We Need Fewer Jobs

It is possible for almost everyone to agree on something, and yet for almost all of them to be wrong.  Some agree on it because they want to be in agreement with everyone else, but don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about.  Others have looked into the matter in some detail, and can make a plausible presentation of their views on a lay level; but then an expert comes along and explains why that plausible lay viewpoint has long ago been overhauled or discredited.  Experts, in turn, variously agree and disagree on matters, but in many instances the orthodox expert view likewise becomes superseded or irrelevant with new learning and changed perspectives.

In that spirit, let’s look at the contemporary jobs hysteria.  First of all, there are some kinds of jobs that we pretty clearly don’t need more of.  Regardless of whether there’s a market for assassins, suicide bombers, torturers, or self-made widows, most of us are apt to draw the line at a certain point.  Derivative of that, we would ideally not be creating more jobs for criminal defense attorneys, prison guards, and construction workers who build prisons.  We also don’t ordinarily hope for more illness, even though it would mean more work for nurses and funeral homes, nor for more car accidents, despite their positive effect on car sales.  On balance, we would also be better off if we were not creating jobs that would entail damage (to e.g., physical health or the environment) that we will then have to go back and repair, or that may prove to be permanently irreparable.

From there, it’s not a far stretch to say that we also would probably be better off if we hadn’t generated so many jobs for the bankers, lawyers, contractors, and realtors who created the mortgage meltdown of 2008 and thereabouts, as well as the government employees, marketing specialists, computer programmers and people in other lines of work who aided and abetted that crisis.  In this and other situations, doing your job properly — as a diligent regulator, an ethical attorney, or an honest banker or realtor — is apt to dampen market enthusiasm and suppress the creation of jobs, as compared to what can happen when money flows fast and crazy.

That general principle holds in a variety of situations.  We don’t need professors who hand out degrees to students who haven’t learned much — even if mom and dad are willing to pay a fortune for the privilege; even if the school and the degree look very impressive on paper.  We don’t need so many taxi drivers, if efficient mass transit is the more logical solution in a given city.  We don’t need — and in prehistoric times, our ancestors did not have — despots and tyrants to put us down. With all due respect for the pleasures of refined taste, we don’t truly need retailers who sell more expensive stuff that does nothing more than the cheap stuff does, nor do we need the sense of pseudo-superiority that accompanies such merchandise.  I’m not saying there should be a law against that sort of thing; more likely just an education or a culture against it.

In a different category, there are jobs that aren’t needed because someone or something else can do them faster, better, and/or cheaper.  Younger people, people in other countries, people who aren’t unionized, child laborers — there are all sorts of people who now do much of the work that would once have been done by relatively skilled, senior, often unionized labor in the U.S.  It’s not always a pretty picture, but that’s how the market works.  Scholars have been anticipating for decades, as well, that automation would render human employees increasingly superfluous, and that has been happening in ever more sophisticated tasks, ranging from the supermarket clerk to the assembly line worker to the knowledge worker.

Let me put it his way.  Suppose you, personally, had the combined knowledge of job-elimination experts across dozens of fields of employment.  You understand the latest supermarket automatic shelf-stocking technology; you know all about the most up-to-date pizza-making equipment.  Suppose you also had the power to go through our economy and identify jobs for elimination.  You’ll turn Pizza Hut on to that pizza technology; you’ll send jobs offshore; you’ll identify and resolve bottlenecks to eliminate all kinds of unnecessary jobs.  Suppose, moreoever, that you have a passion for this work, as well as a budget that allows you to offer rewards to people who can identify unnecessary jobs, and to provide grant funding to employers who need a little nudge to switch to the latest technology.  Over a 10- or 20-year period, could you eliminate millions of jobs from our economy, without having a significant adverse impact on the availability of goods and services from the consumer’s perspective?  I think you probably could.

But should you?  At present, we don’t need to answer that question, because in a sense this is the process that has already been underway for many years.  What I have just described as a sort of super Anti-Jobs hero (or villain) is what employers have already been doing on their own.

