The Future of Work – II What is Work?

Future of Work I identified an issue: The definition of work itself will change dramatically by 2050. At the end of the post, it was suggested that we cannot see clearly into the future because it will be so different from what we experience now. Future of Work II ponders who we are now that we cannot see a path to this unknown future.
For the sake of clarity and to limit the scope, this series will deal only with the culture and circumstances of the United States. Other cultures, nations and international politics will be annotated from time to time but the focus is on US circumstances.
Some US labor statistics that reflect the current culture of work:
Americans work an average 47 hours per week – cumulatively 4 more weeks per year than the average in 1979.
In addition, on average, Americans work two weeks longer.
The US is the only nation in the world that does not guarantee paid time off, sick leave and maternity leave.
The US is the only nation in the world that does not link employee income specifically to hours worked or productivity.
The US is the only nation in the world of first-tier nations that does not require cost of living adjustments to income as a national policy or as a culturally mandated reason to do so – collapsed and authoritarian economies excepted.
In spite of increasing demands at work, employees accept salaries that remain not much above 1985 rates. That’s a difference of 40% – nearly half again what workers would be making if their salaries kept up with the cost of living or with statistics on productivity. Further, labor unions have become a pejorative presence that “interferes” with an employee’s opportunity to work; minimum wage is significantly under the poverty line; Federal and State governments continually undercut agencies who oversee the health and working conditions of the American employee; no effort has been made to repair the misuse of retirement funds by corporations – made possible by legislation during the Reagan administration. In short, American workers are so addicted to work that it supersedes any other measure of personal worth or any sense of self value. In the mariner’s resident State, there is a firm prejudice against anyone who isn’t working hard.
It is common knowledge that Americans clearly are the hardest working culture in the world. Only the United States, with its supercharged employees, has a chance of competing with a Chinese economic engine that has the potential to produce 100 times the producing capacity of the US. It may be that the reason we cannot see into the future is that work, as it is experienced today, will not exist. Under control of maleficent employers, and with workaholics, hypertension, widespread job dissatisfaction and workers having a belief that work represents sanctification through sacrifice, the American work ethic as it is today cannot survive the journey to a different world of work.
Psychologists, sociologists and, increasingly, private sector theorists and planners feel that it is a good thing to disrupt the American dedication to work or at least to change the work environment. There is a big world out there that actually is more important to the human psyche than “work” – though many will disagree. For example, workaholics have a different family life profile than “normal” workers. The divorce rate is higher; they do not participate in non-work activity that “restores the soul;” their emotional flexibility declines and empathy, sympathy, and human insight wither from disuse. Yet, in the American culture, they seem happy with what they are doing and who they are inside. Americans admire these dedicated, high performance producers. Personality tendencies aside, are workaholics happy in the wholesome sense? The mariner offers the opinion that excessive commitment to anything is compensation for past experiences, disparate family mores and obsessive-compulsive characteristics.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s the definition of the word “work.” There are two thoughts:
1. In society today, work is part of a triumvirate – time/labor, income, and contribution to the Gross Domestic Product. Working is making something that is wanted by the economy in some way, earning income for the worker and spending personal time and effort to contribute to the success of the work ethic.
2. Work may not be bound by continuous time, income, or economic output. Perhaps work can contribute to society, or to the biosphere, or to any tangential activity compared to today’s perception of the “workplace.” This idea crosses several ideologies. Capitalists consider anything not contributing directly to cash flow and product to be irrelevant – hence, government jobs aren’t real jobs; Socialists consider a workplace to include the home, community activity, and consider a workplace to be mutually owned in principle with the employer – hence profit is a multifaceted product; the American worker considers a workplace a place that provides income and requires investment of personal labor.
Look at a few test cases:
A person gives 5 or 6 hours every other day working at the local car parts store. The rest of the person’s optional time is spent riding a horse along several miles of trail in a forest. The trail is cleared of branches and debris. Hikers benefit from the person’s efforts but certainly not comparable to the scope of time and effort provided voluntarily by the person. Is the person working when maintaining the trail?
A mother is on welfare. She has four children under the age of 12. She spends 8 hours each day caring for the children in some way – before school, after school, homework, meals, chaperons them to and from after school activities. The mother receives welfare income and a few dollars babysitting a working neighbor’s two small children; she contributes time and labor. Is this woman working? Does she work for her community by properly raising her children to be good citizens in that community? Would the economy based workforce be better served if she left her children to work 10 hours a day at Burger King? Don’t worry about the reader’s answers defining him/her. The case is speculative.
A man works two jobs fulltime. He is a bookkeeper and brings work home on weekends to keep abreast of his responsibilities. He makes $125K total annual income. His two children are 12 and 16. His wife works at a local restaurant. She makes $31K total annual income. In one year, the older child, a boy, is arrested for accidental homicide and is sentenced to 10 years in prison. Arrest and pretrial confinement costs the police department $165K. Prosecution and court expenses total $140K. Prison costs $55K/year for each inmate. The daughter has run away twice requiring the police department to look for her a total of three days at $4,000/hour, 8 hours/day times 4 policemen. All administrative costs and benefits included, the searches cost the city $384K. Is the man working if his societal overhead is $744K while he and his wife earn $156K?
The mariner hopes these cases cause speculation and induce personal thought about what else is part of the “triumvirate.” Is work more integrated into society outside the workplace than one sees on the surface? Does the work ethic include another dimension of responsibility to family, neighborhood, friends and most importantly, to self?
Ancient Mariner

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