Prosperity

Economists Are Obsessed with “Job Creation.” How About Less Work?

Increased automation has not reduced our workload. Why not? What if it did?

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By Peter Gray

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the century, the average workweek would be about 15 hours.  Automation had already begun to replace many jobs by the early 20th century, and Keynes predicted that the trend would accelerate to the point where all that people need for a satisfying life could be produced with a minimum of human labor, whether physical or mental.  Keynes turned out to be right about increased automation.  We now have machines, computers and robots that can do quickly what human beings formerly did laboriously, and the increase in automation shows no sign of slowing down.  But he was wrong about the decline of work.

As old jobs have been replaced by machines, new jobs have cropped up.  Some of these new jobs are direct results of the new technologies and can fairly be said to benefit society in ways beyond just keeping people employed (Autor, 2015).  Information technology jobs are obvious examples, as are jobs catering to newfound realms of amusement, such as computer game design and production.  But we also have an ever-growing number of jobs that seem completely useless or even harmful.  As examples, we have administrators and assistant administrators in ever larger numbers shuffling papers that don’t need to be shuffled, corporate lawyers and their staffs helping big companies pay less than their fair share of taxes, countless people in the financial industries doing who knows what mischief, lobbyists using every means possible to further corrupt our politicians, and advertising executives and sales personnel pushing stuff that nobody needs or really wants.

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A sad fact is that many people are now spending huge portions of their lives at work that, they know, is not benefitting society (see Graeber, 2013).  It leads to such cynicism that people begin to stop even thinking that jobs are supposed to benefit society.  We have the spectacle of politicians on both sides of the aisle fighting to keep munitions plants open in their states, to preserve the jobs, even when the military itself says the weapons the plant is building are no longer useful.  And we have politicians and pundits arguing that fossil fuel mining and carbon spewing factories should be maintained for the sake of the jobs, let the environment be damned.

The real problem, of course, is an economic one.  We’ve figured out how to reduce the amount of work required to produce everything we need and realistically want, but we haven’t figured out how to distribute those resources except through wages earned from the 40-hour (or more) workweek.  In fact, technology has had the effect of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller percentage of the population, which compounds the distribution problem.  Moreover, as a legacy of the industrial revolution, we have a cultural ethos that says people must work for what they get, and so we shun any serious plans for sharing wealth through means other than exchanges for work.

So, I say, down with the work ethic, up with the play ethic!  We are designed to play, not to work.  We are at our shining best when playing. Let’s get our economists thinking about how to create a world that maximizes play and minimizes work.  It seems like a solvable problem.  We’d all be better off if people doing useless or harmful jobs were playing, instead, and we all shared equally the necessary work and the benefits that accrue from it.

What is work?

The word work, of course, has a number of different, overlapping meanings.  As used by Keynes, and as I used it in the preceding paragraphs, it refers to activity that we do only or primarily because we feel we must do it in order to support ourselves and our families economically.  Work can also refer to any activity that we experience as unpleasant, but which we feel we must do, whether or not it benefits us financially.  A synonym for work by that definition is toil, and by that definition work is the opposite of play. Still another definition is that work is any activity that has some positive effect on the world, whether or not the activity is experienced as pleasant. By that definition, work and play are not necessarily distinct.  Some lucky people consider their job, at which they earn their living, to be play.  They would do it even if they didn’t need to in order to make a living.  That’s not the meaning of work as I use it in this essay, but it’s a meaning worth keeping in mind because it reminds us that much of what we now call work, because we earn a living at it, might be called play in a world where our living was guaranteed in other ways.

Is work an essential part of human nature?  No.

It surprises many people to learn that, on the time scale of human biological history, work is a new invention.  It came about with agriculture, when people had to spend long hours plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; and then it expanded further with industry, when people spent countless tedious or odious hours assembling things or working in mines.  But agriculture has been with us for a mere ten thousand years and industry for far less time.  Before that, for hundreds of thousands of years, we were all hunter-gatherers.  Researchers who have observed and lived with groups who survived as hunter-gathers into modern times, in various remote parts of the world, have regularly reported that they spent little time doing what we, in our culture, would categorize as work (Gowdy, 1999; Gray, 2009, Ingold, 1999).

