Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The unfuture of work

These days, Slavoj Zizek is required reading if you have any pretensions of being on the left, and this article is a cogent piece on why "middle-class" jobs are becoming less and less so. But as someone less comfortable with reality than the imagination, today's economy reminds me of one of the big predictions from science fiction's "golden era" that has not - and likely will not - come to pass.

No, not personal jetpacks; the one-day work-week.

See, the idea was that automation, robots, etc. would improve productivity, a prediction that has come to pass. Therefore, we'd all need to work fewer hours, without any reduction in the standard of living. We would enter a golden era of human flourishing. (Strangely, in these futures, people used their spare time to master playing the lute or become tenth-degree black belts rather than using it to watch television.) But that last oddity aside - we've seen the productivity, but no real reduction in work time. If a job used to take two people working a 40-hour week, and now it's twice as productive, they lay off one of the employees; they don't have two part-time employees paid for full-time work. What happened?

First, the idea of uniformly marching productivity has always been nonsense. Some jobs are easier to automate than others, such as manufacturing. Others aren't easy to automate but theoretically we could spread their hours out among the workers who used to be in now-automated fields. For example, I could easily imagine a waiter working one day a week. But other jobs can't be made more productive or reduced. Probably my favorite academic paper of all times discusses why service-intensive work becomes relatively more expensive when other sectors become more productive. Baumol and Bowen used the example of string quartets; it takes the same amount of labor to produce a concert today as 100 years ago. And you simply can't be a concert-quality violinist on eight hours of playing a week. Still, the total number of labor hours could still go down, even if not evenly.

More importantly, that's not how capitalism works. Owners of capital, in the aggregate, are trying to maximize their profits. They pay enough to get skilled workers to work for them, and that's it. Why would they pay someone for a full week when they work only one day? As long as there is a surplus of labor, wages are driven down (see Grapes of Wrath, The). Under productivity increases, jobs are conglomerated or become piece-rate freelance gigs. This isn't meant as a slur on capitalism; it's basic economics. Occasionally a Henry Ford tries paying employees more, but much more often wages are artificially increased only by government via mechanisms such as minimum wages. So, could we posit government mandates at work in these sci-fi futures?

Don't be silly! Remember, we're talking golden era sci-fi writers! These guys were bullish on American capitalism in the middle of the Cold War. They were libertarians before libertarians were cool. (Well, lukewarm, anyway.) According to them, the new work order would come about strictly via the invisible hand.

In retrospect, it all seems a little naive.

1 comment:

Chad Lykins said...

Hey! Reckon I'll have to go to ASHE to catch up with you since you're not at AERA.

I was just thinking that there is a small cadre of hyper-capable folks trying to forge a one-day work week, or more accurately, a Four Hour Work Week (ala life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss). They are either renegotiating with the boss the expectations of the job (productivity vs. time) or starting their own businesses. And of course it doesn't really work for the service industry, except perhaps coaching.

You and Corey are the bestest bloggers from Payne Hall. You can use this quote on promotional materials if you want.