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.