Tiffany B. Brown

On workers and people

FastCompany points to a study by the UK’s New Economics Foundation that proposes a 21-hour work week. The report reflects the organization’s British roots, but what if here in the U.S. we shifted to a shorter, perhaps a 24 hour, full-time work week?

Last fall, media critic and writer Douglas Rushkoff asked Are jobs obsolete?. I think he’s on to something.

We now have more human workers than jobs. Much of that is due to off-shoring and globalization. American workers are being replaced by non-American workers and at lower wages.

However, at least as much of this shift is due to dying industries and massive automation. The rise of e-mail means we have less postal mail. The rise of self-checkout and self-serve gadget vending machines means we need fewer cashiers and sales people. Manufacturing in China is cheaper right now but is any country’s manufacturing base really safe from robots?

Machine workers can replace people workers. So what does that mean for people?

I have more questions than answers.

Modifying labor laws to shorten the work week means that companies would have to hire two people to do the work that one person now does in 40 hours. Should we each give up some of our work hours so that others might earn?

While a shorter mandated work week would mean more people would have jobs, it could also mean smaller paychecks for everyone. But what if we also increased minimum wage to $15 or $20 per hour?

If we automate industry, and need fewer people to work, should corporations financially support workers they’ve displaced?

“If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” passes for political discourse in some corners of the United States. But if there is no work to be had, should people be homeless and starving? What responsibility do we collectively have to each other as citizens and people? And I haven’t even touched on healthcare and how it’s structured in the U.S.

Do we need to make fewer people? Probably so, if we lack the political will and moral/ethical center to ensure that the rise of machines does not mean the decline of people. But if we have fewer children as a country, and as a world, what economic and physical infrastructure changes do we need, and can we agree to make them?

Like I said: more questions than answers.

What do you think?

Also see: Are the American people obsolete?, a July, 2010 piece from Salon.com.

5 Responses to “On workers and people”

  1. Cecily Walker says:

    I’d agree with this, except I don’t think jobs themselves are obsolete. Rather, I think our way of thinking about jobs, employment, and security is outmoded for the way we live today. 

    I was happier, healthier, and in the best shape of my life when I was in graduate school. Between working a part time job and classes, my work week was somewhere around 25 hrs/week. I used the extra time to lose weight, get fit, and explore my new city. Americans like to crow about healthcare crises and the obesity epidemic, and how unhealthy we are as a nation, but few like to look at the structural causes, and how the choices we make as a society influence our well being. We absolutely need to make fewer people, pay a better living wage, 

  2. Erica M says:

    The American ethos of industriousness and bootstrapping your way to success is as much a barrier as any of the logistics of such a change. Working less totally flies in the face of who we think we are as a country.

    With a very few exceptions, we can’t hardly get a serious effort towards telecommuting and Results Oriented Work Environments, which theoretically let you work less as long as you get your work done. Or at least let you reclaim your commute time and expense.

    It would seriously undercut the whole 4-hour work week/lifestyle business market. 

    Ironically, as the study points out, having that time back in your life lets you spend it in ways that are healthier and better for yourself, your community, and the environment. Don’t we all want that? Or at least, don’t those of us who have the privilege to spend money on food AND still be able to pay the bills spend a lot of time talking about that? I can’t see that overcoming the above, though.

    Some not-tiny, not-unheard of country somewhere is gonna do this and we’re all gonna be, “Say wha..?!”

  3. Erica M says:

    Cecily, that is high on my list of things that I’m looking forward to about grad school.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Americans like to crow about healthcare crises and the obesity epidemic, and how unhealthy we are as a nation, but few like to look at the structural causes, and how the choices we make as a society influence our well being.”

    This times 1000. I’m convinced that our city-suburb model and the sheer number of unwalkable neighborhoods in this country is largely to blame for our obesity rates. This is a big part of why people in New York and SF are so slim and fit by comparison.

  5. fred says:

    okay and how did you know