In fact, quantitative studies revealed that the average adult hunter-gatherer spent about 20 hours a week at hunting and gathering, and a few hours more at other subsistence-related tasks such as making tools and preparing meals (for references, see Gray, 2009).  Some of the rest of their waking time was spent resting, but most of it was spent at playful, enjoyable activities, such as making music, creating art, dancing, playing games, telling stories, chatting and joking with friends, and visiting friends and relatives in neighboring bands. Even hunting and gathering were not regarded as work; they were done enthusiastically, not begrudgingly.  Because these activities were fun and were carried out with groups of friends, there were always plenty of people who wanted to hunt and gather, and because food was shared among the whole band, anyone who didn’t feel like hunting or gathering on any given day (or week or more) was not pressured to do so.

Some anthropologists have reported that the people they studied didn’t even have a word for work; or, if they had one, it referred to what farmers, or miners, or other non-hunter-gatherers with whom they had contact did.  The anthropologist Marshal Sahlins (1972) famously referred to hunter-gatherers as comprising the original affluent society—affluent not because they had so much, but because their needs were small and they could satisfy those needs with relatively little effort, so they had lots of time to play.

Ten thousand years is an almost insignificant period of time, evolutionarily.  We evolved our basic human nature long before agriculture or industry came about.  We are, by nature, all hunter-gatherers, meant to enjoy our subsistence activities and to have lots of free time to create our own joyful activities that go beyond subsistence. Now that we can do all our farming and manufacturing with so little work, we can regain the freedom we enjoyed through most of our evolutionary history, if we can solve the distribution problem.

Do we need to work to be active and happy?  No

Some people worry that life with little work would be a life of sloth and psychological depression.  They think that human beings need work to have a sense of purpose in life or just to get out of bed in the morning. They look at how depressed people often become when they become unemployed, or at the numbers of people who just veg out when they come home after work, or at how some people, after retirement, don’t know what to do and begin to feel useless.  But those observations are all occurring in a world in which unemployment signifies failure in the minds of many; in which workers come home physically or mentally exhausted each day; in which work is glorified and play is denigrated; and in which a life of work, from elementary school on to retirement, leads many to forget how to play.

Look at little children, who haven’t yet started school and therefore haven’t yet had their curiosity and playfulness suppressed for the sake of work.  Are they lazy?  No.  They are almost continuously active when not sleeping.  They are always getting into things, motivated by curiosity, and in their play they make up stories, build things, create art, and philosophize (yes, philosophize) about the world around them.  There is no reason to think the drives for such activities naturally decline with age.  They decline because our schools, which value work and devalue play, drill them out of people; and then tedious jobs and careers continue to drill them out.  These drives don’t decline in hunter-gatherers with age, and they wouldn’t decline in us either if it weren’t for all the work imposed on us.

Schools were invented largely to teach us to obey authority figures (bosses) unquestioningly and perform tedious tasks in a timely manner.  In other words, they were invented to suppress our natural tendencies to explore and play and prepare us to accept a life of work.  In a world that valued play rather than work, we would have no need for such schools.  Instead, we would allow each person’s playfulness, creativity, and natural strivings to find meaning in life to blossom.

Work, pretty much by definition, is something we don’t want to do.  It interferes with our freedom.  To the degree that we must work we are not free to choose our own activities and find our own life meanings.  The view that people need work in order to be happy is closely tied to the patronizing view that people can’t handle freedom (see Danaher, 2016). That dismal view of human nature has been promoted for centuries, and reinforced in schools, in order to maintain a placid workforce.

Do culturally valuable discoveries, creations, and inventions depend upon work?  No.

People love to discover and create.  We are naturally curious and playful, and discovery and creation are, respectively, the products of curiosity and playfulness.  There is no reason to believe that less work and more time to do what we want to do would cause fewer achievements in sciences, arts, and other creative endeavors.