If your concern is with the local situation today, you’ll reasonably be interested in creating jobs, even useless ones.  If, on the other hand, you are thinking of the best long-term outcome, certain conclusions seem inevitable.  There has rarely been full employment in the first place; jobs are vanishing; they are going to continue to vanish, as productivity and automation make people increasingly superfluous within the workforce context; and therefore it will be unavoidable, sooner or later, to rethink and redesign the whole concept of the job.  Someday, for instance, one or two people will be able to sit around and fiddle with knobs to replace the work of a half-dozen or more guitarists, drummers, bass and organ players, and sound mixers:

Within the long-term perspective, a couple of observations seem appropriate.  Plantation and wage slaves of the 19th century could find themselves working 90 hours per week.  The end of plantation slavery in 1865 required the Civil War; but for blacks and whites alike, the reduction of working hours would require many further battles, fiscal and sometimes physical, over a span of generations.  A half-century ago, the eight-hour day and the five-day, 35- to 40-hour workweek turned out to be the high-water mark in that struggle.  Overall, including especially people who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, the total number of hours worked per year has actually been trending back upwards in the United States.  (See U.S. Statistical Abstract, 2011, Table 1354; Duffy, 2010, p. 155; Rosenberg, 2009, p. 75.)  Whole categories of valid nonwork experience have been or are being significantly eroded:  the retiree, the housewife, the idyllic childhood.  It is not necessarily a point of pride that North America leads the world in its rate of essentially full-time employment (at 41% of population).  Moreover, many jobs today require intellectual, emotional, or other engagement or distraction during the worker’s supposed leisure time.  People who are working are often overworking.

This does not entirely make sense, given that a long-term reduction of need for human labor increasingly means that many people will then be completely unemployed.  From a societal perspective, it seems more logical that, as productivity increases and as the need for human labor declines, the typical workday would be scaled back in the direction of the four-hour workday.  Employers who fought against the 19th-century effort to achieve a reduction to a 60-hour workweek were probably not terribly different than those who would now fight a law reducing the maximum to, say, 30 hours per week.  Such opposition would be based on seemingly sensible calculations from their perspective.  Again, such a reduction may not be feasible politically in the short term; it may be economically inadvisable for purposes of e.g., competition for jobs with countries like India and China.  Yet over a period of decades, the alternative is a steadily shrinking number of people who have good jobs and a growing number of those who don’t have any jobs at all.  At some point, even the relatively short-term political and economic realities of mass unemployment and frustrated expectations across numerous countries are likely to become more compelling.

There is another factor to bear in mind.  Some jobs are truly enjoyable.  They are the sort of thing that the employee or self-employed individual would do for free, if s/he could afford to.  The more common experience, unfortunately, is that jobs provide acceptable but not great experiences for those who hold them.  People are taught to do these jobs, and not to complain too seriously or to imagine much better for themselves — and thus to pass their working years in a second-rate manner wherein, as they look back, it was not what they hoped their lives would be about, but at least it paid the bills and raised the kids.  And then, for millions of people, the job is a more abhorrent experience:  tedious, disgusting, upsetting, or physically destructive, often at rates of pay that do not even meet those basic needs of paying the bills and raising the kids.

The large majority of jobs worldwide are far from being the sort of thing that a person would deliberately try to create, if s/he were seeking the best life experiences for the people who will perform them.  The prevailing doctrine is, rather, that employment is necessary for money, it brings other benefits, and so we need to let employers tell us which jobs are going to exist and what those jobs are going to consist of, even if the results are pretty miserable for a lot of people.

