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Why don’t we work less?

Having had time to read the full report behind the “learning-integrated work” that I wrote about last week, I see that it starts with one of those statistics about how many jobs are going to disappear due to technology. The particular statistic quoted in the report comes from the OECD, who estimate that “14% of existing jobs in Australia could disappear over the next 15 to 20 years”. The usual response to such statistics, including in the Swinburne report, is to wonder where all the new jobs are going to come from and how workers are going to prepare for them.

Another way of looking at such figures is to observe that, in 15-20 years, 14% of the work currently being done in Australia will no longer need to be done. If the OECD is correct and the saving was distributed evenly across the workforce, we could all have 14% shorter working weeks, or 14% more holidays, or even allow 14% longer to complete the same amount work—if we wanted to.

Apparently we don’t want to, or at least the authors of such reports don’t want us to, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone follow up such a statistic with a suggestion that we all work less or at a more leisurely pace. Why don’t we look forward to having less work to do?

The day-to-day reason is surely that, in the present system, the 14% of work not needed to be done would not be distributed evenly across the workforce, but to 14% of workers unlucky enough to have their jobs automated away while everyone else continued to work full-time. This of course begs the question of how why the present system works the way that it does.

The conventional political answer is economic growth; rather than work 14% less we can produce 14% more, thus making ourselves wealthier. Plenty of people have criticised this mantra, arguing that those of us in developed countries already have enough or even too much, and that having more isn’t making us any happier or better. Such criticisms, however, seem to have had little or no impact on the governments of developed countries.

I’m aware of at least two lines of thought as to why people go along with the growth mantra, even if they don’t understand or don’t care for why growth is so important to politicians. In recent posts, I’ve already mentioned the views of thinkers like Oren Cass and Philip José Farmer’s character who believe that we need work for our own good and that the economy therefore ought to be be configured so as to provide us with it. In Why the Future is Workless (2016), Tim Dunlop memorably characterises this view as one that likes work but doesn’t like workers .

The other line of thinking is that there is a collective action problem created by the need for commercial organisations to get as much work out of each worker as possible, and for each worker to hold his or her place against other workers. In the present system, any organisation or individual worker who takes things a bit more leisurely is likely to be out-competed by a rival, leaving them unprofitable or unemployed. Some attempts have been made to deal with the collective action problem by imposing upper limits on working hours through legislation or union agreements, but these are themselves lambasted by critics for making the industries and countries that abide by them uncompetitive.

Nonetheless some people do succeed in escaping the treadmill, or so we are told in books like Walden and news articles about high-flying professionals moving to the country. This variously works by learning to live with less, becoming more self-sufficient, removing oneself from competition and/or somehow coming by so much money that one doesn’t need to work for any more of it. No individual one of them is going to change the system by him- or herself, and nor am I. Yet a system that promotes individual choice and disparages collective action can hardly complain about us trying.

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