The specific forms our inventiveness takes depend in part on cultural conditions.  Among nomadic hunter-gatherers, where material goods beyond what one could easily carry were a burden, discoveries were generally about the immediate physical and biological environment, on which they depended, and creative products where typically ephemeral in nature—songs, dances, jokes, stories, bodily decorations, and the like.  Today, and ever since agriculture, creative products can take all these forms plus material inventions that transform our basic ways of living.

Nearly all great scientists, inventors, artists, poets, and writers talk about their achievements as play.  Einstein, for example, spoke of his achievements in mathematics and theoretical physics as “combinatorial play.”  He did it for fun, not money, while he supported himself as a clerk in a patent office.  The Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, in his classic book Homo Ludens, argued, convincingly, that most of the cultural achievements that have enriched human lives—in art, music, literature, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, and even jurisprudence—are derivatives of the drive to play.  He pointed out that the greatest outpourings of such achievements have occurred at those times and places where a significant number of adults were freed from work and could therefore play, in an environment in which play was valued.  A prime example was ancient Athens.

Would we degenerate morally without work?  No.

The 18th century poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller wrote, “Man is only fully human when he plays.”  I agree; and it seems as clear to me as it did to Schiller that part of our humanity, which rises in play, is concern for our fellow human beings.

In our work-filled world we too often fall into a pit where the duty of the job overrides our concern for others.  Work detracts from the time and energy—and sometimes even from the motivation—for helping neighbors in need, or striving to clean up our environment, or promoting causes aimed at improving the word for all.  The fact that so many people engage in such humanitarian activities already, despite the pressures of work, is evidence that people want to help others and make the world a better place.  Most of us would do more for our fellow humans if it weren’t for the sink of time and energy and the tendencies toward greed and submission to power that work creates.

Band hunter-gatherers, who, as I said, lived a life of play, are famous among anthropologists for their eagerness to share and help one another.  Another term for such societies is egalitarian societies—they are the only societies without social hierarchies that have ever been found.  Their ethos, founded in play, is one that prohibits any one person from having more status or goods than any other.  In a world without work, or without so much of it, we would all be less concerned with moving up some ladder, ultimately to nowhere, and more concerned with the happiness of others, who are, after all, our playmates.

So, instead of trying so hard to preserve work, why don’t we solve the distribution problem, cut way back on work, and allow ourselves to play?

Good question.

Originally published at Peter Gray’s Freedom to Learn blog on Psychology Today.

2017 October 9

References

Autor, D. H. (2015). Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation.  Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29 (3), 3-30.

Danaher (2016).  Will life be worth living in a world without work?  Technological unemployment and the meaning of life.  Forthcoming in Science and Engineering Ethics. Available online at http://philpapers.org/archive/DANWLB.pdf.

Gowdy, J. (1999). Hunter-gatherers and the mythology of the market. In R.B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers, 391-398. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Graeber, D. (2013)  On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.  Strike! Magazine, Aug. 17, 2013.

Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522.

Gray, P. (2014). The play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray (Eds.), Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: culture, childrearing and social wellbeing (pp. 190-213). New York: Oxford University Press.

Huizinga, J. (1955; first German edition published in 1944). Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ingold, T. (1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R. B. Lee & R. H. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers, 399-410. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Keynes, J. M. (1930/1963). Economic possibilities for our grandchildren.  Reprinted in John Maynard Keynes, essays in persuasion.  New York: Norton.

Sahlins, M. (1972). Stone age economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.


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  • Reron

    I’m so sorry but this is drivel . I am certain that the author has little understanding of prehistory and less of the current human dynamic. To believe that we should be children playing in a garden without danger or threat is nothing but naive. It is nothing more than a pleasant notion and devoid of human reality.

  • Ken Morris

    I couldn’t disagree more. This is the old circular definition of work in which anything people like to do is automatically considered something other than work (in this article it’s called play) while only tasks people don’t want to do are called work. Well, duh, if work is defined this way, of course nobody wants to do it. But this isn’t a fair definition of work, and the critique of work in this (and a zillion other articles) follows from the faulty circular definition, not from the nature of work as it really is.

