Imagine, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the workforce altogether.
If such a utopia were possible, one might expect that it would be achieved first among the upper classes, and then gradually spread down the social ladder. First the wealthy would work shorter hours, then the middle class, and finally even high school dropouts would be able to sleep late, take four-day weekends and choose their own adventures — “to hunt in the morning,” as Karl Marx once prophesied, “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner . . .”
Yet the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the workforce and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.
Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms — on the left as the economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.
But it’s worth linking today’s trends to the older dream of a post-work utopia, because there are ways in which the decline in workforce participation is actually being made possible by material progress.
That progress can be hard to appreciate at the moment, but America’s immense wealth is still our era’s most important economic fact. “When a nation is as rich as ours,” Scott Winship points out in an essay for Breakthrough Journal, “it can realize larger absolute gains than it did in the past . . . even if it has lower growth rates.” Our economy may look stagnant compared to the acceleration after World War II, but even disappointing growth rates are likely to leave the America of 2050 much richer than today.
Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize — through public means and private — a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the workforce are not destitute; they’re receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admit. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)
There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms. Should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?
The answer is yes — but mostly because the decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.
Here the decline in workforce participation is of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship. Like many of these trends, it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity. (A nonworking working class may not be immiserated; neither will its members ever find a way to rise above their station.) And its costs will be felt in people’s private lives and inner worlds even when they don’t show up in the nation’s GDP.
In a sense, the old utopians were prescient: We’ve gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before.
But human flourishing is another matter. And it’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.
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