In Sunday’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat invokes the utopian dream of “a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.” This “post-work” politics may be unfamiliar to many readers of the Times, but it won’t be new to readers of Jacobin.
Post-work socialism has a proud, if dissident tradition, from Paul Lafargue to Oscar Wilde to Bertrand Russell to André Gorz. It’s a vision that animates my writing on topics ranging across the contradictions of the work ethic, the possibilities of a post-scarcity society, the politics of sex work, and the connection between post-work politics and feminism. Others have addressed related themes, like Chris Maisano on shorter working hours as both a response to unemployment and a step forward for human freedom, and Sarah Leonard on the pro-work corporate feminism of Marissa Mayer.
The basic vision of the post-work left, then, is one of fewer jobs, and shorter hours at the jobs we do have. Douthat suggests, however, that this vision is already becoming a reality, and he warns that it is not a result we should welcome.
It’s something of a victory that a New York Times columnist is even acknowledging the post-work perspective on labor politics, rather than ignoring it completely. Hopefully he’s been taking his own advice, and reading about it in Jacobin. But Douthat’s take is a rather peculiar one. To begin with, he claims that we have entered an era 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.” But it’s not clear what he bases this claim on. It’s true that the labor force participation rate — the percentage of the working-age population that is employed or looking for work — has declined in recent years. From a high of around 67 percent in the late 1990s, it declined to around 66 percent before the beginning of the last recession. The recession itself then produced another sharp decline, and the rate now stands below 64 percent.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this reflects masses of people taking advantage of our material abundance to increase their leisure time. As those numbers show, most of the decline in the participation rate was due to the recession (and some of the rest is probably due to demographic shifts). If the economy returned to full employment — that is, if everyone who wanted a job could actually find one — the participation rate would probably rise again. For how else are people supposed to “find ways to live . . . without a steady job,” when incomes have stayed flat for decades despite great increases in productivity?
The post-work landscape that Douthat discovers is therefore very different than the one you’ll find surveyed in the pages of Jacobin. An economy in which people must get by on some combination of scant public benefits, charity, and hustling — because they are unable to find a job — is very different from a world where people are able to make a real choice to either cut back their hours or drop out of paid work entirely for a period of time. That’s why, in different ways, Maisano, myself, and Seth Ackerman have all emphasized that full employment is central to the project of work reduction, because tight labor markets give workers the bargaining power to demand shorter hours even without cuts in pay. And it’s why I have especially emphasized the demand for a Universal Basic Income, which would make it possible to survive outside of paid labor for a much larger segment of the population.
If Douthat’s account of labor force participation is misleading, his account of working time is equally incomplete. “Long hours,” he claims, “are increasingly the province of the rich.” While this claim isn’t precisely wrong, at least within certain narrow parameters, it obscures much more than it reveals. Douthat links to an economic study that finds longer average weekly hours among those at the top of the wage distribution, relative to those at the bottom. This is not a unique finding; the sociologists Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson found something similar in their study The Time Divide. And as it happens, I have some published academic research on the topic as well. In many rich countries, including the United States, highly educated workers (e.g., those with college degrees) report longer average work weeks than the less educated (who also tend to be lower waged, of course).
This finding is often deployed to dismiss the significance of long hours, much the way Douthat does here. If the longest hours are being worked by those who presumably have the most power and leverage in the labor market, the argument goes, then long hours shouldn’t be such a concern. But this is wrong for several reasons.
First, just because hours are longest at the top end of the wage distribution doesn’t mean they aren’t long elsewhere as well — in my research, I found that reported average hours among men were above 40 hours per week across all educational categories. And hours on the job doesn’t cover all the other time people spend working: time spent commuting to work, time spent performing unpaid household and care work (which those on low wages often can’t buy paid replacements for), and what the sociologist Guy Standing calls “work-for-labor”: the work of looking for jobs, navigating state and private bureaucracies, networking, and other things that are preconditions for getting work but are themselves unpaid.
Second, working time is characterized by pervasive mismatches between hours and preferences, which are more complicated than just hours that are “too long.” Jeremy Reynolds has found that a majority of workers say that they would like to work a different schedule than they do, but that these preferences are split between those who would like to work less and those who would like more hours — overemployment alongside underemployment.
The finding that many people report working fewer hours than they would like reflects an economy in which many low-wage workers face uncertain schedules and enforced part-time hours that exclude them from benefits. These workers would clearly benefit from predictable hours, higher wages, and recourse to good health care benefits that aren’t tied to employment, but it’s far from clear that they would benefit from more work, as such.
And Douthat would almost seem to agree. In a passage I could have written myself, he says:
There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?
Amazingly, he follows this up by answering that last question with a resounding yes. And I might almost be inclined to follow him, if he based his conclusion on the argument I’ve just presented: that in an environment of pervasive unemployment, high costs of living, and a meager and narrowly targeted welfare state, the loss of work isn’t exactly something to celebrate.
Perhaps realizing, however, that this austere vision is hardly a compelling case for the conservative worldview, Douthat tries a different tack. Having acknowledged the implausibility of the “dignity of labor” case for much actually-existing work, he neverthelsss moves right on to the claim that “even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.” He concludes with an appeal to the importance of “human flourishing,” but it’s hard to see much social capital, lasting interpersonal connection, or human flourishing going on in the Amazon warehouse — or for that matter, at Pret a Manger.
Although it’s pitched in a kindlier, New York Times–friendly tone, Douthat’s argument is reminiscent of Charles Murray’s argument that the working class needs the discipline and control provided by working for the boss, lest they come socially unglued altogether. Good moralistic scold that he is, Douthat sees the decline of work as part of “the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship.” It seems more plausible that it is neoliberal economic conditions themselves — a scaled back social safety net, precarious employment, rising debts and uncertain incomes — that have produced whatever increase in anomie and isolation we experience. The answer to that is not more work but more protection from life’s unpredictable risks, more income, more equality, more democracy — and more time beyond work to take advantage of all of it.