Ever impatient, I barked at my children early Monday morning, encouraging them to buckle up so we could beat the crowds to the trailhead. As they obliged, I heard the familiar sound of a neighbor’s full-size (and awesome) truck revving up for the morning commute. Knowing full well that his employer had given him the day off, I continued my pre-coffee barking:
“Labor Day was a major achievement of the labor movement, you know…”
“Just got too much to do,” he replied, waving as he set off to his work, and I to mine.
As regular readers of Culture Briefing know well, we have a standing interest in the shifting nature of work in our time. That shift goes by many names: the knowledge economy, the rise of contingent labor, the gig economy, the “uberfication of everything,” and so on. Each of these terms captures some important features of work in our time and downplays others, but all gesture toward a fundamental shift away from a kind of managerial capitalism and toward what Benjamin Snyder has recently called “flexible capitalism.”
Our interest in this shift toward flexible capitalism is not just to better understand the modern economy (important as that is). Rather, because work is itself a social practice, a kind of cultural script wherein we learn and unlearn behaviors of all kinds, we are interested in the spillover effects of this shift in the nature and meaning of work—the very things that pointed my car toward the Blue Ridge and my neighbor’s car toward his inbox.
This week we bring you three pieces on work. Next week, we’ll continue on the theme by taking up the topic of workspaces: how they are designed, what they convey, and how they create community or exacerbate our loneliness.
First is a recent interview between The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson and The Economist’s Ryan Avent. Avent’s soon-to-be-published book, The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century, predicts a an impending crisis created by an over-abundance of labor. This may be surprising given current unemployment rates; but Avent’s view (and he’s certainly not alone in this) is that new technologies will leave the labor force flooded with low- and middle-skilled labor. As he puts it:
The transformative revolution will create an abundance of labor. It will create enormous growth in [the supply of workers and machines], automating a lot of industries and boosting productivity. When you have a glut of workers, it plays havoc with existing institutions … There will have to be a societal negotiation for how to share the gains from growth. That process will be long and drawn out. It will involve intense ideological conflict, and history suggests that a lot will go wrong.
In Avent’s view, the major driver of workplace disruption is and will continue to be machine intelligence. And as he makes plain, the term “workers” will refer to man and machine alike. As he says, machine intelligence will “be applied in ways we cannot imagine yet.” As one example, “we used to employ a lot of people to talk to people,” and yet, now and for the proximate future, “people have those conversations with bots.” This is part of a “coming automation wave,” the beginning of which we are experiencing now. The extent of this wave and the effects it will have are, of course, unknown to us all, but Thompson’s interview of Avent gives us a glimpse into at least one possible future for work in the twenty-first century.
The prospect of workplace disruption is at the heart of Jonathan Malesic’s recent writing on competing Christian accounts of vocation. As we highlighted in a previous briefing, while there is general agreement on the idea that the concepts of work and dignity are related and, moreover, that doing good work is a definitive feature of human beings, a recent piece for America magazine highlight’s Malesic’s conviction that the dignity of work is derived from the dignity of human beings, not the other way around. People, in other words, do not have dignity because they are capable of work; rather, work has dignity because it is something people do.
In this way, the challenge of work as a unique human activity is how to situate it within the whole narrative of a given life—and, by extension, a society. In that task, Malesic encourages us toward the Benedictine tradition, distilled as it is in the phrase ora et labora, “pray and work.” According to Malesic, for us, there are two main benefits to this approach. The first is the way in which ordering work toward prayer tends to limit work. In a world of constant contact and total work, Malesic sees the Benedictine rule as a way of situating work among more important matters of spirit, body, and heart. But the Benedictine rule does more than limit work. It also works against the defining feature of our current form of capitalism: specialization. As he puts it:
Benedict also establishes limits on how long a monk should perform any one job at the monastery. He calls for essential tasks like cooking, cleaning and reading aloud at mealtime to rotate among the monks. No one becomes a permanent reader, no matter how desirable it would be to have a specialist in that role. In fact, Benedict sees a real danger—to the monk and to the community—in unchecked specialization. Skilled artisans can easily end up with the wrong priorities, placing their work ahead of communal or spiritual aims: “If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot.”
The final goal of this account of work is an appropriate level of investment in the labor of one’s hands. Roles, tasks, and responsibilities will shift with age, capacity, and to some degree, facility, but the dignity of the person is neither created nor lost if and when he or she is outside of work.
This last point raises the question of work, aging, and retirement. While we’ve not written much about retirement, this week we noticed the results of a recent study on the rate at which America’s seniors participate in the gig economy. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Eric Morath highlights the key results of that study, the most important of which is that though a smaller percentage of seniors participate in the gig economy as producers (Uber drivers, etc.) than younger generations, those seniors who do so depend upon that “flextime” work to provide a higher percentage of their earnings. While the differences were not dramatic, the disparity between young and old points both to the possibilities within the new economy of a kind of continuous employment and to the precarity of older workers.