“Work is … how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.”
Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative.
Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life – especially in Britain and the US – more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. “Hard-working families” are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.
And yet work is not working, for ever more people, in ever more ways. We resist acknowledging these as more than isolated problems – such is work’s centrality to our belief systems – but the evidence of its failures is all around us.
As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households. In the US, the average wage has stagnated for half a century.
As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as “working in a non-graduate role”. In the US, “belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s”, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)
With work increasing precarious, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home
Work is increasingly precarious: more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes; more corporate “restructurings” for those still with actual jobs. As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership – for much of the 20th century, the main successes of mainstream western economic policy – work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises. For many people, not just the very wealthy, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home.
Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.
The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world – despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.
Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health: “Stress … an overwhelming ‘to-do’ list … [and] long hours sitting at a desk,” the Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming notes in his new book, The Death of Homo Economicus, are beginning to be seen by medical authorities as akin to smoking.
Work is badly distributed. People have too much, or too little, or both in the same month. And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations. “The crisis of work is also a crisis of home,” declared the social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in a paper last year. This neglect will only get worse as the population grows and ages.
And finally, beyond all these dysfunctions, loom the most-discussed, most existential threats to work as we know it: automation, and the state of the environment. Some recent estimates suggest that between a third and a half of all jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence in the next two decades. Other forecasters doubt whether work can be sustained in its current, toxic form on a warming planet.
Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before. We know work’s multiplying problems intimately, but it feels impossible to solve them all. Is it time to start thinking of an alternative?
Our culture of work strains to cover its flaws by claiming to be unavoidable and natural. “Mankind is hardwired to work,” as the Conservative MP Nick Boles puts it in a new book, Square Deal. It is an argument most of us have long internalised.
But not quite all. The idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed – and mocked and suppressed – for as long as modern capitalism has existed. Repeatedly, the promise of less work has been prominent in visions of the future. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that in “beautiful” factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only “four hours a day”.
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an “age of leisure and abundance”, in which people might work 15 hours a week. In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, the French social and economic theorist André Gorz declared: “The abolition of work is a process already underway … The manner in which [it] is to be managed … constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.”
Since the early 2010s, as the crisis of work has become increasingly unavoidable in the US and the UK, these heretical ideas have been rediscovered and developed further. Brief polemics such as Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” have been followed by more nuanced books, creating a rapidly growing literature that critiques work as an ideology – sometimes labelling it “workism” – and explores what could take its place. A new anti-work movement has taken shape.
For some of these writers, this future must include a universal basic income (UBI) – currently post-work’s most high-profile and controversial idea – paid by the state to every working-age person, so that they can survive when the great automation comes. For others, the debate about the affordability and morality of a UBI is a distraction from even bigger issues.
Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.
To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”
One of post-work’s best arguments is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the work ideology is neither natural nor very old. “Work as we know it is a recent construct,” says Hunnicutt. Like most historians, he identifies the main building blocks of our work culture as 16th-century Protestantism, which saw effortful labour as leading to a good afterlife; 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs; and the 20th-century desires for consumer goods and self-fulfillment.
The emergence of the modern work ethic from this chain of phenomena was “an accident of history,” Hunnicutt says. Before then, “All cultures thought of work as a means to an end, not an end in itself.” From urban ancient Greece to agrarian societies, work was either something to be outsourced to others – often slaves – or something to be done as quickly as possible so that the rest of life could happen.
Even once the new work ethic was established, working patterns continued to shift and be challenged. Between 1800 and 1900, the average working week in the west shrank from about 80 hours to about 60 hours. From 1900 to the 1970s, it shrank steadily further: to roughly 40 hours in the US and the UK. Trade union pressure, technological change, enlightened employers, and government legislation all progressively eroded the dominance of work.
Sometimes, economic shocks accelerated the process. In Britain in 1974, Edward Heath’s Conservative government, faced with a chronic energy shortage caused by an international oil crisis and a miners’ strike, imposed a national three-day working week. For the two months it lasted, people’s non-work lives expanded. Golf courses were busier, and fishing-tackle shops reported large sales increases. Audiences trebled for late-night BBC radio DJs such as John Peel. Some men did more housework: the Colchester Evening Gazette interviewed a young married printer who had taken over the hoovering. Even the Daily Mail loosened up, with one columnist suggesting that parents “experiment more in their sex lives while the children are doing a five-day week at school”.
