Compensation Reductions
As companies like “Amazon” and “Uber” continue to make more people unemployed or underemployed, and technological advancement moves physical labor to more automated processes, as well as computers doing much of the mental labor for humans, human labor is set to be significantly reduced in a practical sense throughout the rest of the 21st century.
This would mean, of course, that the unemployment rate would become very high. Since employment is the primary way of people making money, income inequality and poverty would dramatically increase. There are three potential solutions:
- A federal jobs guarantee
- A universal basic income
- Mandatory shorter working hours
Both the federal jobs guarantee and the universal basic income would likely have to come from tax revenues. So basically, the few who are getting extremely wealthy as a result of cutting out the middle man would have to get taxed more and end up paying the middle man anyway. The federal jobs guarantee would provide artificial, but still societally beneficial, work for people displaced by changes in job markets. So this could mean a construction project to renovate old schools or roads, or hiring more teachers or police officers. Whatever it is, the government would have the ability to see where needs exist in the economy, and incentivize people to meet them.
A universal basic income would be a certain amount of money deemed necessary for people to live on. Only low or no income people would be recipients. They would not produce any labor, but would simply exist. This is, in my opinion, an ok thing, but I think it is better for society if they can also work in some capacity.
Mandatory shorter working hours would essentially spread out the same amount of labor among more people. So, there might be 1000 hours per week at a certain company, and 20 employees that work 50 hours each. They would then cut all 20 employees’ hours in half, to 25, and then hire twice as many people, so they would then have 40 employees working 25 hours per week.
Most likely, there will need to be a combination of all three of these things: basic income for poor people in order to eliminate poverty, artificial job creation from the government to benefit society and use human labor effectively, and shorter working hours to maintain low unemployment rates.
Humanity has progressed over time from a simple existence, relying primarily on physical labor, to a very complex one, relying heavily on mental labor. This increased complexity has brought some amazing rewards, like a dramatically increased quality of life, and incredible accomplishments, both social and technological. But increased complexity has also created increasingly complex problems, and needs to be met with thoughtful, sustainable, and practical solutions.
People are varied in their approach to work, but they all want certain fundamental things: to be appropriately compensated financially, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to enjoy hobbies, time with family and friends, and other personal pursuits. The legal system has kept these goals in mind in establishing a minimum wage and workplace standards. However, companies like “Amazon” and “Uber”, as well as increased mechanical automation and computer systems, threaten these goals for common workers, while benefiting only a small few individuals.
The future of society is not one with literally no work, but it does appear to be one with less reliance on human labor than ever before. This is an existential societal problem, and requires some major shifts in the way we think about work and its accompanying social and economic advancement. The market will need increased restrictions, but not just any restrictions; ones that are effective in allocating labor and resources to meet the needs of all people. Which nations will be able to make these shifts effectively will likely play a significant role in the success of the lives of the people who live there. The nations unable to make these shifts will likely see increased income inequality, unemployment, and poverty.