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On satisfying the human need to work (reprise)

In a mid-lockdown Conversation article purporting to explain how anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and the far-right came together over COVID, Josh Roose proposes several ways to combat the groups so mentioned, the first of which is “we really need to get people back to work”. He goes on to say “People’s self esteem and livelihood is tied up in work and the ability to put food on the table, in staying busy and socially connected (which is often via work).” I initially read Roose as suggesting that we need to keep people in work to keep them out of trouble, a view I’ve written about once or twice before on this blog.

I’ve just now finished reading Carl Benedikt Frey’s The Technology Trap (2019), which gives a more historical perspective on the angst of those left out of work. Most famously, the Luddites smashed machines because they perceived the machines to be eliminating their work, and in other times (says Frey) rulers have restricted the development of technology for fear of the same happening to their subjects.

Frey cites surveys that he says support the notion that people find meaning in work, specifically disputing Dave Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” hypothesis. But what both Roose and Frey write says at least as much about the structure of the society that we live in as about whether conspiracy theorists, Luddites and others need “work” to keep them out of trouble.

My own experience of working reduced hours is that finding something to do has been the least of my problems—and none of those things include smashing machines, promoting fringe health theories, or storming government buildings. Going back to the times that Frey writes about, no one seems to have feared rioting by landed gentry with no need to work, and no one now fears rioting by retirees past their working years.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Roose’s and Frey’s characters and those I’ve just mentioned is that retirees, the gentry and I all have the means to satisfy our material wants, and consequently have no (lack of) self esteem tied up in our ability to put food on the table. Being comfortable in our material circumstances, we can get on with staying busy and socially connected in whatever way we like.

For those whose only path to material comfort and dignity is paid work, however, Roose’s suggestion makes sense. Graeber might say that society is in a pretty sorry state if its members find meaning as goons, lackeys, duct-tapers and box-tickers—but who’s he to say what’s “meaningful”? (To which the retort might be: who are hiring managers to say what’s “meaningful”?)

That’s not to say that simply pensioning off the unemployed will by itself keep them out of trouble. My own position is likely not just a product of my material well-being, but also of the education I’ve had and the social institutions of which I’m a part. The same might be said of the Jane Austen characters who Frey uses as examples of what (he says) Luddites wouldn’t do if they had no work.

It occurs to me that, if Roose is right, those past rulers who restricted technology for fear it would have displaced workers would seem to be on to something: if humans really do find their meaning in work, then building technology to replace it seems daft. Yet Frey several times points out that such views have long since disappeared, and as a technologist myself I’m not likely to say technology was all a mistake. So perhaps the suggestion that we need to “get people back to work” needs refinement: how do we find work that gives us meaning, that is not itself a charade built simply to keep us out of trouble?

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