The economic consequences were mixed. Most people’s earnings fell. Working days became longer. Yet a national survey of companies for the government by the management consultants Inbucon-AIC found that productivity improved by about 5%: a huge increase by Britain’s usual sluggish standards. “Thinking was stimulated” inside Whitehall and some companies, the consultants noted, “on the possibility of arranging a permanent four-day week.”
Nothing came of it. But during the 60s and 70s, ideas about redefining work, or escaping it altogether, were commonplace in Europe and the US: from corporate retreats to the counterculture to academia, where a new discipline was established: leisure studies, the study of recreations such as sport and travel.
In 1979, Bernard Lefkowitz, then a well-known American journalist, published Breaktime: Living Without Work in a Nine to Five World, a book based on interviews with 100 people who had given up their jobs. He found a former architect who tinkered with houseboats and bartered; an ex-reporter who canned his own tomatoes and listened to a lot of opera; and a former cleaner who enjoyed lie-ins and a sundeck overlooking the Pacific. Many of the interviewees were living in California, and despite moments of drift and doubt, they reported new feelings of “wholeness” and “openness to experience”.
By the end of the 70s, it was possible to believe that the relatively recent supremacy of work might be coming to an end in the more comfortable parts of the west. Labour-saving computer technologies were becoming widely available for the first time. Frequent strikes provided highly public examples of work routines being interrupted and challenged. And crucially, wages were high enough, for most people, to make working less a practical possibility.
Instead, the work ideology was reimposed. During the 80s, the aggressively pro-business governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan strengthened the power of employers, and used welfare cuts and moralistic rhetoric to create a much harsher environment for people without jobs. David Graeber, who is an anarchist as well as an anthropologist, argues that these policies were motivated by a desire for social control. After the political turbulence of the 60s and 70s, he says, “Conservatives freaked out at the prospect of everyone becoming hippies and abandoning work. They thought: ‘What will become of the social order?’”
It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but Hunnicutt, who has studied the ebb and flow of work in the west for almost 50 years, says Graeber has a point: “I do think there is a fear of freedom – a fear among the powerful that people might find something better to do than create profits for capitalism.”
During the 90s and 00s, the counter-revolution in favour of work was consolidated by centre-left politicians. In Britain under Tony Blair’s government, the political and cultural status of work reached a zenith. Unemployment was lower than it had been for decades. More women than ever were working. Wages for most people were rising. New Labour’s minimum wage and working tax credits lifted and subsidised the earnings of the low-paid. Poverty fell steadily. The chancellor Gordon Brown, one of the country’s most famous workaholics, appeared to have found a formula that linked work to social justice.
A large part of the left has always organised itself around work. Union activists have fought to preserve it, by opposing redundancies, and sometimes to extend it, by securing overtime agreements. “With the Labour party, the clue is in the name,” says Chuka Umunna, the centre-left Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, who has become a prominent critic of post-work thinking as it has spread beyond academia. The New Labour governments were also responding, Umunna says, to the failure of their Conservative predecessors to actually live up to their pro-work rhetoric: “There had been such high levels of unemployment under the Tories, our focus was always going to be pro-job.”
In this earnest, purposeful context, the anti-work tradition, when it was remembered at all, could seem a bit decadent. One of its few remaining British manifestations was the Idler magazine, which was set up in 1993 and acquired a cult status beyond its modest circulation. In its elegantly retro pages, often rather posh men wrote about the pleasures of laziness – while on the side busily producing books and newspaper articles, and running a creative consultancy with corporate clients, Idle Industries. By the early 21st century, the work culture seemed inescapable.
The work culture has many more critics now. In the US, sharp recent books such as Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) by the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, and No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea by the historian James Livingston, have challenged the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers; and also the deeply embedded American notion that the solution to any problem is working harder.
