It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Leisure Crisis, Feminism, and Overwork

Note: This article follows on to The Missing Automation Crisis


It may be hard for younger people to imagine, but in the mid twentieth century there was in many circles a presumption that liberalism was the ideology of the future, and that in particular the ideas of fundamentalists were in remission. Nobody was taking the objectivists too seriously, and the concept of an unholy objectivist/fundamentalist/chamber of commerce alliance calling itself "conservative" and pretending to a cohesive worldview was pretty much unimaginable. An alliance between academics and labor seemed a far more natural heir to dominance in a technocratic and generous civilization.

Lyndon Johnson's slogan of a "Great Society" is barely remembered, its meaning lost under the avalanche of "conservative" obfuscation. It really was a pity about that damned war. Johnson narrowly missed greatness.

But the Viet Nam fiasco war wasn't on the horizon yet, and what became the culture wars hadn't gone past the jukebox, in the context in which the concern about an employment crisis due to "Automation" was first raised, and as a matter of urgency. Thus, once Wiener got it into the heads of Serious People his ownership of the problem faded. The general idea was that the general prosperity would in some way be rebated to the general population, and that there would be no great economic consequence to the unemployment once it arose in earnest. Thus the Automation Crisis morphed into the Leisure Crisis. Symposia were held, and academic essays written: How were we to deal with our lives now that even those of modest means would have ample free time, all the work being done by machines?

Yet, not only did the expected decline in employment fail to arrive. The cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s thoroughly changed expectations in many aspects of modern life, but none so strongly as the role separation of males and females.

You can look back at the hippie literature that pushed this change, and it's often regarded as perhaps the greatest success of the cultural revolution. Even the most conservative culture warriors nowadays accept women as equals. Should things go especially badly, after all, we may spend a great deal of time in the next few years contemplating Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, hardly the vanguard of one-world mysticism and rejection of materialism.

But when you look at what they (okay, okay, we) were saying, it wasn't ONLY that women should be accepted as equals in the workplace. It was ALSO that men should be accepted as equals in society-building, child-rearing, and self-expression. And we were hardly a work-oriented bunch. The idea was EXPLICITLY about job-sharing. We would all soon be blissfully half-time.

And this expectation, on its face, makes sense. Double the work force, and EVEN WITHOUT THE MACHINES the amount of work per head would be halved. Sure, there would still be driven people being brain surgeons and all, but the average person would be working substantially less.

What was the outcome?

Well, in 1993, Juliet Schor wrote a book called The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. From a blurb:
Contrary to all expectations, Americans are working harder than ever. Juliet Schor presents the astonishing news that over the past twenty years our working hours have increased by the equivalent of one month per year a dramatic spurt that has hit everybody: men and women, professionals as well as low-paid workers.
So, WTF?

Well, there's the "America's favorite fries" argument that McDonald's makes. Since, as a matter of free choice, Americans eat more McDonald's fries than any others by a large margin, they must be everybody's preference. (I would argue that McDonald's fries are the favorite of few individuals over the age of 4. But very few people never eat them. And nobody is forcing the matter.

The ideology of Polyannism will claim that Americans make a free choice to work hard so they must want to. And this is surely true of some people. But others work many more hours than they would prefer.

And once we have most people choosing to do things they wouldn't choose to do that we have a very interesting economic quandary. And one that reflects very oddly on one of the few remaining points of bipartisan agreement: the more employment, the better.

Really? Or perhaps not? What happened to the Leisure Society?

18 comments:

Dan Olner said...

"And this expectation, on its face, makes sense. Double the work force, and EVEN WITHOUT THE MACHINES the amount of work per head would be halved. Sure, there would still be driven people being brain surgeons and all, but the average person would be working substantially less."

cf. lump of labour fallacy, but note the criticism at the end: polarisation of wealth sounds a lot like what has actually happened.

Good ol' wikipedia: links to Krugman talking about the lump of labour stuff, which reminds me again: it's difficult to talk about it without getting into larger arguments about free trade and protectionism.

As regards moving to a leisure society: I'd want to know why people have made the choices they have, given that we all decide what the opportunity costs of our time are. In the UK, part-time working is relatively common (though far, far from as structurally ossified as full-time-plus-overtime). So in theory at least, it is an option, and there's an argument to be made that people are choosing to work longer hours. I'm not saying I agree with that, but it needs stating. (Can people be said to `choose' their work hours, when not working means not being able pay the rent? A lot of econs would say yes: revealed preference.)

Going back to Hans Rosling's presentation on washing machines: what choices emerged from the time freed up? Households are productive units too. Which leads to -

What does leisure actually mean? cf. the leisure/wage-work split: that we are all paid a wage to compensate for the disutility we suffer. Read human resource manuals and see how wages are set: more autonomy incurs higher wages. While, of course, the more autonomy you have, the more likely the work you're doing is close to what you'd *want* to be doing regardless.