    Consider that Keynes, who was not the first but was a famous early proponent of this disparaging misunderstanding of work, was a wealthy man when he wrote his forecast of a future with less work (and new value of leisure). He might therefore have retired to the life of leisure he assumed everyone else wanted. But Keynes did not retire. Instead, he continued to work perhaps harder than he ever had, and by some accounts his early death was hastened by overwork.

    Or consider this author’s blurb. In it he tells us what his job is, a couple of the main works he’s published, and something about the work he’s still engaged in. But the blurb tells us nothing about what he likes to do for play. If work is so awful and play so wonderful, why does the person telling us this define his own public identity in terms of his work rather than his play?

    For well over a century anti-work hypocrites have preached about how work is terrible and the masses want less of it at the same time that they value their own work and throw themselves into it with enthusiasm. Clearly their sermons are wrong.

    As also was Sahlins about work vs. leisure among hunters and gatherers. This isn’t an opposition for most of them, but an integration.

    The challenge of work isn’t to have less of it, but to make it more humane by reconceptualing it as the integration of now falsely separated motives.

    • Excellent points. The best evidence that people prefer to work (at least some material amount) is that most wealthy people of working age continue to do it.

      • Strlngerbell

        So if the wealthy like doing it, surely everyone else must enjoy it too! 10 more years in the Salt Mine for me!

  • Ron Greenstein

    This is what Humanity can look forward to once we WAKE THE HELL UP.
    Stewing in our self-created cynical, self-absorbed, little prison cells is getting OLD fast.
    This a brilliantly conceived essay that I will share. Its very freeing to be thought crazy while being right. My personal call to my brothers and sisters is to RADICAL SYSTEMIC AND ATTITUDINAL CHANGES. This essay points out a major focus which is the BIG PICTURE. THANKS FOR SHARING.

  • A Job Is More Than a Paycheck

    https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-12-02/a-job-is-more-than-a-paycheck

    We shouldn’t be so quick to assume that
    every dollar of income is the same to people. We should read
    more sociology, talk to more workers and pay more attention to
    things like dignity, respect and a sense of community —
    intangibles that aren’t sold in any market.

    ______________________________________

    Modern Monetary Theory in Canada

    http://mmtincanada.jimdo.com/

    • Alan

      But sometimes it’s just a paycheck. I personally can’t imagine anyone taking great personal satisfaction out of clipping some person’s toenails, but somebody has to do it. A nursing assistant.

      On the hand, if one is born with a brain and enjoys teaching children (lot’s of women do) why should one be highly compensated?

      • Travis Collier

        Compensation isn’t just material. Social compensation (aka prestige) plays an important part already, but in a world where basic needs are met, that role is even more important.

        Those “someone has to do it jobs” should actually be high prestige (in the technical sense). Not so hard a social norm shift as you might think if you imagine a world where people were not coerced into them. Then people actually want to do them for social reasons.

        Funny thing, for a lot of those jobs right now, the people doing them actually do see them as prestigious. They take pride in doing a necessary “dirty job”, and often (though not nearly as often as they should) receive social reinforcement in terms of respect and appreciation for it.

        • Beyond Full Employment:

          The Employer of Last Resort as an
          Institution for Change

          http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_732.pdf

          “Tcherneva and Wray (2005d) report that every female
          participant they interviewed in Plan Jefes without exception
          wanted to work rather than receive a welfare check of equal
          amount.

          ***

          Women reported that working and serving others was the best
          example they could give to their children and that they
          obtained many more valuable rewards from this experience than the monetary aspect, which was nevertheless very important to them. Women felt like they had “grown wings” (Garzón de la Roza 2006, 87).”

          • Travis Collier

            Excellent to have some references for my vague (not my field) ideas. Thanks

            Though the way those excerpts, and pretty much everything else I’ve seen on it, frame things draws a dichotomy between welfare and work. I think that dichotomy itself may be a significant factor and just maybe a useful window to research the issues.

            Reality allows for a continuum between unemployment (or total disability) benefits and UBI, but people tend to think in terms of just welfare vs working. Imposing this restriction means that income from working is expected to provide for the worker and their dependents. So we have things like minimum wage which makes some jobs not worth it for employers to fill (practically they become part of another person’s job (which may be a misallocation of or a valuable resource) are just left undone). It also leads to undervaluation of non-income generating work. Most importantly, these effects reinforce the dichotomy.

