The State of Labor

how can so much wealth and so much poverty exist at once? are unions on the rise or in decline? how will the workplace need to change in the next decade? what future do organizations have?

It's a scary time no matter who you are.

Headlines spark fear and day-to-day interactions stoke a humdrum pessimism.

It seems as though the hyper-growth and hyper-competitive treadmill that governs our markets is leading us off a cliff, yet we continue on, business as usual. A slight skepticism grows in the back of our minds, but we struggle to act. How to change? Where to start? The best many of us manage is a pointed remark here or there. "Don't worry, I'm in on the farce too." But the system's intertia is too much. And the job security too meager. What use is the butterfly effect when there's an army of butterflies flapping in the opposite direction?

Very few seem to understand the radical transfer of wealth that has occured over the last 50 years, thanks to a variety of carefully crafted policy regimes and ideological sleight of hands. If there is one graph that every American should study, it is the monstrous chasm between skyrocketing productivity and squashed wages from the 1970s onwards (top left figure). This one graph tells the story of today's robber barons and bought-off legislatures as much as it does an ever-shrinking middle class and a growing mental health crisis. (Data taken from the Economic Policy Institute. Learn more here, here, and here.)

Shock Therapy

In December of 2019, shorterly before his untimely passing, the anthropologist David Graeber wrote in The New York Review a prescient assessment of modern economics and its inevitable reckoning:

Economic theory as it exists increasingly resembles a shed full of broken tools. This is not to say there are no useful insights here, but fundamentally the existing discipline is designed to solve another century’s problems. The problem of how to determine the optimal distribution of work and resources to create high levels of economic growth is simply not the same problem we are now facing: i.e., how to deal with increasing technological productivity, decreasing real demand for labor, and the effective management of care work, without also destroying the Earth. This demands a different science. The 'microfoundations' of current economics are precisely what is standing in the way of this. Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.

Intellectually, this won’t be easy. Politically, it will be even more difficult. Breaking through neoclassical economics’ lock on major institutions, and its near-theological hold over the media—not to mention all the subtle ways it has come to define our conceptions of human motivations and the horizons of human possibility—is a daunting prospect. Presumably, some kind of shock would be required. What might it take? Another 2008-style collapse? Some radical political shift in a major world government? A global youth rebellion?

Graeber's comments aired 7 days before a group of patients in Wuhan, China would begin to experience fever and shortness of breath, an event that would spark a global pandemic, widespread economic paralysis, numerous governmental snafus, and the resurgence of an international abolitionist movement. Certainly a shock, if there ever was one.

The question is, what lasting effects has this shock had? Discussions of a collective “reset” and “the new normal” flooded our feeds for months. Yet any tangible shifts in our social fabric remain nebulous. As far as many of us are concerned, the near future seems to confront us a tired iteration of our postmodern vertigo: new and improved doomscrolling paired with a vague consensus that our government officials are no longer suited for the task of governing. Surely, something must be different. What would Graeber have to say? Where are we not looking?

A New Common Sense

While there is plenty of competing punditry set on summarizing the effects of the past 24 months, one particular interpretation seems to be gaining critical mass—an interpretation that would herald a new era in American consciousness as well as for many others across the globe. It's a shift our for-profit-news-cycle-induced-attention-span has blinded us to, and it's metastasizing at the speed of culture—which is to say, at the speed of good ol' analog offline lived experience.

What is it?

Well, as the planet burns and the internet democratizes information, more and more people, it seems, are disinterested in grinding through the prime of their life so their boss's boss can afford his second lake house.

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Illustration by María Jesús Contreras for Noreen Malone's "The Age of Anti-Ambition." As the article's subtitle rather astutely reads: "When 25 million people leave their jobs, it’s about more than just burnout."

To put this another way would be to say that the cynical realism of the neoliberal order is beginning to buckle. Relentless privatizing of basic necessities, even natural resources, is losing its coherence. The drudgery of 40 hour work weeks for 45+ years until retirement reflects an increasingly archaic, masochistic image of success. And the be-your-own-boss liberation that platform capitalism promised is quickly plummeting in credibility. In contrast, what people seem to be craving is belonging, stability, and more free time. Or, as the editor Noreen Malone recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine, "The broader world is getting darker — climate change, crumbling democracy. It feels impossible to change it. But work? Work could change."

Malone’s exposé examines of the modern workplace and current attitudes towards work in the US. But her assessment is unique in that it runs counter to conventional commentaries on the so-called “Great Resignation.” That is, by shedding light on decades of stagnant wages, the "bullshit job" phenomenon, significant spikes in collective bargaining, and the emergence of a "post-work" vanguard, Malone elucidates the socioeconomic dumpster fire that the COVID-19 pandemic merely helped stoke.

