Thanks to automation, computerisation and outsourcing, there is more and more talk about the end of work. Will work, which now occupies a huge part of our lives, take up less space and time? What else would we do? Perhaps one day the era of the 9-5 will be seen as a relic of the Dark Ages when a large part of humanity spent its life just trying to survive. So will we ever see the end of work?
Two researchers sparked this debate in 1995 thanks to their books: American economist Jeremy Rifkin with The End of Work and French sociologist and philosopher Dominique Méda with Le travail, Une valeur en voie de Disparition? (Work, a Disappearing Value?). For them, the need to work is decreasing in developed countries thanks to mechanisation and the relocation of aspects of agriculture and industry. So people are looking for work in the service industry, as bike couriers, in the tech sector or as freelancers in creative or professional fields––but the need to work is not unlimited. More and more artificial services are being invented as new unexplored markets are being discovered. With Deliveroo, dog-walking and online gaming apps, for example, is there really a need to invent new products?
Méda suggests reducing the overall amount of time worked in order to spread it out better and to avoid having some people working long hours while others have no work at all. This way there could be fewer pizza delivery people, but more healthcare staff. She also suggests re-evaluating our leisure, charitable and political activities, in order to make it socially acceptable to do something other than a job.
“Planting gardens in your neighbourhood, talking about what you’ve seen on YouTube, cooking, playing music, spending time with loved ones, all this can also make you feel fulfilled in a less stressful way than work can because your survival does not depend on it.”
- Dominique Méda
Some sociologists, such as Dominique Schnapper, and philosophers, such as Frank Fischbach, respond with the fact that, for example, the French still love to work: it is the second most important value after family. And this feeling is more important than in any other European country. Despite automation, work is not disappearing and workers continue to project their expectations, hopes and plans onto it. Although it is increasingly flexible, precarious and individualised, work remains the main activity of individuals, through which they obtain their income as well as their social benefits. For Fischbach and Schnapper, there is an urgent need to improve working conditions. Despite this, they don’t question the existence of bullshit jobs and all the products people consume that they don’t actually need.
Organising society differently
In this true philosophical “battle”, Méda responds that what workers get from their work, such as fulfilment, pride and a feeling of usefulness, could be satisfied in other ways. You can feel useful through volunteer work, political engagement or leisure activities. Creating a garden in your neighbourhood, talking about what you’ve seen on YouTube, cooking, playing music, spending time with loved ones––all of this can make you feel fulfilled in a less stressful way than work can because your survival does not depend on it. In short, if your expectations can be met in a way other than through work, and if work is needed less than it was a century ago, society could perhaps be organised differently.
Advocates of the end of work say that it will not disappear on its own automatically, but that this is the right moment to transform society, by reducing the number of hours worked, and the production and consumption of certain services and “artificial” goods. They presuppose that some jobs are superfluous and could be replaced by automation and computerisation, or even abolished if they are deemed socially useless or even harmful to humans and the environment. You know, like advertising.
There is also a need to transform social protection so that you are not required to find just any job, even the most bullshit job, to survive. Work, in the form of a job that provides income and benefits, has not always had this central social role and production could be organised differently to come up with other ways of living and interacting with one another. This could be an opportunity to produce less, work less and consume less so as to live better and save the planet by wasting fewer resources. So, are you in?
This article is from the first episode of our French series that looks at work through a philosophical lens, Philo Boulot. It was written and produced in partnership with the YouTube channel, META.
Translated by Kalin Linsberg
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Researcher on the philosophy of work.
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