            Just a fuzzy idea, but I sense there may be something in there worth exploring.

          • The Social Enterprise Sector Model for a Job Guarantee
            in the U.S. – Pavlina R. Tcherneva

            http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2014/01/social-enterprise-sector-model-job-guarantee-u-s.html

            The non-profit and social
            enterprise sectors produce original, innovative and
            sustainable solutions to seemingly intractable
            socio-economic problems, which the private sector has
            failed to solve. Their mission and reason
            for existence is to create social value and address very
            specific problems like poverty, hunger, homelessness,
            environmental degradation, community blight, inadequate care
            and education for all, and other. The work of this sector is
            perhaps the one bright spot in our economy today. Yet
            delivering large-scale solutions to these problems remains a
            challenge for two reasons: 1) its work is always underfunded
            and 2) it is always understaffed. The Job Guarantee solves
            both problems—it provides funding and labor.

            ***

            Since the JG guarantees a job at a base wage for everyone,
            irrespective of skill or level of education, the program
            would in reality fit the job to the worker (rather than the
            worker to the job). One way to do this is, after assessing
            the needs and resources in a community, to permit the
            non-profits, SEVs and (through them) the unemployed
            themselves to propose the types of work that they wish to do
            in those communities. This is a true bottom-up
            approach—powered by communities, localities, and the
            individuals themselves.

            ***

            Non-profits and SEVs already work to produce sustainable
            and reproducible low-cost solutions for the most overlooked
            and blighted areas in our nation, such as low cost urban
            fisheries, community clinics, farms, aquaponics, youth
            mentoring projects, veteran services, and many other. Many
            support community sustainable agriculture initiatives, work
            to address the dual challenge of homelessness and AIDS,
            provide internship opportunities for at-risk-youth, or
            renovate and beautify decrepit urban spaces with murals and
            art projects.

            Consider just one problem of many that countless U.S.
            communities face: the food desert problem. A food desert is
            an area with little or no access to healthy and affordable
            food. Many rural and urban such areas rely on gas stations
            or convenience stores for food. There are no gardens,
            farmers’ markets, or other sources of fresh produce. Areas
            suffering from food insecurity also have the highest
            health-related and other social problems. Addressing the
            food desert issue in the U.S. alone can generate millions of
            jobs. And this is just one example.

            ***

            The experience of the New Deal and Argentina’s Plan
            Jefes shows that such programs can be up and running
            in 4 to 6 months and useful tasks can be performed even by
            the least skilled and least educated citizens.

            ***

            ……a core feature of the JG is its buffer
            stock mechanism.

            When economies falter, community needs increase and social
            problems multiply. This is precisely the time when the
            social sector needs to perform much more work and requires
            extra helping hands. That is also the time when the JG
            expands. Those who have lost their jobs would now move from
            private sector employment to social sector
            employment (rather than from employment to
            unemployment).

            ***

            When times are good, some social problems are alleviated,
            spending on programs shrinks, fewer workers are needed, and
            many of them transition to better-paying jobs in a
            recovering private sector. Because social needs continue to
            exist, the nonprofit sector is perfectly suited to providing
            jobs for those who have been left behind by a growing
            economy. Unlike conventional stimulus programs, the work of
            non-profits and SEVs does not disappear during expansions.

  • Stef Kuypers

    Solving the distribution problem is not that hard in theory, we just need to change the monetary system that dominates our economic ecosystem today. Because, through its mechanism that creates money from debt, with an interest, it creates an artificial scarcity. The Circular Money economic ecosystem solves this problem and makes sure everyone gets a fair share and all projects that contribute to the common good always have adequate funding. From there we can evolve further.
    https://github.com/HapponomyOrg/CMee-Platform/blob/master/CMee%20White%20Paper.md

  • Dobre Gherea

    “why don’t we solve the distribution problem”
    Do you mean we need an institution enabled to establish how much money each person should get?
    Or you mean that capitalism distribution enabled by private property of capital is wrong?