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"Fully Atomized Side Gig Precariat," Joshua Citarella, 2021. Popularized by the labor economist Guy Standing, today's "precariat" designates the increasingly common experience of existing in a state of constant financial precarity, often as a result of underemployment, chronic debt, suppressed wages, and exorbitant costs of living.

By her estimate, what we're seeing is an uptick in class consciousness for blue and white collar workers alike. And what's more, a growing sense that our Protestant work ethic is, and has always been, a scam. Malone:

[I]t didn’t help that, early in the pandemic, all jobs were pointedly rebranded: essential or nonessential. Neither label feels good. There is still plenty of purpose to be found in a job that isn’t in one of the helper professions, of course. But 'nonessential' is a word that invites creeping nihilism. This thing we filled at least eight to 10 hours of the day with, five days a week, for years and decades, missed family dinners for ... was it just busy work? Perhaps that’s what it was all along.

For the obviously essential workers — I.C.U. nurses, pulmonologists — the burden of being needed is a costly one. The word "burnout," promiscuously applied these days, was in fact coined to diagnose exhaustion in medical workers (in a more quaint time, when we weren’t heading into the third year of a multiwave global pandemic). And meanwhile, a vast majority of people deemed essential have jobs like Amazon warehouse worker or cashier. To be told that society can’t function without you, and that you must risk your health to come in, while other people push around marketing reports from home — often for much more money — it becomes difficult not to wonder if 'essential' is cynical, a polite way of classing humans as "expendable" or "nonexpendable."

The implications of such observations are far reaching. For those of us tasked with pushing around those marketing reports, it's no wonder we're feeling existential. What may at first present itself as a piecemeal contribution to our company’s operations, can quickly appear inconsequential in the context of looming collective dilemmas. As a friend recently told me about her job in communications, "I don't like doing things that aren't important."

And what's worse, when we compare the white collar labor of zoom calls, spreadsheet analysis, and project management to 8 hour shifts of waiting tables or stocking shelves, the gap between wage work and salaried desk jobs appears blatantly arbitrary—in many ways a product of a self-mythologizing hierarchy of worthiness rather than any utilitarian calculus or invisible hand.

But most of all, Malone's reflections on those deemed expendable and nonexpendable underscore the pandemic's harsh and unforgiving class dynamics. That is, the so-called "heroes" that have staffed our hospitals, grocery stores, and warehouses for the last 24 months surely deserve respect, but to chock their motives up to pure altruism erases a far more prominent, far more extensive system of economic precarity and extortion in which many of these workers found themselves on the "frontlines" out of financial necessity. Just ask your local barista, delivery driver, or nurse and you'll find economic life is quickly returning to the robber baron lawlessness of the 1890s.

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"The Condition of the Laboring Man at Pullman," 1894. The Pullman Strikes were a set of mobilizations against Pullman Company, a railroad car manufacturer, that would come to define American labor policy as a matter of "public interest." Learn more about the events here.

All this begs the question, when we envision the future of our economic system—of our daily professional lives—what do we see? What do we want? Higher wages, cozier deskspaces, asynchronous schedules, and diversified hires, or less work altogether? As Malone discerns, the latter is quickly emerging as the new common sense. No longer a niche political ideology, we find this "post-work" ethos hardening into a coherent worldview with accompanying policy demands.

Working with the New Common Sense

With this burgeoning desire for less work altogether there comes a whole host of uncertainties concerning the future of organizations and professional life more broadly. Where should our focus go in order to relate to this situation constructively? What solutions are on tap?

From the perspective of today's worker, the ground is fertile for planting a new political imaginary. If the American Dream was the ideological smokescreen needed for an able-bodied and docile labor pool, what new dream should take its place? As Kate Soper notes, America and much of the rest of the world faces a crossroads about what now constitutes "the good life":

[This] will require a revolution in our thinking about the very nature of progress and prosperity—a revolution that challenges the idea that consumer culture delivers the good life even to those with the means to buy its goods, that undermines attempts to maintain the hegemony of work over our lives and value system, and that highlights the pleasures for everyone of a less speed-driven, time-scarce, acquisitive way of living. [1]

The project is a daunting one to say the least. But we are hardly the first to arrive here. As the sociologist Stanley Aronowitz reminds us, for the same reason that we have a weekend, there is a long-standing tradition of labor organizing leading back to the demand for less time on the job:

The struggle for determination of the workday is not new in American history. From the dawn of the modern labor movement in the 1870s, up to the 1960s, workers and their unions placed shorter hours at or near the head of their lists of demands. Even during the early 1930s, years of weak unions amidst mass unemployment, organized labor nevertheless put forth the demand for the six-hour day at no reduction in pay—at a time when many who had jobs were typically working eight or ten hours. The existence of this struggle speaks to the truth that what is considered normal is a matter of social power and cultural mores. [2]

Interestingly, such demands have spanned the progressive-conservative divide. In the early 20th century, when the eight hour movement was gaining a national following, the idea of a reduced work week was paired with the possibility of increased family time and civic engagement. In many ways, it went hand in hand with the tenets of Jeffersonian democracy, which argued that a functional republic was incompatible with a citizenry forced into conditions of economic servitude. And with the rising rate of productivity brought on by industrialization, reductions to the work week seemed at that time only natural. As John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930, it was expected that we would be working no more than 15 hours a week by now.

