"'work' is not synonymous with 'effortful activity,' or 'personal worth,' or 'social contribution'"
Dr. Helen Hester
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.
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?
As we’ve seen throughout this series of questions, work isn’t working. One reaction to this impending crisis of work has been a resurgence of post-work politics – positions that, instead of agitating for the preservation of jobs, use the dearth of ‘good opportunities’ to argue for a reduction of the working week. Contemporary post-work projects represent a proactive response to the imagined end of contemporary job-based cultures; they eschew a glorification of the work ethic, and emphasize instead the political possibilities of an overall decrease in wage labour. One of the reasons why these positions may be gaining traction within the contemporary imagination right now is because the dividends of the secular work ethic are significantly diminishing in an era of low-wage, temporary, and precarious employment. Over the past forty years or so, high-income societies have seen middle-wage jobs being hollowed out, leaving a mass of people at the bottom, and an increasingly small number of people at the top. Wages have stagnated for many, jobs are being increasingly deskilled and, as technology reaches into new areas, the extension of underemployment risks becoming a significant issue. As such, the idea of one’s waged labour as the basis of one’s sense of purpose – as the source of social recognition, approbation, or belonging – can feel both aspirational and anachronous. Only for a privileged few is waged labour about anything other than bare, day-to-day survival, and framing paying jobs in this way inflicts a huge amount of stigma upon those who do not or cannot perform them.
On the other hand, however, the meaninglessness of waged work to some extent bears the structure of an open secret. Lots of people frequently find their own jobs to be frustrating, immiserating, and a source of daily exploitation. These are not uncommon experiences! And yet, work as it (so often) is, is set against the fantasy of work as it should be. It’s interesting, I think, that a lot of the resistance I encounter when discussing post-work politics stems not from economic analyses, but from cultural factors – a residual sense that work can be important, enjoyable, and world-building. Certainly, some elements of some work (be it waged on unwaged) can be all these things, and as such hardly need to be resisted. But “work” is not synonymous with “effortful activity”, or “personal worth”, or “social contribution.” With this in mind, I’m rather of the opinion that ‘post-work politics’ could be usefully rebranded as ‘the fight for free time.’ This makes it more immediately apparent that unwaged activities are to be included within our transformative ambitions, without instinctively raising people’s heckles about the eradication of work as something personally meaningful. By framing the fight against work as a fight for temporal sovereignty (as Judy Wajcman puts it), it’s much more clear what the object of this political struggle really involves.
Dr. Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2019, with Nick Srnicek)