    To hunt or gather fruits, that is work. Even in pre-historic age, you won’t get food without participating to hunt. You may miss one day of hunt (as you can today), but not forever as your text implies.
    Schools aren’t “invented” to get people obeyed. That may be the case today, but not in ancient times. Monkeys “fishing” ants with a stick aren’t obeyed.
    We invent and learn in order to do a more efficent work and get more free/leisure/play time or to get an edge over enemy. We work as we don’t like hunger, cold, illness, etc.
    Sure that in capitalism, work is alienating, but work isn’t alienating by itself.

  • Alan

    Some things need to be done. While I agree that the vast amount of administration and law is mind numbing waste, by contrast employment as a physician is not. And it takes a large amount of boring mind numbing study to learn and perfect that art. Same for programming, engineering, etc.

    Who will do these tasks which take so much time and effort? How much compensation should they be provided? And the terrible challenge is that you get better the more you work.

    Hunter gatherers who lived to the ripe old age of 30?

    This whole thing needs to be reconsidered without the agenda in mind. Far from economics, this is, well, I don’t know what it is.

    • Travis Collier

      “Hunter gatherers who lived to the ripe old age of 30?”
      Nope, the ones who survived birth, early childhood, and giving birth themselves (if they happened to be female) tended to live to what we would now recognize as old-age.
      The *life expectancy* of a soon-to-be-born fetus was probably around 30, but life expectancy doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it does. Not unrelated to how averages can be quite misleading when a distribution is highly skewed (such as with income).

      • ribamar

        That’s an innovative argument for me. Do you have good sources?

  • Harry Pollard

    All sciences begin with assumptions – the fewer the better.

    The second assumption of Henry George was:

    “People seek to satisfy their desires with the least exertion.”

    In other words, we don’t want work though, of course, we want the results of work. Much of the present political and economic class is engaged in efforts to create jobs for people who don’t want them.

    The rest of the time they spend trying to create demand. This is nonsense too. Just ask the question: “Does everyone have everything they want – including leisure?” I would expect you to find very few people saying yes.

    Demand is there, though it is ineffective. Instead of playing around with financial policies, economists should direct their attention to poverty and involuntary unemployment. “Why?” should direct their path.

    Unfortunately, instead of tackling these problems, the establishment provides welfare – dealing with the effects rather than the cause. And this year’s welfare will not be enough next year. Why?

    Harry

  • Peter van den Engel

    So Keynes already found out about singularity, about a century before Kurzweil from google did. Grand joke.

    Anyway the thing is you are mixing a couple of things up, or overlook some important differences.
    The first; in the article that is; is the presumption that new automation created new jobs because of its technology. While in fact it was the invention of new consumer goods which was responsible fot that/ and not automation by itself. The two evolutions overlapped each other in the same time period.
    Surviving hunter gatherers groups have far less material posessions.
    What sets them apart is they don’t use money in their economy.
    Money is an invention of agricultural societies, because their foodcrop could only be harvested once a year.
    Because land owners could organize efficient labor and were the owner of that, the money proceeds became their posession/ while the others turned into wage slaves.
    So in fact unwanted labor is the inverted relation of the necessity to eat.
    This is not an invention of the schoolsystem or economic competition.
    So the necessity to nake

  • RMGH

    I think one of the most salient points of the article is that we are entering an age where there just isn’t enough work for everyone. But the irony is that the few who have work, are being worked into the ground.

    This is a totally predictable result because supply and demand gives the employee no negotiating room to establish reasonable hours for a living wage.

    What can be done? Cut the work week for full employment down to 25-30 hours. Insist on decent pay and benefits. The money being hoarded at the top will have to be distributed more liberally to conform to this “New Deal”. Yes, people work – but they have a living wage with fewer hours.

    There will come a time when technology will change the concept of work altogether. We have to prepare for that in advance or we will have a feudal society of a few decadent entitled people at the top turning everyone else into slaves. This is a dangerous inflection point and it shouldn’t be ignored because the inability to FIND work is not going away.