Dan Olner said...

More ramblings: is there anything unique about C20th automation's impact, as compared to industrialisation generally? Cf. that Krugman musing I linked to before ('falling demand for brains'). One might argue: industrialisation has been all about automation from the beginning, so any argument to be made about leisure now must look further back. A lovely quote from 1881: a report from the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives -

"Whilst it may be possible to create a race of human beings - flesh and blood as ourselves - but who, for all practical purposes, would be as much machines as the instruments of metal which they would tend, is it not possible to do this without at the same time destroying the individual tact, taste and skill which has hitherto been a marked characteristic of the disciples of St.Crispin".

Which leads to the question, what has been the actual impact of automation on the workplace? In this case, skilled artisans are replaced by lever-watchers. Here's an interesting little nugget from the TUC in 1924, where a member argues both that 'the burden of the worker's complaint is that the industrial system makes him a slave' - but also appreciating that the same system is supplying the consumer goods people want. The fundamental issues of workplace freedom and control: have they changed, or has digital automation just changed its scope? Cf. Gareth Morgan: "the designers and users of informatics systems have been acutely aware of the power in information, decentralising certain activities while centralising ongoing surveillance over their performance."

So the issue's not only about reducing work-time, but - given that we spend so much time working - our place in our work systems, how we want to define work in relation to our lives, what control we have, and what processes lead to the demand for what we're doing. (Most of the time, our leisure has a massive consumer footprint: who will meet that demand? Wage slaves in export processing zones?)

Dan Olner said...

Sorry, last comment! If you've not read this by E.P. Thompson on 'time, work discipline and industrial capitalism', it's great brainfood for this stuff. I've not read it in years actually...

Arthur said...

I think I'm being accused of Pollyannism here!

But really, again, MT your post seems very US- and present-centered. Look at France, or Sweden, look at the historical context a bit further. The problem of employment is very different from the problem of people going hungry. There is no fundamental need for so many Americans to own their own house in the suburbs, have two cars, hold $40,000 weddings (and $10,000 bat mitzvah's as our neighbors just did), send their kids to expensive colleges (or eat at McDonald's). Why do they do this? Perhaps it's societal peer pressure of some sort, but in the end you have to admit people are, for whatever reason, making choices that they want to have this or that. And they are able, and willing, to work those extra hours to get it. And generally, that's a good thing.

People in other societies or in ours in the past with different cultural pressures do make other choices.

Dan - thanks for the reference to Thompson, looks interesting.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I recommend two "works" (because the second is not really a work) that may be useful to you here.

The first is Social Limits to Growth, by Fred Hirsch. A foundational text for discussions of why people keep working when their immediate physical needs are satisfied, and for why greater and greater societal productivity and wealth doesn't end up satisfying people.

The second are the writings of Bob Black. He's an American anarchist, and you should be able to Google him and read a few essays and quickly decide whether you care to read any more. Here's a sample.

I do think that we have to separate considerations of how work ought to be in some ideal situation from how it is in our actual societies. Why did people work more even as women entered the work force in greater numbers? The most elemental answer is because elites control society so that people don't keep the profits of their labor. They don't get richer as they work more.

guthrie said...

Arthur - there is the other side of the tracks to consider, and I was under the distinct impression that a lot of americans have to take 2 jobs just to stay afloat.
See for example "nickeled and dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich, which is a little old but things won't be any better.
Consider people living in their cars because they can't afford housing, consider the upwards spiral of those who can't afford healthcare.

So the interesting things include - why is income and wealth distibution so unequal and getting more so; how are prices of necessities such as food, housing, healthcare, transport behaving (hint - generally upwards) and why is that?

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks for all the comments and reading suggestions. Keep 'em coming.

I still intend to plow ahead with my thesis here, on what I call Feynman's principle: if you're presented with a problem, think it through for yourself before you read about what others think. This maximizes the opportunity for originality as you will be less influenced by established ideas.

Regarding Arthur's point, yes, this is a largely US-centric argument, but it's easy to provide a race-to-the-bottom argument wherein American and stateless capital pressure euro-socialists to abandon the generous social safety net. By the time I'm done, I am going to argue that this approach is no longer a matter of generosity, but one of absolute necessity. Whether you are favorably disposed toward a generous social safety net or not, I will argue that you ought to put up with it as a cost of doing business into the future.

Regarding King of the Road's ne'er-do-well in-laws, yes, the role of the American underclasses in the story is important. But the kinship is as important as the shady survival mechanisms. A person like myself cannot afford to fall out of the middle class because I lack the skills and connections to survive in the underclass.

