We are running out of time to find the meaning of work

Last week’s report from the IFS detailing the ongoing rise in the numbers of working poor in the UK highlights just how dysfunctional work can be in the modern era. While depictions of work in the media tend to consist of diverse Millennials clustering around a single laptop in the sun-dappled offices of tech firms, or chilling on the Chesterfield in a coworking space, the reality for many people is somewhat different.

They commute to work each day into blue-grey, poorly-lit offices, in which the Millennials are mixed with an actual diversity of older people, and at the end of each month may or may not have enough money to cover their bills.

Coincidentally, this is the world of endless moaning about open plan office design, which overlooks the fact that for all its issues, it is better than being cooped up in cells away from other people.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The endless moaning about open plan office design overlooks the fact that for all its issues, it is better than being cooped up in cells[/perfectpullquote]

Some people don’t even work in offices at all, or at least not as often as they’d like. Some work in genuinely hellish jobs, such as the moderators at Facebook whose work is something that you wouldn’t want to do and almost certainly something you’re better off not even reading about.

Many of the challenges of the mundane world of work are set out most famously in David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs and equally famously addressed in Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists which sets out the case for a Universal Basic Income and shorter working week so compellingly that even Rupert Murdoch was spotted on holiday reading it.

Nevertheless, doubts remain about both the wisdom and practicality of implementing the ideas the book suggests. It is still Utopia, realistic or not. Will Hutton sets out an important critique in his review of the book but evidence for the unintended consequences and complexities of UBI are most evident from its actual outcomes, such as the recent experiment in Finland which found that it increased individual wellbeing (a point not to be underestimated) but didn’t incentivise people to find work.


Something wrong

What is clear from the still-forming debate is that there is something seriously wrong with the way we work. The most common criticism is that we work too much with no discernible signs of increased productivity or pay alongside plenty of evidence it is doing us a great deal of harm and might even kill us.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This is not just about the length of time we spend at work but the amount of time we spend as tenders of machines[/perfectpullquote]

The solution to this is often claimed to be working fewer hours. There’s something in this but it remains predicated on the anachronistic idea of a working week. We now receive near daily press announcements from (smaller) firms about how they’ve moved to a four-day working week. I am left to ponder whether this merely means that people are not in the office on Fridays.

Given the modern propensity to work while on holiday and the move towards more instant and pervasive means of communication than email, it seems unlikely that people will take Fridays off completely. I rather suspect they don’t take it off at all, although they might be out for a walk with the kids or in the pub sooner than they might have been. And that’s fine.

This is not just about the length of time we spend at work but the amount of time we spend as tenders of machines, a fact of everyday working life predicted by Isaac Asimov way back in 1964. This brings it own problems, including the possibility that our own obsolescence will run in parallel with  that of the machines we tend.

We need to do something about this but the solution will involve a fundamental reappraisal of the meaning and purpose of work. As with the debate about what we do about the environment, we are running out of time to do this and we must be prepared to take some very difficult decisions about our lives right now.

This discussion is not only constrained by time but also by distorted narratives. We need to be aware not only of how little time we have to address the issue, but also our acceptance of ideas that are not true but have been laundered by constant repetition. We need to have an eye on the time and also a sceptical eye for the accepted ideas with which we are presented.


Main image: Fritz Kahn’s Der Mensch Als Industriepalast