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I look forward to a future without jobs

July 20, 2016

What are jobs for? As far as I can tell, jobs serve three purposes:

  1. They provide a mechanism to distribute resources, through earnings
  2. They enable an individual to make an impact on the world through the work they do
  3. They occupy people and give lives structure

Distributing resources

Jobs have been a mechanism for distributing resources. These resources are usually in the form of money, but may also be accommodation, food or the right to access some priviledge. Resources are accumulated by companies and passed on to individuals.

Now as far as I can make out, jobs are a pretty poor mechanism for distributing resources. Most fundamentally, they are unfair, with the rewards bearing little relationship to the effort put in, or the needs of the individual. When I worked in the IT industry in the 1990’s I was continually bemused by how much I was paid for sitting in an office chair and fiddling with software, while people who worked longer hours in far less interesting jobs  earned a pittance.

The other strange thing about this distribution mechanism is that not everyone has a job, so a whole lot of people are left out of the resource distribution altogether. In South Africa around 25% of people are officially unemployed and about another 10% have given up looking for work. That means that more than a third of people who could work are simply ignored by this distribution mechanism. How can that be good?

As unemployment grows, people are realising that there has to be some mechanism for distributing resources to those who do not have jobs. As a result, basic income grants are being discussed in countries around the world. I am hopeful that there will be better resource distribution mechanisms in the future.

Having an impact on the world

A great benefit of a job is that it enables you to do work that has an impact on the world. As a programmer, I always got a thrill walking through an office where software I had written was being used. There were people, doing their work, and using the screen I had designed and coded. As a teacher, there is the thrill of seeing dawning understanding on someone’s face.

Having an impact on the world gives one a sense of purpose and makes life meaningful. But it is not the job that does that. The job is just one way through which people get the chance to make an impact.

In fact the experience of many jobs is that the impact one is making is not the impact one would like to make. I worked for years in corporate IT until I figured out that I was creating systems to enable rich people to get richer, at the expense of poor people. When a system I was responsible for commissioning put 300 people out of work, I decided that this was not the impact I wanted to make on the world and I left the IT industry.

There are ways to make an impact on the world without a job. We impact the lives of friends and family, and we impact the world when we are nice to random people we meet every day. We can start enterprises, work on a community project or start a social movement. So again, I am hopeful that in future there will be better ways for people to impact the world and find a sense of purpose and meaning.

Occupation and structure

Finally, jobs keep people busy and provide structure to their lives. There is a reason to get up in the morning, a routine that has to be followed. When you get to the workplace there is something to do, perhaps absorbing, or perhaps mindless, but it passes the time. There is also a group of familiar faces, people in the same boat as you, to share your frustrations, pleasures and daily activities. They provide companionship and a sense of belonging.

Well, that’s the ideal. But in fact the structure of work is usually onerous, involving complex and uncomfortable commutes, long hours and little time to do the things you need to do to run your life or just to enjoy it. A student freshly back from a month of work placement told me this week that getting up every morning to be at the office on time was the hardest thing she had ever done. It is hard. You might manage it while you are young and resilient, but it gets harder. There is the heartbreak of leaving your children in often less than satisfactory care, the mad rush to fit everything in before work, after work or over the weekend, and no time to simply relax. An eight hour work day is long and tiring. I don’t think a forty hour work week is good for humans.

Colleagues may be about the best reason to go to work, but even there things may not work to your advantage. You may well end up working large parts of your day with people whose values you do not share, or who actively make your life miserable. You don’t get to choose who to spend your time with.

Wouldn’t it be better if it were possible to set up your own occupation, doing things you want to do, for a reasonable number of hours, consistent with your own life goals? Shouldn’t you be able to surround yourself with the kinds of people you want to associate with? As things stand, it is possible, but difficult.

So, who wants jobs?

My sense is that jobs are not really doing a great job of meeting the needs of humans (they are, after all, designed to meet the needs of business). I think we can do better than jobs for all three of the purposes I have discussed. We can find better mechanisms for distributing resources. We can find better ways to have an impact on the world. And we can find ways to occupy ourselves and structure our lives that are more humane. I would like to see time and effort directed towards finding these alternatives, rather than towards creating more jobs.



From → Living

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  1. Real work, not jobs | judy's views

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