That logic has some merits and also some dangers.  We see the merits all around us:  employers create a country of material wealth and varied pleasures.  We also see the dangers.  Employers are granted a level of power, comparable to the historical power of the judge or the priest, to tell people what they can and cannot do in their lives, as well as what they should believe is right and wrong; yet unlike the priest or judge, the employer is not typically governed by a humantarian ethic.  Hence, where they can, employers will overwork us, as just noted; in fact, they have done so for centuries, with many unfortunate long-term effects upon our families, communities, and selves.  Power tends to corrupt, among employers as much as among anyone else; thus employers indulge the same sorts of micromanagement, vindictiveness, caprice, and other undesirable behaviors as anyone else would, if they had such great power over individuals.  We demonize the Nazi doctors who conducted torturous experiments on their prisoners, and who were then able to go home to a nice dinner and to play with their children; yet that was just a particularly nasty illustration of what people are capable of, when power exceeds responsibility.  On the individual level, there are comparably horrendous examples in workplaces around the world today, wrought not by racist fanatics but by mild-mannered employers who attract the respect of their communities at the very time when they are putting employees at risk of serious physical injury and death.  Deflating the mystique of the employer would also check the bizarre idea that employers can reasonably siphon off a very substantial portion of the proceeds from our long years of hard work, in order to make a few people ever richer.

There is another problem with the logic of the workplace.  People sometimes get into a macho mode where they feel proud because they are able to work so hard for so long.  The same feeling arises in those who play well at sports:  there is a certain pride in endurance.  Games aside, though, there is nothing admirable about the ability to display stamina while producing things that are stupid, useless, or destructive.  Working hard to produce land mines — or, for that matter, to sell people stuff that they don’t need — does not make you a better person.  Like “white line fever,” where a person falls into a sort of trance after too many hours of driving, the glorification of work for its own sake does not make sense — not when there are so many other things that need to be done.

What else needs to be done?  The list is endless.  Consider some options on the level of actually living your own life.  Read a book and learn something.  Get some exercise.  Take time to cook a healthy meal.  Have a real conversation with a child.  Make a new friend.  Help someone other than yourself.  Sit still and think about your life for once.  Nobody on their deathbed says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”  You may be in the grip of that fever now, but snap out of it.  You are needed elsewhere.  The idea that your employer knows where you are needed, better than you do, is very unlikely if not purely absurd in most cases.

Granted, we are not eager to return to the hardships and limitations of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  But let’s not completely overlook the fact that primitive humans were able to exist for millions of years without working, on average, much more than four or five hours a day.  We, with our technology, could easily survive and thrive on much less — and we could do it without having to spend our days in enormous bureaucracies, under the control and surveillance of people who function as modern-day slavemasters.  Economic output is now sufficient to provide people with the basic necessities of life without very much work at all.

Would a life with greater leisure be a good idea?  Not if the leisure is wasted, or feeds into anxiety.  But if leisure of the kinds just mentioned were encouraged and validated, the results could be very good for people individually and for their communities and societies collectively.

They say work is good for you.  Yet that depends on the kind of work.  It’s not good for you to lose fingers, to come home crying, or to lie awake at night worrying about your job.  There are, in fact, many things about many workplaces that are not good for you, including the negation of some things just listed:  in many jobs you won’t be getting exercise, helping friends, having real conversations with people, and so forth.  Again, there is often a question of which comes first:  doing what’s good for you and/or other people, versus doing what’s good for the employer.

Having a steady job does bring psychological benefits.  For one thing, you have the security of knowing that you will have food, shelter, medical treatment, and other necessities of survival and comfort.  Or I should say you *may* have such security.  Employers commonly act as though it were a special favor to provide these basics to the members of the employer’s community, or even to the employer’s own employees, when in fact communities have provided some such assistance to their members in need since the Stone Age.  Even plantation slaveowners and military commanders have tended to realize that you have to treat your people as an asset, and take basic care of them, if you expect them to continue to function.

