Rethinking the Idea of Work

Rethinking the Idea of Work

If you are like me you have been disturbed by the politics of the past week, if not the past year. The Brexit vote, the drumbeat of declinism in the United States, the resurgence of xenophobia in France, Austria, the Netherlands, the UK, the U.S., and other places, and the constant threat of terrorism from groups like ISIS, make it seem like the world is coming apart.

I wholeheartedly reject that idea.

However, the values that I hold dear: diversity, openness, travel, reasoned argumentation, and non-divisive political discourse seem to be out of favor.

You may be asking at this point what does that have to do with the rethinking of work? Well, I think part of this great anxiety we have around the world is this fundamental crossroads we are at when it comes to work.

The truth is that Americans, but many in the world, have more time for leisure than at anytime in history of the world. We engage in more personal activities (video games, the ability to go to the gym, etc) than ever before. And more people have access to those activities than ever before, which demonstrates the constant progress of upward mobility.

Now that doesn’t mean people are not poor and struggle and we can sing kumbayah in some utopia. But that has never existed. And I don’t know if it ever will. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. But the vast majority of people aren’t subsistence farmers anymore.

At the same time, it seems like this progress of upward mobility over the past 20 years has been stymied. A couple of days ago Donald Trump basically put a hex on the idea of globalization. Globalization has caused a lot of dislocation for people. They lost their jobs, had to start over again, and when they found jobs they might not have been as good as before.

Never mind with the argument that all in all it has made things cheaper on the whole (e.g. cheap iphones, tvs, dvd players, etc). People don’t see that side of things. They see immediate gratification and immediate gratification. A reasoned debate on globalization doesn’t put food on someone’s table and it doesn’t solve their unemployment problem.

Couple that fact with the constant discussion of robots taking people’s jobs, the gig economy, the sharing economy, the fact that fewer people are in the workforce than 10 years ago (most of it due to the Baby Boomers retiring), wages are stagnant, it is harder to buy a house, there is a retirement crisis in the United States, and the threat of record debt. It is no wonder that a lot of people are angry. They are upset.

So again what does this have to do with the nature of work?

One of the root causes of all this flummox, in my opinion, is the nature of work. For example, 100 years ago the idea that retirement existed for 95% of Americans didn’t exist. Now people expect it. Over 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers created a new Constitution, while regular Americans worked on farms, factories, merchant vessels. These elites had the time to do so. They had leisure time because of their own personal fortunes that had been created in a number of different ways, but only a handful of people could engage in such activities without starving to death.

Now all you need is a smart phone to be the latest expert on the Brexit or what food is best for you or what we should do with our time.

As human beings evolve there are often points in time where we are at a crossroads about what do we do with our time. How should we adjust? What does retirement look like? What does work look like? How can someone who has no high school education or college for that matter succeed in a world that seems to be spinning out of control and where they don’t have basic skills to even engage in this world?

We are that cross roads right now.

And if you don’t believe me last week Switzerland had a historic vote about guaranteeing basic income for everyday citizens. They did so because of the threat of robots taking over, because of creating a base standard of living for everyone, because of the potential threat to citizens. The proposal was really about creating a basic level of stability in society.

Now Switzerland voted against it. But I would bet all of my investments that it won’t be the last. This debate about creating basic stability and what it means to work will probably rage throughout the rest of my lifetime.

And I think that is at the root of a lot of what is going on. People don’t feel stable. A good job, a home, wife, two kids, Leave it to Beaver lifestyle is nostalgic, but it symbolizes stability. Even the 1990s, which was extremely disruptive for people (including my dad) was considered to be stable. We seem to have entered into a period of high anxiety and instability.

And what happens in those times is we often blame others for our problems.  The xenophobia and anti-immigration, anti-elite, anti-government, anti-status quo is not new. We have seen this movie before. It has existed for centuries, if not millennia (the ancient Greek writer Aeschylus wrote about this at length).

One of the tectonic shifts that is happening is this notion of work. What does it mean to work? How long should you work? What is work for? Why do we work? What should our purpose be?

For a lot of my students these are fundamental questions they are confronted with. Work is a means to an end certainly for some, but it is also a part of who we are. And when that is disrupted, when it seems we have more time to just twiddle our thumbs and do nothing (or what might be considered nothing) that creates great anxiety among people.

Despite all this doom and gloom I am quite hopeful. I hope that the fact that work is changing, where it might George Jetson and his one hour workday pushing a button at Spacely Sprockets, will be embraced as people try to strive for more connection, social cohesion, exploring the world, and doing more good beyond just leisure time.

I think we are in a period of transition that will eventually lead to a more enlightened humanity. Will that happen in my lifetime maybe not. But I don’t see the rise of anti-globalization forces, anti-establishment, etc as inherently a bad thing. Those forces are needed in order to reflect, to reconsider. But in the end they, I think, are on the wrong side of history. And the fact is that they know it. They know the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but they don’t know what to do next so they will grasp at the “other” to scapegoat their problems and have some form of redemption (see the writings of Kenneth Burke for more explanation).

What does this mean for work? It means that it will fundamentally change. I do think that countries will probably start to adopt an income minimum for people. I do think that we will lower the amount of hours work. I also think that it maybe lead to a flood of innovation. People will want more custom pieces created. They will want more unique things provided just for them. Machines can’t provide that. Robots can’t provide that. Our work, in many respects, will probably provide a much deeper connection with it because it will be an extension of ourselves.

At least that is my hope.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking the Idea of Work

  1. I appreciate your posts Jason and agree with your sentiments here. I often think about what does it mean to work and how this answer is so different for people. In many cases work is our identity and when work is “up in the air” so to is our being. I’m particularly interested in striking a balance in my life but have yet to do so. I miss our hallway conversations but still feel connected through your posts and particularly enjoy your TV show references. Thanks for writing.

    1. Hi Denise,
      What a great surprise. We sure do miss you at BSU. I hope all is well in NH? I too have trouble with that balance. Who knows if I will ever get it, but it is about the journey not the destination right.

  2. Great writing Jason. I share your views on work, as I’m striving for some form of flexible entrepreneurship. Flexibility and entrepreneurship often don’t fit together, but we still have the ability to create the life we want.

    1. I think you are exactly right. Flexibility is going to be a greater trend in the future and may be foisted upon us whether we like it or not. What will be interesting to see is how are relationship with work and life will be in the future.

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