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Monday October 25, 2021

Future of work

September 28, 2021

In her seminal 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks argues that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in US culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity. As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did, they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul Lafargue, would allow us to expand ‘our needs and desires beyond their usual objects’ – to understand how we want to spend our finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they are rejecting the idea of work as our ‘highest calling and moral duty … as the necessary center of social life.’ It also allows workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving their present circumstances.

The current historical moment isn’t without its precedents. A kind of mass work refusal took place in the 1970s, when one in six union members went on strike, demanding more control over their workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly ‘co-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work intensification,’ Weeks tells In These Times. Employers attempted to make work ‘more participatory, more multi-skilled, more team-based so that you could work even longer and harder.’

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today’s workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

‘So many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so many jobs, and the question of quantity – for example, the long hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and the added time of commuting to most jobs,’ Weeks says. ‘The overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is that people want more control over the working day and more time off work to do with as they will.’

Excerpted: ‘For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work’

Commondreams.org