Today, we see this same political imaginary deployed in conjunction with high-tech futurism, where automation and stable-state ecology meld into a post-work utopia. While it seems dubious to many that robotics and AI-assisted supply chains is the political cure-all some are hoping for, it does offer a compelling blueprint for collective prosperity that manages to massively scale back current work habits.

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As many writers know, sci-fi is the genre of political experimentation, and "solarpunk" is one of my favorite examples. As a literary and artistic movement, it emerged in reaction to many dystopian and apocalyptic depictions of the future, portraying instead a near-future with themes of ecomodernism, deep ecology, anti-consumerism, and decentralization. Well-known authors associated with the movement include Urula K. Le Guin, Ernest Callenbach, and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Regardless of the particular socioeconomic concoction we arrive at, it is indisputable that a worker movement is on the rise. In the US alone, we are seeing a significant rise in union activity coming from places as disparate as the education, healthcare, service, and manufacturing sectors. Not to mention the 1.4 million strong Reddit community that’s brought conversations of a future with less work to a national audience. And now, with the first successful unionization of Amazon, one of the largest employers globally, we seem to be approaching a watershed moment. The resounding message among these groups: the work-dominated time-scarce culture that most Americans (and many others) live under is antiquated, undesirable, and in need of a radical overhaul.

The Post-Work Organization

So what would sustained action look like today? Well, that remains an open-ended question. But one solution is already being piloted by a variety of organizations as well as entire countries.

In Iceland's case, the government-supervised trials of a four-day work week have been "an overwhelming success." And for certain Australian companies trying the new schedule on for size, they've seen huge net gains, such as big leaps in productivity and employee engagement. There's even Autonomy, an independent think tank and consultancy working with organizations of all kinds to shepherd the movement along at an international scale.

But more importantly, what all this demonstrates is the viability of less work, both from the perspective of workers and organizations. As the Washington Post recently put it, "The five-day workweek was made up. What if we changed it?"

For workers, now is the time to nurture infectious new lifestyles of more free time, material autonomy, and wellbeing. It is a time of envisioning, play, commoning, connection, and demanding what is deserved. The best of these efforts will be funneled toward new catalytic images of the future, where current landscapes of urban decay, platform oligarchies, manic consumerism, and the ominous rhetoric of “hustle culture” are exorcised as unwelcome artifacts of the past. From here our best minds and bodies will be needed to engineer practical pathways of transition, which, importantly, must include cross-cultural and cross-class buy-in.

From the perspective of organizations, next steps will include deep listening and the agility to adopt new operational and financial models that prioritize the long-term interests of the collective. Note, though, that this work must be approached with caution.

On one hand, and as the video above makes clear, this frontier of work is not without its opportunities. We are already seeing the success that can come from radically investing in those whose labor you rely on.

On the other hand, recognizing that those whose labor you rely are at the same time tethered to your organization through a state of economic dependency (i.e., through the privatization of land and material goods we all must sell our labor in order to exist) will be crucial in a democratic transition to reductions in work. As in the last seconds of the video, when we see the monstrous hand with sleeves and cuff links reaching down from above to open the door to Friday and release its workers, there is an unspoken and innate power dynamic embedded in employee-employer relations. Acknowledging this power dynamic—which, we must be clear, is fundamentally a relationship of extraction under the current paradigm of value generation—is thus important to developing a post-work organization that avoids paternalistic and technocratic solutions.

In practice, this may mean fostering more collaborative operations in which the tacit knowledge and wisdom of workers across different levels of an organization are synthesized. For example, reducing the work week of service workers is almost guaranteed to look different and require different problem-solving than that same company’s higher ups. The point, then, is that the conversation must be democratic. (It might even warrant an alternative governance structure, if your organization is open to piloting new decision-making practices or forms of ownership.)

Regardless, this notion of a post-work organization must include active efforts to curb our workaholic culture and its many downstream effects. It must realize that the rampant success of Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is a testament to an utterly unfree world. Or, as the political theorist Jodi Dean has written, is capitalism itself beginning to mutate into a kind of neofeudalism?

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Illustration by Nathalie Lees for Andy Beckett's longform piece on post-work politics.

[1] Kate Soper, Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism, 33.

[2] Stanley Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler (eds), Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, 59-60.