In the UK, even professionally optimistic business journals have begun to register the extent of work’s crises. In his 2016 book The Wealth of Humans: Work and its Absence in the 21st Century, the Economist columnist Ryan Avent predicted that automation would lead to “a period of wrenching political change” before “a broadly acceptable social system” emerges.
Post-work ideas are also circulating in party politics. Last April, the Green party proposed that weekends be lengthened to three days. In 2016, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Labour was “developing” a proposal for a UBI in the UK. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told his party conference last September that automation “can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure – a springboard for expanded creativity and culture”.
“It felt like a watershed moment,” says Will Stronge, head of Autonomy, a British thinktank set up last year to explore the crisis of work and find ways out of it. “We’re in contact with Labour, and we’re going to meet the Greens soon.” Like most British post-workists, he is leftwing in his politics, part of the new milieu of ambitious young activist intellectuals that has grown up around Corbyn’s leadership. “We haven’t talked to people on the right,” Stronge admits. “No one’s got in contact with us.”
Yet post-work has the potential to appeal to conservatives. Some post-workists think work should not be abolished but redistributed, so that every adult labours for roughly the same satisfying but not exhausting number of hours. “We could say to people on the right: ‘You think work is good for people. So everyone should have this good thing,’” says James Smith, a post-workist whose day job is lecturing in 18th-century English literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. “Working less also ought to be attractive to conservatives who value the family.”
Outside the insular, intense working cultures of Britain and the US, the reduction of work has long been a mainstream notion. In France in 2000, Lionel Jospin’s leftwing coalition government introduced a maximum 35-hour week for all employees, partly to reduce unemployment and promote gender equality, under the slogan, “Work less – live more.” The law was not absolute (some overtime was permitted) and has been weakened since, but many employers have opted to keep a 35-hour week. In Germany, the largest trade union, IG Metall, which represents electrical and metal workers, is campaigning for shift workers and people caring for children or other relatives to have the option of a 28-hour week.
Even in Britain and the US, the vogues for “downshifting” and “work-life balance” during the 90s and 00s represented an admission that the intensification of work was damaging our lives. But these were solutions for individuals, and often wealthy individuals – the rock star Alex James attracted huge media attention for becoming a cheesemaker in the Cotswolds – rather than society as a whole. And these were solutions intended to bring minimal disruption to a free-market economy that was still relatively popular and functional. We are not in that world any more.
And yet the difficulty of shedding the burdens and satisfactions of work is obvious when you meet the post-workists. Explorers of a huge economic and social territory that has been neglected for decades– like Keynes and other thinkers who challenged the rule of work – they alternate between confidence and doubt.
“I love my job,” Helen Hester, a professor of media and communication at the University of West London, told me. “There’s no boundary between my time off and on. I’m always doing admin, or marking, or writing something. I’m working the equivalent of two jobs.” Later in our interview, which took place in a cafe, among other customers working on laptops – a ubiquitous modern example of leisure’s colonisation by work – she said knowingly but wearily: “Post-work is a lot of work.”
Yet the post-workists argue that it is precisely their work-saturated lives – and their experience of the increasing precarity of white-collar employment – that qualify them to demand a different world. Like many post-workists, Stronge has been employed for years on poorly paid, short-term academic contracts. “I’ve worked as a breakfast cook. I’ve been a Domino’s delivery driver,” he told me. “I once worked in an Indian restaurant while I was teaching. My students would come in to eat, and see me cooking, and say: ‘Hi, is that you, Will?’ Unconsciously, that’s why Autonomy came about.”
James Smith was the only post-workist I met who had decided to do less work. “I have one weekday off, and cram everything into the other days,” he said, as we sat in his overstuffed office on the Royal Holloway campus outside London. “I spend it with our one-and-a-half-year-old. It’s a very small post-work gesture. But it was a strange sensation at first: almost like launching myself off the side of a swimming pool. It felt alien – almost impossible to do, without the moral power of having a child to look after.”
