so you are at a party or online trying to describe yourself to friendly strangers and the only thing you or they can think of is: “so what do you do?” I don’t know if anyone likes this question. in fact, when that question was taken out of a speed dating experiment and other questions were “imposed” on the date such as “why did you break up with you last relationship?” “do you have mental illness in your family?” people liked each other a lot more.
and still, we ask about employment, and there isn’t a much bigger faux-pas than to say you are unemployed. and not looking for work. its worse than saying you are anorexic or manic-depressive. people don’t really know what to say, its like saying you are sexually attracted to goats, just like unemployment nobody really believes there is anything wrong with it, but its just weird. you could say that you are a manager of a telemarketing company, or you trade diamonds, in both cases people can rationally believe that you create either massive public nuisance or have lots of african blood on your hands, but somehow its formally considered an impressive feat; much better than unemployment.
but here is the economic complexity of employment: we live at a time where computers and robots have taken up most jobs, and are taking more and more all the time. unlike the times when lots of work was necessary to sustain farms, build railroads, or mend clothes, there is actually no need anymore for extra labor. it doesn’t actually increase wealth. all it does is increase labor competition. jobs that used to require a highschool diploma now require a bachelor's degree and increasingly will require graduate education to qualify.
this goes against a deeply fundamental ethos of our culture. its incredibly hard to question it, but I want you to consider this analogy: imagine being a viking 1000 years ago, getting around from one Danish Island to another to visit your family would be done with row boats and maybe with bringing a few lambs on the ship for snacks to share. it would make sense to require anyone boarding the ship to contribute a good 8 hours a day of rowing and not allow freeloading. now imagine things had gone this way for a few centuries but then somebody invents the sail, or better yet, the internal combustion engine. what would happen then?
we better believe that for the first few decades everyone will insist: “no freeloaders, you must find a job or you can’t get on this ship!” which would result people spending 8 hours a day pretending to row, giving rowing classes, cleaning the deck, maybe selling detergents for deck cleaning, maybe even working in advertising, marketing, and finances of cleaning detergents for deck cleaning. people working at HR of cleaning staff, providing entertainment and hospitality services offering lamb snacks by waitresses kidnapped from previously pillaged villages at low rates while the rest of the vikings on board work full time trying to compete with each other on who is going to reap the financial benefits of the slave ownership: the owners, leasers, or lawyers that manage their employment practices.
this little satire is not a joke. it is what’s happening these days. we are working bullshit jobs that don’t increase wealth because there is nothing to do, but the rules of free market require us to look busy.
think about agriculture: before industrialization as many as 90% of the people would be working in agriculture, and now its less than 1% and we are overproducing so much that we have to dump produce in the ocean, or turn it into automotive fuel to justify its extent. and those 1% farm workers are some of the lowest paid hardest working people. where did all the wealth go? in the 50’s it took about 3 times as much labor to produce the same amount of goods as it does today. but what’s changed? to people work less? no, they are working more, more than twice infact. how? women started working too! did that increase the GDP? maybe by 30% a lot less than the predicted 100% increase. that’s because we don’t need more labor. its so hard to imagine, but there is economic data to prove it. (and that’s all assuming that the increase in GDP is somehow desireable, which we can discuss elsewhere)
the main tragedy in all this is not in the waist of time, despicable jobs, or even environmental damage in resulting in so much economic activity. (than can happen with very low tech as well) it’s in the loss of love-based labor. mainly, child and elder care; but also crafts, hobbies, home making, gardening, cooking, and all other labors of love that increase a sense of connection and identity.
but I’m not here to impose my romantic luddite vision on the world. I understand that its
subjective but here is the objective part: robots cannot replace parents, but somehow they haven’t freed people to be the parents that their children need them to be. this goes far beyond “time budgeting”. parents who are overworked and uninspired at work, are generally much more stressed, feel that they have unmet personal needs, are under cognitive load so that when they do come home from work they just want to disappear into the TV, which the kids emulate, and don’t even watch the same shows as their parents.
and there you have kids growing up without mentors, without knowing what is it that their parents do for a living, or how they handle themselves as adults. they often feel that their parents don’t really want to be with them in all the measures of electronic of inanimate plastic substitutes for attention. (further readings by Neufeld and Mate)
there is HUGE price we are paying with this lifestyle. the low social support we live in is creating delinquency, depression, crime, and breaks up families. the best lifestyle predictor of marital success is shared positive lesiure time. and the best predictor for criminal tragectory for children is poor parenting. (further reading by Benjamin Karney)
technology should have freed us to be doing labor of love. we should have been playing with our kids, volunteering at orphanages, caring for the elderly, spending time learning to be better listeners to our friends, learn massage and end of life care, we should have been able to invest ourselves in arts and crafts, building our homes, and repairing our sewing machines. what is the point of all this business that produces nothing. all these hotel and restaurnt workers that spend their times looking busy while their establishment sits mostly empty. they are suppose to be at home making food for their children who really love them, not bosses and customers that don’t care about them. (if I sound just like Ted Kazinsky I’m not apologising)
some people tell me I missed the point.
its arbitrary, sure, but just like sport people want the challenge and competition, and if they didn’t have to work, they would find something else to occupy them, and what I’m describing is a world of dolphins or bonobos, not people.
is that true?