In fairness, employers are driving toward a valid if implicit point.  In a really free market economy, they would be free to pay no more than the market requires, in order to obtain the labor they need.  Their implicit point is that there are simply too many people for the jobs that need to be filled.  In this perspective, if the people of the world are not willing and able to control their population to the point that there are not enough workers for the job (at which point wages would rise, so as to attract applicants), then, from a market perspective, the employers can hardly be blamed for failing to pay enough to enable their employees to survive:  there are others who are willing to take their place.  In other words, the market is rationally trying to eliminate the surplus by starving unnecessary people.  The employers thus establish two points:  (1) if you continue to improve productivity without controlling population, you will inevitably have too many people for the available jobs; and (2) the market, left to itself, will favor a vicious cycle for several generations to come (i.e., declining population yields declining demand, which yields reduced output, which yields reduced employment, which yields starvation and further declines in population).  In other words, the market, left to itself, will trend in the direction of killing most of us — and itself as well.  Since people are apt to steal, riot, and revolt as necessary to obtain the basics of survival, the market — that is, the employer’s short-term viewpoint — is not a reliable guide to what employers or others should contribute to public welfare in current conditions.  Both the survival of society and the functioning of the market require external intervention.  Most surviving governments in most places have recognized this to varying degrees.

There certainly is, and should be, some satisfaction in knowing that you are being paid properly in exchange for performing a needed service.  But this satisfaction can come in many ways.  It does not require a job that many people will not be able to obtain in any case.  For example, people derive significant satisfaction from providing volunteer services (e.g., firefighting, adoptive parenting) and from other kinds of publicly encouraged and usually un- or under-compensated performances (in e.g., religion, sports, the arts).  At the same time, many people make a lot of money for work that delivers little satisfaction; many others are paid, not necessarily very well, for work that actually erodes their self-esteem.  There is, in short, no necessary connection between paid work for a private employer and psychological gratification.

Of course, if you structure your society in such a way that nothing else is considered as prestigious as having paid employment, then obviously other kinds of occupations — even occupations that are more individually and socially beneficial — will struggle to obtain comparable respect.  Again, though, this is something that can change.  There have been many communities and societies in which contribution to the common welfare has been considered the best form of activity.  It is obvious at present that the market has become socially dysfunctional — providing houses that sit empty due to the mortgage crisis, for example, and in many cases must ultimately be torn down, at the very time when increasing numbers of people are homeless, and converting food to fuel while people are going hungry.

There are individuals who want to be useful, who have much to contribute, but for whom the market has no answer.  At such times it becomes especially obvious that people who are willing to commit themselves to work for the public good — on infrastructure projects, for example, and in education — should be provided with a basic social safety net.  While the arguments of employers should be considered along with all other opinions, by this point American employers have demonstrated an excessive, almost religious faith in the market and, as such, have rendered themselves no more entitled to the benefit of unsupported presumptions than are the proponents of any other faith.

When I say that we need fewer jobs, I mean it is good and natural that there should be fewer traditional paid jobs offered by employers.  This is an expected outcome of contributions to productivity, often underrewarded, made by many researchers and others over the years.  The economy has developed capabilities and capacities that have vastly increased profitability by rendering much traditional employment unnecessary.  People are now increasingly free to do other things, and there are many other things that need to be done, beyond what the labor market can accommodate in the pursuit of economic growth.  So in this sense, we need to continue to reduce the need for people to work at traditional jobs and to incur the many drawbacks that often accompany traditional paid work for an employer.

In summary, the labor market is doing some of the work of a super Anti-Job hero who would find ways to free people from unnecessary paid employment, so as to make them available for more valuable contributions to society.  Employers — to whom society has long given the privilege of choosing the cream of the crop, along with countless other benefits and supports, and who have enjoyed enormous profits as a result — are simply not in a position to complain about their obligation to contribute to this effort.  There is much to be done, and in many ways they are not doing it.  We are long overdue for arrangements in which nonprofit and governmental agencies and social entrepreneurs join traditional employers in receiving corporate welfare, as they strive to focus workers on serving the public good.

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1 Response to We Need Fewer Jobs

  1. Ray Woodcock says:

    A Paul Krugman editorial in the New York Times (Nov. 17, 2013) suggests that this post was on target.

    A later post expands upon some of the thoughts expressed in this one.

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