On "antiwork" and necessary labor

Many news cycles ago the conservative media had a field day with a “disastrous” interview between Fox News host Jesse Watters and a moderator of the antiwork subreddit. While I think it’s unreasonable to expect a loosely organized group of internet strangers posting memes on reddit to have anything resembling a coherent “platform,” I think many redditors, myself included, were nevertheless surprised that anyone took the idea of anti-work literally. That is, evidently some people think that we’re already at Star Trek levels of abundance where people should be free to pursue lives of leisure, art, or what-have-you without regard for how they’ll put food on the table.

The specific mechanisms of this idea are never really discussed, although I suppose something like UBI would be a pre-requisite. I guess the debate is, is there any way these people aren’t living in a complete fantasy?

I’m all in favor of a true living minimum wage tied to inflation, plus various work reforms like minimum vacation days, parental leave, sick leave, etc. I also think America should start moving towards a 24-hour work week (4 days, 6 hours). I think we have a long way to go until we can get there, especially in career fields that are currently understaffed as it is. As a software developer it’s easy to say I don’t want to work as much as a do but I’m sure RNs working 60+ hours a week because there’s a massive nursing shortage don’t care about my opinion.

That all said, I don’t think we’re going to get to a point where we can expect non-disabled Americans to “opt-out” of contributing to society, and specifically in way that the free market deems necessary. If someone wants to spend all their time painting sculptures of frogs, I don’t think the farmers, factory workers, and tradesmen who would be necessary to make that life possible are under any social obligation to support that endeavor. It may be unfair, but I imagine that people who hold these literal anti-work ideals just imagine that people will make food staples available to them because it’s their passion, or something along those lines.

Nope, these ideas are fantasy. There is just too much work that has to be done by people to entertain the idea that we can opt out of working in droves.

I think we can move away from the concept of misery as incentive for productivity, while still having people do the necessary work of making an economy function.

I believe that, as living creatures, everybody, to whatever extent possible, should be contributing to their own existence. Having said that, however, I find it appalling that in a continent like North America, with the natural resources, relatively low population density, the technological capabilities, and the brains, knowledge and experience, that there are homeless and/or hungry people.

I’ve always had (as an adult) or access to (as a kid) a upper middle class income while believing that there will always be some combination of circumstances that could shut that down. So I believe that there should be a safety net that allows everybody to, at minimum, have access to a clean, safe home, reliable food, and some basic dignity. But I also believe that everybody should make some sort of effort, within the constraints of their mental and physical health and abilities.

We aren’t at antiwork.

However, I think there is going to be increasingly more “slack.”

I remember watching The Jetsons, and I think George worked 3 hours a day, simply pushing a few buttons. Then he had all of these labor saving devices at home. Now I suppose Spacely Sprockets could fire George’s cohorts, have him work 10 hours a day and work harder to boot. But George’s cohorts are also consumers, and if all companies follow this lead, it only produces a contracting depression and no market for products.

So in the long run, I would prefer some sort of increased safety net, UBI, etc. because we simply don’t need people breaking their backs with work as we may have once. If someone only wants to work 10-20 hours a week and is happy with living that way, let them. The more ambitious can work more if they choose.

The anti-work ethos isn’t terribly well-defined. But it does cover a number of topics that I think are worth covering.

There is an unchallenged assumption in society that everyone must work, and must have a good “work ethic”, and that everyone’s value stems from the work that they do. Where does this assumption come from? Mainly from the owner class, who naturally wants to create rationalizations for workers to break their backs at labor while the value they produce is skimmed and hoarded by people who don’t do much (if anything).

The first step to mitigating this injustice is challenging the idea that work is virtuous in itself. It’s nothing but a means to an end, and it’s very much a zero-sum game between people who perform labor and people who profit from it.

When people say they’re desperate for a cheap house and I suggest they look in a Rust Belt city they blow up. What they really mean is that they’re desperate for a cheap house in a nice neighborhood in a warm city with lots of jobs in their specialty and people just like them to provide outside food and entertainment.

Tell me that the antiwork crowd doesn’t have a similar conception of work. If it were something they enjoyed and they got paid lots of money to work however many hours they felt like, they’d be all over it.

Like “cheap” houses, that “work” is almost impossible to find, so the vast majority of us come to terms with reality. Some do so by taking what jobs are findable; some do so by drastically cutting back on their spending; some do so by loudly griping about reality.

Guess which one of those three doesn’t impress me.

Interesting. I think a good work ethic is still a virtue, as it shows up all over the place in one’s life – parenting, maintaining a house/yard, eating healthy, exercising, housekeeping and basic hygiene. I’m sure we all know people who are so lazy in some or all of those regards as to be unpleasant to be around. But this may be a non-sequitur.

It is true that the anti-work movement is pushing back, as many have for decades, against measuring one’s societal worth by their profession and/or income. I think that’s admirable. An artist or a stay-at-home parent aren’t “worth” any less than an insurance salesman. But I think that’s true only to the extent that they’re able to take care of themselves. Being an insurance salesman might not be virtuous just because they can make a lot of money, but being an artist or a stay-at-home parent who lives solely off of their hypothetical UBI doesn’t seem necessarily virtuous either.

Nonsense. Or, at least not as absolutely true as you claim it unless you’re unwilling to question some assumptions.

