The End of Work As We Know It?
When we think about the future of work, we are blindsided.
- We are frequently told that the “end of work as we know it” is a by-product of digitalization and the rise of the robots. Yet, we do not know whether such a development will actually take place.
- Instead of being obsessed with a disastrous future, we should use our analytical capabilities to comprehend the present. The hype about automation deflects our attention from what’s going on at the moment.
- Instead of further musing about its future outright abolition, we should rather account for the ideological devaluation of work or labor which is already underway.
- “Work-life balance” is the mantra of self-appointed humanists and champions of self-help. This slogan is popular – and poisoned.
- You are alive when working, and you are alive when not working. Creating complete opposites between life and work is a dangerous, ideological move.
We are frequently told that the “End Work As We Know It” (EWAKI) is a by-product of digitalization and the rise of the robots.
Yet, we do not know whether such a development will actually take place.
The scenario of the abolition of work by automation and digitalization is based on far-reaching speculations about future developments. One natural reason why we currently engage in so much doomsterism is that in the preceding period we allowed ourselves to fall victim to a great amount of senseless boosterism.
We have thus grown suspicious when it comes to any scenarios of progress, liberation and the “bettering of mankind.” The business of bashing utopias is thriving. Disillusionment is the mind-set of the hour.
No doubt, the play on fear works well. We are strangely strong believers when somebody tells us that things will get worse.
And yet, nobody knows whether automation and digitalization will lead to mass unemployment.
Comprehending the present
Here is my humble suggestion: Instead of being obsessed with a disastrous future, we should use our analytical capabilities to comprehend the present. The hype about automation deflects our attention from what’s going on at the moment.
Two developments already seriously affect our attitude towards work (or, more properly put, what we may call our working definition of work). They truly deserve our attention.
First, technically speaking, we should not talk about the end of work, but about the end of labor.
Work is not limited to professional, contractually defined activities. We talk about garden work, housework, community work, volunteer work, even family work. We may also consider a workout as a particular kind of work as well.
The threat of the end of work as we know it is directed at a particular set of jobs and specific kinds of labor. Labor in this sense is under siege anyway – but in a sense not discussed so far.
Instead of further musing about its future outright abolition, we should rather account for the ideological devaluation of work or labor which is already underway.
Work as labor, as an activity securing our self-preservation, takes place under certain constraints: We count the hours, deal with more or less agreeable superiors and colleagues, meet ends, etc.
Work vs. play
The classical counter image to this kind of work is “play.” Ever since German poet Friedrich Schiller coined the phrase “Man is only quite a man when he plays,” playing has been hailed as the homestead of human freedom and well-being.
Now, I grant you that it is quite improbable that we could turn play into a full-time activity. What we could do instead though is alter the character of work or labor in such a way that it resembles play or becomes a playful activity itself.
The old saying “Work hard, play hard” would then obtain a new meaning: Working hard would become a hard play in its own right.
This is exactly the mantra we are conditioned to believe in now. After all, “digital influencers” are busy while having a drink or taking a sunbath. And Google employees can’t tell the difference between work and leisure.
Members of the “creative class” are expected to think out of the box. Management consultants learn from their gurus that rule no. 1 reads, “There are no rules.” When you are asked how you feel at work, the designated answer is, “It’s fun!”
All these experiences are based on the same language. Work becomes playful, play becomes lucrative. You always work, to the point that you don’t really feel it’s work any longer.
The deadly embrace of work
You embrace work, love what you do, are obsessed with it, indulge in it. This is what I call the deadly embrace of work. In the course of this embrace, work gets distorted. It is mistaken as an altogether playful, creative activity.
Don’t get me wrong. I am fond of playing. (My grown-up kids actually say that I’m not a grown-up but a kid myself, always in for playing a game or being foolish).
However, there is a difference between looking for opportunities to brighten up the grey zone of life and mistaking work for a game.
When we do this, we commit the crime of a deadly embrace. Not only does this playful deformation conceal the constraints of work, it also gives a distorted picture of its potential and its particular value.
Work is marked by circumstances that constrict, regulate, and frame our behaviour. This is still true for contexts in which work is marketed as playtime.
Yet, work is different from play for another good reason as well. By working – not by playing! – we change things and have an impact on others.
Which leads me to the mantra of self-appointed humanists and champions of self-help. They incessantly talk about a proper “work-life balance.”
This slogan is popular – and poisoned. It is based on a misleading presupposition. If one takes this phrase seriously, we are invited to handle a balance – one of those old-fashioned balances with two trays.
On the one side, we have a tray loaded with “life,” on the other, a tray loaded with “work.” The idea is that we try to balance the two, which under the given circumstances means: Don’t forget life over work.
This seemingly benevolent recommendation is based on a malicious assumption. By balancing two trays, we are forced to think that work is the opposite of life and that life begins when you are done with work.
The potential of work providing opportunities for self-assertion as well as its energizing effect are wiped out. We are forced to think of work as the counterpart of life, as belonging to the kingdom of death.
We are invited to escape from this premature death or from being dead while still alive by leaving work behind and starting to live. This is an altogether misleading, hapless and hopeless idea – not just for a workaholic like me.
You are alive when working, and you are alive when not working. Creating complete opposites between life and work is a dangerous, ideological move.
“Work-life balance” is just the wrong term for renewing and reimagining our self-image in late modernity.
The future of work does not just depend on our ability to come to grips with upcoming challenges like automation and digitalization.
First and foremost, the future of work depends on our ability to fight the all-too present, largely ideological developments described above.
If we let them persist, they are bound to destroy our self-image as self-reliant, active and accountable human beings. If we don’t face those threats, the “end of work” possibly induced by automation and digitalization will, at best, be the killing of a dead body.