Dr. David Frayne
"People are considered very lucky if their work represents an authentic expression of self"
As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. This is the final week.
4. Does it still make sense to talk of a work ethic, and does work still provide recognition and a sense of meaning? How should this be negotiated in the future?
I think the precarity, standardisation, hierarchies, and invasiveness of work have seriously undermined its ability to provide recognition and a sense of meaning for many, if not most, people. People are considered very lucky if their work represents an authentic expression of self. Whilst the subjective significance of work has weakened, however, the work ethic is still very culturally engrained. Consider that most conversations with strangers start with the gambit, ‘what do you do?’ (i.e. for a job), and that joblessness remains a significant source of shame for people (even among those ethically committed to resisting work, I have found). In recent times, we have also seen a revamped ideological focus on work. In the UK, the Conservative government’s pledge to champion ‘hardworking’ people and families has been matched with a powerful stigmatisation of joblessness in the media. Within these discourses, it is not generally imagined that there are ways to contribute to society, remain healthy, or ethically orientate oneself in the world without doing a paid job. The choice is between ‘working and shirking’, activity or nothingness.
I think an important part of the post-work project is to challenge the conservative idea that paid work is inherently healthy and civilising. We need campaigns which recognise the important social contributions made by those less valued forms of work, outside the remit of paid employment, such as care work, domestic labour, informal education, or the work of political activism. At a deeper level, we also need to question the ethical objection to ‘idleness’. A benefit of the post-work society would be the increased freedom to operate according to one’s own autonomous sense of the good, the true and the beautiful, i.e. to indulge in activities (or non-activities) that do not necessarily have any easily-discernible utility, or abide by the ethics of productivity.
“In the future, it is perfectly feasible that alternative activities would allow us to experience the sense of pleasure, solidarity and purpose that work now provides”
When considering how best to promote a post-work ethics, I think David Cannon’s idea of a ‘worthwhile ethic’ has a certain appeal. The ‘worthwhile ethic’ usefully mirrors the concept it is trying to replace, and is also broad enough to be inclusive – it doesn’t unnecessarily delimit the struggle by trying to unite people in terms of social groupings like class or gender. Anyone can potentially experience a need to exit work, and what counts as a ‘worthwhile’ alternative is for each person to decide.
It is worth recognising here that some will object to attempts to construct a post-work ethics by saying that employment is crucial for people’s health and well-being. In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions has been pushing hard on the claim that ‘work is good for your health’ (a claim far too general to be taken seriously), and there is also a wealth of sociological evidence on the miseries of unemployment, which might be marshalled in defence of work. The dynamics of this debate are complicated because work really is in some senses important for health in a society organised to promote a practical and psychological dependency on work. It is only a moral attachment to work, however, that stops us from remaining open to the idea that the future could be different. In the future, it is perfectly feasible that alternative activities would allow us to experience the sense of pleasure, solidarity and purpose that work now provides (or fails to provide, as the case may be). I think that remaining open to this exploration and its more redemptive possibilities is an important part of the post-work project.
Dr. David Frayne is a writer and social researcher interested in critical social theory, the sociology of work, consumer culture, political ecology, the sociology of happiness, and utopian studies. His first book, The Refusal of Work, was published by Zed books in 2015. His follow-up, Fitter, Happier. More Productive – an edited collection of critical essays on work and health – will be published by PCCS in 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Guardian, The Irish Times, ROAR Magazine, and Contrivers’ Review.