Indeed, I think the existence of racially distinct underclasses is an important feature of the American story (and increasingly in Europe). But the fact that they can survive doesn't take any pressure off of me. Quite the contrary: they function as enforcers. They make the really cheap neighborhoods inaccessible to me.

Regarding one of Rich Puchalsky's points, yes, I think the situation of the last 40 years is a labor glut, which operates to the benefit of capital at the expense of labor. I am sure KoTR will object that his profit margins are nevertheless relatively narrow, which I'll concede. We'll get to that.

As to whether Obama could "fix" the underemployment "problem", this has to be looked at in terms of GDP recovery.

The depth and complexity of the GWBush-Goldman-Sachs-etc. crisis combined with the untimely arrival of the first real global limits to growth, I will argue arguably makes the idea of a return to "full" (non-inflationary) employment simply unachievable on any time scale.

There were some compelling figures on one of my economist feeds to this effect. Brad DeLong perhaps? I will try to dig that up.

Andy S said...

In many prosperous societies our need to work is driven not so much by our material needs but by status anxiety. Even some people who complain about being overworked are really just boasting about how indispensable and self-sacrificing they are.

The idea of a "leisure society" was never a realistic possibility for competitive and insecure mammals like us.

Alain de Botton wrote a book on status anxiety. It's not very good but it's one of the few popular books on the subject.

dhogaza said...

"Why did people work more even as women entered the work force in greater numbers? The most elemental answer is because elites control society so that people don't keep the profits of their labor. They don't get richer as they work more."

This might help explain why, for instance, my old landlord, a journeyman printer, was able to acquire four rental properties and send his kids to college while his wife didn't hold a job in her life, while in the same neighborhood today, two-income families can barely afford to buy a single home and their kids will emerge from college deep in debt.

The increased income disparity in this country didn't come about just because the rich got richer, you know. Took two to tango.

Meanwhile, I've not worked full-time since 1988 (though I'm at four days a week now in the midst of the longest near-fulltime work I've done since deciding I wanted a different lifestyle).

It can be done, though of course it helps a lot to be skilled at something that's in high demand and for most of us it means doing without some of the glitzy toys our friends take for granted ....

wottsupwiththat.com said...

I recall hearing a sociology professor in 1979 tell us that in ten years time, we'd do so little "work" that when asked, we'd describe each other by our hobbies. I wouldn't be "a dentist", I'd be "a windsurfer"!

Didn't happen...

manuel "moe" g said...

> I still intend to plow ahead with my thesis here, on what I call Feynman's principle: if you're presented with a problem, think it through for yourself before you read about what others think. This maximizes the opportunity for originality as you will be less influenced by established ideas.

You have earned my trust, MT, but "think it through for yourself before you read about what others think" is also the motto of the Glibertarians, who develop their own idiosyncratic thought from first principals that are pithy, snappy, and trivially refuted. ;-)

Just some good-natured snark - as usual you are touching on the primary issues of humanity of the near future - that are usually dismissed with dissembling.

Michael Tobis said...

Moe, allow me to distinguish between the concepts of "before" and "instead".

manuel "moe" g said...

Maybe automation never had any ability to reduce workloads. Maybe it only has the power to increase the number of people who can be considered "superfluous" (complete humans but economically disposable, hence actually disposable, because economics trumps human value, in the really-existing present-day world).

The "superfluous" are sentenced to being "Nickel and Dimed" (Barbara Ehrenreich's book title). The bulk of the "non-superfluous" can be deprived leisure through the simplest and cheapest of social control and conditioning - the treadmill is simply speeded up. At the top of the social hierarchy are corporate masters and first-lieutenants, who are on a treadmill of their own - they will risk their security station for the dream of perpetually sustaining their standard of living, which has less to do with happiness, meaning, fulfillment, accomplishment, and more to do with ostentatious consumption.

A few of the "non-superfluous" can negotiate a balance of leisure and value-creation on their own terms, or very nearly so, by living their lives close to the example of the garden of Epicurus (or following the Stoics if you prefer).

MT is correct that not everyone can enter a "balance of leisure and value-creation on their own terms", so it is not a universal answer - once you fall into the category of the "superfluous" you lose the ability to strike any bargain on your own terms.

MT: > untimely arrival of the first real global limits to growth, I will argue arguably makes the idea of a return to "full" (non-inflationary) employment simply unachievable on any time scale.

Unemployment figures are correlated with what the corporate masters are actually interested in: the likelihood of food riots, civil-unrest, revolutionary toppling of the oligarchs, etc. You could talk about "growth" or you could talk about "flexibility in achieving social control". Cheap sweet-crude smoothed over a lot of economic and social contradictions and conflicts. Peak-sweet-crude and the fact that there is enough carbon fossil fuels to boil our grandchildren off the face of the earth are both reducing flexibility in achieving social control. I would argue that the Jasmine revolution is economic, because all potential creditors have woken up from the dream of "perpetual growth".