Defenders of the work culture such as business leaders and mainstream politicians habitually question whether pent-up modern workers have the ability to enjoy, or even survive, the open vistas of time and freedom that post-work thinkers envisage for them. In 1989, two University of Chicago psychologists, Judith LeFevre and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, conducted a famous experiment that seemed to support this view. They recruited 78 people with manual, clerical and managerial jobs at local companies, and gave them electronic pagers. For a week, at frequent but random intervals, at work and at home, these employees were contacted and asked to fill in questionnaires about what they were doing and how they were feeling.
The experiment found that people reported “many more positive feelings at work than in leisure”. At work, they were regularly in a state the psychologists called “flow” – “enjoying the moment” by using their knowledge and abilities to the full, while also “learning new skills and increasing self-esteem”. Away from work, “flow” rarely occurred. The employees mainly chose “to watch TV, try to sleep, [and] in general vegetate, even though they [did] not enjoy doing these things”. US workers, the psychologists concluded, had an “inability to organise [their] psychic energy in unstructured free time”.
To the post-workists, such findings are simply a sign of how unhealthy the work culture has become. Our ability to do anything else, only exercised in short bursts, is like a muscle that has atrophied. “Leisure is a capacity,” Frayne says.
Graeber argues that in a less labour-intensive society, our capacity for things other than work could be built up again. “People will come up with stuff to do if you give them enough time. I lived in a village in Madagascar once. There was this intricate sociability. People would hang around in cafes, gossiping, having affairs, using magic. It was a very complex drama – the kind that can only develop when you have enough time. They certainly weren’t bored!”
In western countries too, he argues, the absence of work would produce a richer culture. “The postwar years, when people worked less and it was easier to be on the dole, produced beat poetry, avant garde theatre, 50-minute drum solos, and all Britain’s great pop music – art forms that take time to produce and consume.”
The return of the drum solo may not be everyone’s idea of progress. But the possibilities of post-work, like all visions of the future, walk a difficult line between being too concrete and too airy. Stronge suggests a daily routine for post-work citizens that would include a provocative degree of state involvement: “You get your UBI payment from the government. Then you get a form from your local council telling you about things going on in your area: a five-a-side football tournament, say, or community activism – Big Society stuff, almost.” Other scenarios he proposes may disappoint those who dream of non-stop leisure: “I’m under no illusion that paid work is going to disappear entirely. It just may not be directed by someone else. You take as long as you want, have a long lunch, spread the work though the day.”
Town and city centres today are arranged for work and consumption – work’s co-conspirator – and very little else; this is one of the reasons a post-work world is so hard to imagine. Adapting office blocks and other workplaces for other purposes would be a huge task, which the post-workists have only just begun to think about. One common proposal is for a new type of public building, usually envisaged as a well-equipped combination of library, leisure centre and artists’ studios. “It could have social and care spaces, equipment for programming, for making videos and music, record decks,” says Stronge. “It would be way beyond a community centre, which can be quite … depressing.”
This vision of state-supported but liberated and productive citizens owes a lot to Ivan Illich, the half-forgotten Austrian social critic who was a leftwing guru during the 70s. In his intoxicating 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, Illich attacked the “serfdom” created by industrial machinery, and demanded: “Give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency … from power drills to mechanised pushcarts.” Illich wanted the public to rediscover what he saw as the freedom of the medieval artisan, while also embracing the latest technology.
There is a strong artisan tendency in today’s post-work movement. As Hester characterises it: “Instead of having jobs, we’re going to do craft, to make our own clothes. It’s quite an exclusionary vision: to do those things, you need to be able-bodied.” She also detects a deeper conservative impulse: “It’s almost as if some people are saying: ‘Since we’re going to challenge work, other things have to stay the same.’”
Instead, she would like the movement to think more radically about the nuclear home and family. Both have been so shaped by work, she argues, that a post-work society will redraw them. The disappearance of the paid job could finally bring about one of the oldest goals of feminism: that housework and raising children are no longer accorded a lower status. With people having more time, and probably less money, private life could also become more communal, she suggests, with families sharing kitchens, domestic appliances, and larger facilities. “There have been examples of this before,” she says, “like ‘Red Vienna’ in the early 20th century, when the city government built housing estates with communal laundries, workshops, and shared living spaces that were quite luxurious.” Post-work is about the future, but it is also bursting with the past’s lost possibilities.
