"I work in a factory, eight hours a day, five days a week. I’m the exception to the rule that life can’t live in a vacuum. Work to me is a void, and I begrudge every minute of my time it takes. Writing about work, I become bitter, bloody-minded and self-pitying. I can’t tell you much about my job because it would be misleading to try to make something out of nothing."

Jaded people, faded institutions

The anonymous factory worker, who contributed to Ronald Fraser’s seminal book Work: Twenty Personal Accounts (1968), loathed his job even more than Philip Larkin, who asked, “Why must the toad work squat on my life?” Meanwhile, the miserablist poet dreamt of a utopian existence without work’s “sickening poison”, which seemed to him a disproportionate effort “just for paying a few bills”.

Those who take a Larkinesque view of the world may, if artificial intelligence and automation wreak half the change that is predicted, have their way in the future. The fourth industrial revolution could free millions of people from occupational drudgery. This is good news for those who are so disengaged at work that they kill time by, among other things, printing books off the internet, blowing bubbles in sub-zero temperatures to see if they freeze, and lying under boxes to scare colleagues.

It is also good news because work, like many other once-venerated institutions (government, the church and Bob Dylan), isn’t quite what it used to be. A 2014 survey by three American universities found that 20% of American men aged 21–30 without degrees were not working at all — not because there weren’t any jobs but because they preferred to stay at home playing computer games. In 2000, only 9.5% were not working.

Danny Izquierdo, a 22-year-old who lives with his parents, told researchers: “When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours, I’ll be rewarded. With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.” It’s possible that Izquierdo and his peers have been inspired by the example of Super Mario, an Italian plumber who, in the magical kingdom of Nintendoland, is too busy trying to save a damsel in distress to ever bother fixing a pipe.

A job isn’t what it used to be either. As Anthony Painter, director of the RSA’s Action and Research Centre, noted in an essay for the Fabian Society, the job, is changing. “This is not just a case of new types of work replacing others — a trend seen relentlessly since the Industrial Revolution. The nature of the ‘job’ itself is changing. Essentially work has been decoupled from a single job.”

The phrase “gig economy” has given one of the trends Painter identifies a misleading glamour. Some rock stars are paid squillions for a concert, but elsewhere this is more often reflected in contingent employment, part-time jobs and zero-hours contracts. As Painter noted, “[s]ince 1995, almost all the aggregate increase in the UK is accounted for by what the OECD calls ‘non-standard jobs’. This has meant opportunities for some and insecurity and low pay for others.”

The road to a drudgery-free utopia is likely to be long, winding and pot-holed. There is the matter, as Larkin put it, of “paying a few bills”, although this could be resolved by the payment of a universal basic income, an idea that is gaining some traction globally.

Function, identity and meaning

There is also the question of how the transition to a radically different world is to be managed — especially by governments. Despite all the studies showing that somewhere between 47 and 57% of jobs are at risk of being automated, politicians still aspire to “full employment” — and that applies even to such a political outlier as US president-elect Donald Trump. At the other extreme, some Silicon Valley evangelists for the next industrial revolution have even used the rather chilling term “surplus humans”, a conjunction redolent of the totalitarian dictatorships that scarred the 20th century. And then there is the hardly inconsequential matter of how we psychologically cope without the kind of work that has become central to our sense of self. For Sigmund Freud, love and work were the essential qualities without which no life could be complete.

William Julius Wilson, the American sociologist and author of When Work Disappears, amplified Freud’s point saying that work “is not simply a way of earning a living, it is a fundamental tool for learning how to organise one’s life to be productive. A person who is chronically jobless lacks not only a place in which to work but also a coherent organisation of the present — that is, a system of concrete expectation and goals. A job determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there.”

As CIPD CEO Peter Cheese says, work has been central to our lives for so long, it’s difficult to imagine what will come next. “If you go back to the Stone Age, our ancestors were working — in teams to hunt for meat. They were doing so because the outcomes were usually better when they worked collectively than as individuals. It wasn’t called work then, it was just living.”

Put simply, as societies developed, people began to take on specific roles so that, by the Middle Ages, many workers could take pride in their craft. In retrospect, this kind of work has acquired the glow of dignity and romance, epitomised in Walt Whitman’s I Hear America Singing, in which the songs that typify his country come from “the carpenter singing as he measures his plank or beam” or the mechanics singing “blithe and strong”.

Yet by 1860, when Whitman wrote those lines, that golden age was quietly drawing to a close. The first Industrial Revolution had already rendered many skills obsolete and, as it developed, created more of the kind of dehumanising, repetitive work satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his landmark film, City Lights (1931).

“The Industrial Revolution changed our experience of work,” says Cheese. “It obscured the relationship between effort and reward. And as the modern economy took shape, we suddenly acquired a lot of people who did something that came to be called management. For a host of reasons — social mobility being just one — work became more central to our identity, but the way we defined ourselves by it changed. Many of us saw ourselves in terms of the organisation we belonged to. In some cases, it was all about the job title, which is why so many of them became so absurd.”

Some of these titles were grandly geographic. Many American corporations had titles like “General Manager, Eastern Hemisphere”. Some were lucky enough to be made a “Director of Life Enrichment”. Fast-food chain Subway once famously advertised for “sandwich technicians”. In its way, all this nominative inflation reflects the fact that the jobs in question probably aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be.

The result, says Cheese, is that “there are jobs for every point on the spectrum from ‘I work to live’ to ‘I live to work’. For those who work to live, a job is nothing more than an expression of their need to earn money — and to do that they are prepared to endure drudgery. For those who live to work, what they do is at the heart of their sense of self.”

There are also those for whom work remains a matter of professional pride or a passion, or gives them a useful sense of making a difference. You don’t have to be a Protestant to subscribe to the Protestant work ethic that labour is character-building. Yet, as Cheese notes, one aspect of why people work is invariably ignored by the more gung-ho prophets of automation. “Studies consistently show that one of the reasons many people go to work is to connect with other people, to belong to a community. That is a fundamental human need and in an age of homo economicus, where work has been judged purely in financial terms, as a means of generating wages or profits, this has usually been overlooked. We need to recognise that if we are to avoid serious problems in society in the decades ahead.”

The dangers look even greater because, as Norman Pickavance, National Director of People and Culture at Grant Thornton, said, “We live in an ‘age of extraction’ where businesses believe there is an economic logic in extracting the maximum value for the minimum cost, with no thought given to the human or social consequences.”

By Paul Simpson. This concludes Part 1 of “A model for work that works”, first published in the Winter 2016 issue of CIPD’s Work. magazine. Read Part 2 of this article here.

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