Err, MT sits in the middle, denialists sit on one extreme, nihilists sit on the other extreme. By nature I am a nihilist, but I wish to support the middle-dwellers. So, err, I have to come up with something hopeful to close out this comment. All I can say is that a life full of meaning, fulfillment, and achievement is possible under the low standard of living (measured by coin) of the garden of Epicurus. (Not fooling myself that this is an possibility for everyone.) MT, maybe our intellectual heritage will be preserved by some line of Inuit hunters? (Fingers-crossed)

manuel "moe" g said...

MT: > allow me to distinguish between the concepts of "before" and "instead".

If you embrace "instead", you cut your workload by half! And you can start preaching self-importantly that much sooner! We can learn so much from the Glibertarians. ;-) Cheers!

Rich Puchalsky said...

"A person like myself cannot afford to fall out of the middle class because I lack the skills and connections to survive in the underclass."

Um... what? This is what puzzles me about Club Orlov's stuff too -- the idea that the underclass has ethnic mafias as some kind of unique, compensatory skill-set. What, white middle-class people don't have family and clan connections? Maybe you don't, MT -- I seem to vaguely remember that you're a British immigrant. But you shouldn't generalize.

Most of all it seems weird and anti-historical to present the underclass as enforcers keeping people out of cheap neighborhoods. The real enforcers in America were and always have been white middle-class people. They invented lynching, for heaven's sake. They invented gentrification.

"The depth and complexity of the GWBush-Goldman-Sachs-etc. crisis combined with the untimely arrival of the first real global limits to growth, I will argue arguably makes the idea of a return to "full" (non-inflationary) employment simply unachievable on any time scale."

I don't think so. I've been an environmentalist since the 1980s and I've seen a whole lot of statements that this time, the global limits to growth have finally arrived. It's always a bad idea to just throw that around: it makes you look like one of those religious nuts predicting the Rapture over and over. I see no sense in which this crisis was related to global limits in anything. The idea of limits shouldn't be a get-out-of-failure-free card for incompetent politicians. There's no reason why Obama couldn't have spent more money -- on decarbonization, say -- and brought employment back up.

King of the Road said...

Wow.

"Corporate masters"?

"Ostentatious consumption?"

"Speed up the treadmill"?

"Revolutionary toppling of the oligarchs"?

Yeah, we corporate masters huddle together trying to think of new and more oppressive ways to exploit the wage slaves. I'm not in the Trump/Gates/Jobs/Buffet/Soros category (or the Woods/Rodriguez/James/Bryant category or the Dicaprio/Depp/Stiller/Sandler category) but our firm is a corporation and the "Bush tax cuts" kept money in my pocket. And I have an airplane. Seriously, the hyperbole is over the top.

As to Michael's comment on the underclass and their survival mechanisms, I submit that those I described (whom I know well and see often) are not merely surviving but are living the life he suggests - with material comforts and nothing but leisure time. I don't contend that there are none out there struggling to survive, but short of mental illness or addiction, its demonstrably possible to live this life of leisure.

Heck, before I got sober (in the pre-internet days of the late '70s, so no broadband or flat screen) I lived a life of leisure. The very real down side was a complete lack of self-respect, so I guess the distinction between Michael's leisure class and my in-laws is that "society" states that they should not be entitled to self-respect (though I suspect they disregard this stricture).

Are the people here doing what they like? If not, why not? But if the socialists would like to produce value, then they should go ahead and do so. The rewards are there - financial and psychic.

I thought a lot before hitting "publish" in light of the query as to whether what I have to say will improve on silence. I'm sure that, for some, the answer will be a resounding "hell to the no!"

Arthur said...

I've started reading Fred Hirsch, thanks for that reference, it looks very promising.

Bob Black - uh - not my taste. He makes a lot of claims that sound interesting, but I don't see how they can possibly add up. Humans have an innate need to feel that they're being treated at least somewhat fairly, that's why we establish governments, and why, yes, we have to "work" at things we may not actually like to do all that much. Show me a society where anarchism has actually been tried and had any success and maybe I'll read more Black. Not now.

Rich Puchalsky said...

There is no need for anyone to read Bob Black who doesn't want to. But if I could summarize his views, I think he's say that the kind of anarchism he's talking about has been tried, in hunter-gatherer societies, and worked quite well. He looked at actual data on how much people in hunter-gatherer societies really work, so it's not totally unsupported.

The wisdom or otherwise of trying to make our societies more like hunter-gatherer ones is another matter.