Now that work is so ubiquitous and dominant, will today’s post-workists succeed where all their other predecessors did not? In Britain, possibly the sharpest outside judge of the movement is Frederick Harry Pitts, a lecturer in management at Bristol University. Pitts used to be a post-workist himself. He is young and leftwing, and before academia he worked in call centres: he knows how awful a lot of modern work is. Yet Pitts is suspicious of how closely the life post-workists envisage – creative, collaborative, high-minded – resembles the life they already live. “There is little wonder the uptake for post-work thinking has been so strong among journalists and academics, as well as artists and creatives,” he wrote in a paper co-authored last year with Ana Dinerstein of Bath University, “since for these groups the alternatives [to traditional work] require little adaptation.”
Pitts also argues that post-work’s optimistic visions can be a way of avoiding questions about power in the world. “A post-work society is meant to resolve conflicts between different economic interest groups – that’s part of its appeal,” he told me. Tired of the never-ending task of making work better, some socialists have latched on to post-work, he argues, in the hope that exploitation can finally be ended by getting rid of work altogether. He says this is both “defeatist” and naive: “Struggles between economic interest groups can’t ever be entirely resolved.”
Yet Pitts is much more positive about post-work’s less absolutist proposals, such as redistributing working hours more equally. “There has to be a major change to work,” he says. “In that sense, these people want the right thing.” Other critics of post-work are also less dismissive than they first sound. Despite being a Tory MP from the most pro-business wing of his party, Nick Boles accepts in his book that a future society “may redefine work to include child-rearing and taking care of elderly relatives, and finally start valuing these contributions properly”. Post-work is spreading feminist ideas to new places.
Hunnicutt, the historian of work, sees the US as more resistant than other countries to post-work ideas – at least for now. When he wrote an article for the website Politico in 2014 arguing for shorter working hours, he was shocked by the reaction it provoked. “It was a harsh experience,” he says. “There were personal attacks by email and telephone – that I was some sort of communist and devil-worshipper.” Yet he senses weakness behind such strenuous efforts to shut the work conversation down. “The role of work has changed profoundly before. It’s going to change again. It’s probably already in the process of changing. The millennial generation know that the Prince Charming job, that will meet all your needs, has gone.”
After meeting Pitts in Bristol, I went to a post-work event there organised by Autonomy. It was a bitter Monday evening, but liberal Bristol likes social experiments and the large city-centre room was almost full. There were students, professionals in their 30s, even a middle-aged farmer. They listened attentively for two hours while Frayne and two other panellists listed the oppressions of work and then hazily outlined what could replace it. When the audience finally asked questions, they all accepted the post-workists’ basic premises. An appetite for a society that treats work differently certainly exists. But it is not, so far, overwhelming: the evening’s total attendance was less than 70.
And yet, as Frayne points out, “in some ways, we’re already in a post-work society. But it’s a dystopic one.” Office employees constantly interrupting their long days with online distractions; gig-economy workers whose labour plays no part in their sense of identity; and all the people in depressed, post-industrial places who have quietly given up trying to earn – the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust.
Last October, research by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that UK unemployment is three times higher than the official count of those claiming the dole, thanks to people who are either “economically inactive” – no longer seeking work – or receiving incapacity benefits. When Frayne is not talking and writing about post-work, or doing his latest temporary academic job, he sometimes makes a living collecting social data for the Welsh government in former mining towns. “There is lots of worklessness,” he says, “but with no social policies to dignify it.”
Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In today’s lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell. As with free-market capitalism in general, the worse work gets, the harder it is to imagine actually escaping it, so enormous are the steps required.
But for those who think work will just carry on as it is, there is a warning from history. On 1 May 1979, one of the greatest champions of the modern work culture, Margaret Thatcher, made her final campaign speech before being elected prime minister. She reflected on the nature of change in politics and society. “The heresies of one period,” she said, always become “the orthodoxies of the next”. The end of work as we know it will seem unthinkable – until it has happened.
Main illustration: Nathalie Lees