The Hard Work of Taking Apart Post-Work Fantasy

June 29, 2015

Derek Thompson has a 10,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, “A World Without Work,” about the possibilities of “post-work” in an economy where technology and capital has largely displaced labor. Though Thompson is clear to argue that this isn’t certain, as the “signs so far are murky and suggestive,” he takes the opportunity to describe how a post-work future might look.

here’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.


Before we begin, I think it’s important to note how unlikely this scenario remains. We can imagine the Atlantic of the 1850s running a “The Post-Agriculture, Post-Work World” cover story, correctly predicting farming would go from 70 percent of the workforce to 20 percent over the next 100 years, yet incorrectly predicting this would end work. We don’t think of what happened afterward as “post-work.” The economy managed to continue on, finding new work and workers in the process.

There are other minor problems. Globalization and technological advancement are treated as the same thing, when they are not. There’s also a slippage common in the critical discussion of these articles (you can see it from this tweet from Thompson here) of substituting in the argument that technology has weakened wages and excluded some workers in recent decades for an argument about the long-run trajectory of technology itself. These are two different, distinct stories, with the first just as much about institutions as actual technology, and evidence for the first certainly doesn’t prove the second.

We’ll Still Be Working

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

How Did We Get There?

Another major problem of this popular genre is that it immediately places us at the end of the story, with no explanation of the transition. Work has already disappeared, it’s over, so the only question that remains is how we can envision our lives in the new world. This has two major consequences.

First, by compressing this timeline and making it seem like only capital will be around after a short period, it preemptively identifies the interest of workers with the interests of capital and owners. If post-work is right around the corner, people won’t have any labor (or human capital, if you must) to allow them to survive, so it’s essential to turn them into miniature capitalists immediately. That’s why it’s not abnormal to see descriptions of post-work immediately call for the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley or the privatization of Social Security.

Secondly, this story also doesn’t explain the transition of labor among workers as it disappears. As Seth Ackerman notes, decreases in the amount of work done can result either from some people leaving the labor force (extensive margin) or from decreasing the amount of work all people do (intensive margin). In other words, do we want some people to leave the workforce entirely, or for us all to work less overall? These are two different projects, with different assumptions and actions necessary to advance them. Resolving these questions would be the fundamental problem of an actual decline in labor force participation, but they tend to be abstracted away in these discussions.

Projecting the Past Forward

Going further, the idea that a post-work economy would involve simply choosing between a handful of quasi-utopias strikes me as completely naive. In Thompson’s piece, for instance, the problem seems to be whether post-work people would spend their time in intellectual pursuits or as independent artisans. But it’s just as likely people would spend their days as refugees trying not to starve.

You can get the sense that something is missing because virtually all of these articles consider radical forms of leisure instead of ownership. (Indeed, in assuming that prosperity leads to redistribution leads to leisure and public goods, it’s really a forward projection of the Keynesian-Fordism of the past.) I rarely see any of these mass media post-work scenarios tackle these issues head-on, much less talk about “post-ownership” instead of just “post-work.” (Friend of the blog Peter Frase is one of the few who does.)

It’s just as likely that the result will be a catastrophe for those who lose the value of their human capital. It seems unlikely that the political economy would become more conducive to redistribution, as these articles usually imply, because the value of capital assets would probably skyrocket. With that value high and ownership concentrated, it would potentially lead to a political economy more favorable to fascism than to robust egalitarianism. Who owns the robots, and what that even means in such a world, will be just as much a question as what we do to occupy ourselves; the first, really, will determine the second.

As a result, discussions of the idyllic robot future give working people a desire that is an obstacle to the actual flourishing of their lived conditions, and it remains an ideology completely divorced from the lived experiences of everyday people. I hereby nominate this as Pure Ideology. Who seconds the motion?