Valueless Work

by Glen


WE THOUGHT IT INVIOLATE, the link between work and production.  But like the relationship between democracy and voting, or citizenship and responsibility, historic alliances appear in decline.  We just so happen to live in a generation in which change has been so profound that the foundations of stability that we have counted on for centuries seem no longer dependable. 

History appeared to concur with Aristotle: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”  Yet history now seems to be at a pivot point.  Once a sense of fulfillment is hollowed out of human toil all that is left is drudgery.  But for those on the top of the economic pile work has become commodified – a means to an end that thinks little of work’s value other than it ability to form a product.  In a very real sense, the modern labourer has become a problem, a drain on modern business, with the result being a race to the bottom for labour standards, wages, and worker input.

Upon entering an era of ironies, we find ourselves forced to deal with some increasing contradictions – employability replaces employment, people without jobs, jobs without people, numerous part-time jobs replacing full-time ones, employment numbers going down because people have stopped looking for work altogether.

Modern employers rationalize all these changes by saying that efficiency is the order of the day and that they are only seeking more flexible arrangements to take advantage of modern markets.  Such things are code words revealing that, to them at least, the dignity of work is no longer a profitable pursuit.  As advocate Sara Horowitz put it: “What this means in reality is people are working increasingly without benefits, and increasingly without the protections of labour legislation: pensions, minimum wage, occupational safety, unemployment insurance, age discrimination.  The list goes on.” 

Technology has increasingly rendered the worker superfluous to the bottom line.  In fact, author Jeremy Rifkin talks repeatedly about the disappearance of work as we know it, and a painful transition into a “near workerless information society.”  The likelihood that employment in advanced societies has already reached its peak now stands as a real threat not only to communities, but to economies as well.  How can people purchase when their spending capacities decline each year?  If work is still the way people earn their livings, how can any future be productive if people can’t find the jobs required to sustain such a construct?  If money can be made from money, why would investors or companies show any interest in making their profits in the historic fashion by hiring workers?

All this is just another way of saying that modern economic growth is less linked to human labour than at any other time in human history.  Wealth without work: who would have imagined such a possibility in previous generations, save for those who already had wealth through investment?  

Economic history was premised on a kind of delicate balance between work and wealth – one couldn’t exist without the other.  The natures of both riches and the various kinds of labour were variable, but the symmetry between both was a sure thing.  This arrangement provided the income people needed to survive as well as the productivity required for economies to flourish and progress.  Because of this importance to the greater good, work was endowed with a kind of meaning and value that reflected its importance.  Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic” helped to codify it, but its true meaning has been with us for more than a millennium.

But there was more.  Holding work was also having status in the community, even when it was the most mundane of labour.  One provided for their family.  They had skills that could be put to good use for the economy or the community.  Diligent work also became one of the undergirding virtues of a society.  Yes, there was abuse from the bosses, and the ever-present desire to keep wages low to maintain high profits, but the work meant something and reflected a greater outlook and impact on society.

No seasoned observer can confess that this is the case today.  As employment becomes more scarce, work itself often takes on a meaningless quality, especially with the rise of the service economy.  All this is transpiring when more wealth is being generated than at any other time in human history and where those in the upper tier of wealth are seeing fantastic gains on their investments.

This isn’t a trend; it’s a disaster in the making.  Though one of the greatest problems of the age, politicians have no answer for it.  And yet we poke along in the kind of myopic hope that somehow things will turn around.  They will not, and it’s time to put the problem front and centre.