At every increase in efficiency in society there are options:

  1. We could harness that efficiency to produce the same amount while exerting less effort
  2. We could harness that efficiency to produce more while exerting the same effort

Our economic system (along with some other entrenched philosophies and cultural habits) forces us into option 2 almost every time.

People enjoy things that are enjoyable? Huge news, if true.

I agree with Cheesesteak. There is a lot of work that needs doing that is going undone. The problem is due to a combination of things, none of which would be solved by paying people to not work. Here’s how I see it.

One problem is not paying enough for the necessary jobs that are currently understaffed. Some of these have been mentioned above, including nursing. Truck driving is another. Labor for large scale infrastructure projects like repairing roads, bridges, etc. Flight attendants. Basically any job where you read articles about how people who work that job are overworked and underpaid. Another are those jobs we read about where there’s going to be problems in the future because most of the workers are retirement age and they don’t have enough young people who are trained to take over for them. IMHO the reason for this is that we as a society don’t value the labor of those workers enough. Paying people to stay at home doesn’t help that.

While I completely agree, I don’t know how this can be uncoupled from the market without straying too far or negatively into socialism. I’m a fan of appropriate socialism but there’s a balancing act and I’m sure that everyone would have a different opinion of how to balance it.

I also believe that modern work is essentially a very indirect way of hunting and/or foraging.

It can be true that there is necessary work that is currently being left undone AND that as a society we are doing more work than we need.

And, you seem to be defining “necessary” as “work that supports the infrastructure that supports the current status quo”. But again I’d pose some questions like (far from an exhaustive list, and the answers are not easy to determine):

What are the costs and benefits of maintaining and increasing dependencies on air travel?

In what ways is the increased consumption of/need for health care tied to lifestyle centered around increasing amounts of work?

How are the labor challenges in the childcare and education spaces fueled by the expectation that most families see all parents away from the home for work for most of their waking hours?

If the definition of “necessary” is “what we need today to maintain the current rates of growth in consumption and productivity” then you’re going to come up with a very different set of needs than if you define “necessary” centering a different set of objectives.

Not that it is necessarily the point, but I’ve perused r/antiwork for a bit, and I haven’t seen any posts that suggest the average poster in that forum expects any of that. It is mostly posts about abusive things managers do to people in low-to-mid level jobs, and people in those jobs being told that all of their problems are because they are lazy (and also schadenfreude because the current labour shortage lets them sometimes get the upper hand in such interactions).

People want something for nothing? Huge news, if true.

r/antiwork started out literally as “I shouldn’t have to work”. But like all subreddits, it slowly changes as more and more people subscribed and turned into “work sucks and should be better.” The problem is the mod that went on Fox News was part of the founding members and was very much “I shouldn’t have to work if I don’t want to” which caused all sorts of drama.

I think that idea comes from a time before there was even an owner class. Even in egalitarian societies, pretty much everybody contributed labor in some way.

It never ceases to astonish how the “something for nothing” criticism is always directed at workers who object to being exploited, yet never to the people who expect an eternal fat payday from owning the building where the workers create the value.

That is why antiwork exists.

And this is the underlying problem. Average productivity per worker has increased enormously over the last century, but despite that, we’re all still working as many hours as the bosses can squeeze out of us. That’s just all kinds of fucked up.

But here’s the thing: Even with that, we’re already much closer to “antiwork” than you might think.

Through most of human history, most people had to do some kind of work their whole lives. Kids did chores on the farm as soon as they could be trusted not to drop the basket of eggs. Retirement simply didn’t exist for most people. At best, you might spend a year bed-ridden before finally dying.

But we’ve been delaying the entry into the workforce longer and longer every generation, and making retirement earlier for at least some people. Just think about how much schooling kids get before getting a job. Used to be you didn’t need any schooling at all, then maybe a few years, then maybe up to grade 8, then some high school, then graduate high school, then an undergraduate degree, and now, graduate degrees are required for a lot of jobs. We’re okay with people not producing much in the way of useful work well into their mid to late 20s, and then maybe retiring at 55 or 60, if they can afford it.

And there’s no reason to supposed those trend will suddenly reverse course.

The way I see it, if that’s the way we’re going to trend anyways, let’s actively embrace the trend. Automate as much as we can, and when the average workload goes down, don’t just fire people, spread the wealth. And for those jobs that can’t be easily automated, pay people what they’re worth. A farmer who feeds thousands of people shouldn’t be scrimping for cash every year, and relying on abusive bank lending practices just to plant a crop. Nurses shouldn’t be taking the bus to work to save a few dollars. Teachers shouldn’t be paying out of pocket for school supplies.

This. Even social animals have a well developed sense of what’s fair. If one person is lazing around, mooching off the hard work of the rest, that person shouldn’t be surprised if they are looked down upon.

On the other hand, just like sitting around doing nothing and collecting welfare can be considered getting something for nothing, the same can apply to the ownership class in some cases. It doesn’t rely take work to sign a check. It’s just that the people who sign the checks have convinced enough of the rest of us that somehow being the guy who signs the check (and among the wealthiest it’s almost always a guy) is somehow more valuable than being the person who drives the truck, teaches the school kids, takes care of the sick person in the hospital, etc.

I’m willing to have you do my work for me so I can continue to live in a nice house. :smiley:

I suppose the concept has evolved from back when everyone in their village had to pull their own weight for the village to survive. And we’ve had a lot of success incentivizing people to work harder by enjoying the fruits of their labor.