That’s the title of review of Tim Dunlop’s excellent new book, Why the Future Is Workless, published at Inside Story.
Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency has brought to the fore issues that have been simmering for some time. Despite his manifest unfitness, nearly half of American voters supported a candidate who promised to “make America great again,” most obviously by bringing back good jobs. As Trump’s dystopian inauguration speech made clear, good jobs are part of a past to which many Americans aspire.
These hopes raise the obvious question: will jobs of any kind survive in the future? This is the issue addressed by Tim Dunlop in Why the Future Is Workless.
The future (or lack of a future) of work is well-trodden ground. Dunlop surveys the wide variety of views to emerge in recent years and also, more importantly, challenges assumptions about work, labour and jobs that are taken for granted most of the time. As he points out, “jobs” as we understand them didn’t exist in significant numbers before the middle of the nineteenth century. When American politicians were drawing up the US constitution in the late eighteenth century, he writes, they “envisioned a nation of independent yeoman farmers and other forms of self-employed workers, not one of wage slaves who worked for someone else.”
Good jobs – secure and well-paid enough to support a family in reasonable comfort – only became a standard expectation in the middle of the twentieth century, and it is these jobs, rather than the facts of work and labour, that are now disappearing.
Technological change has been rendering old skills obsolete ever since the invention of the spinning jenny in the eighteenth century, and will doubtless continue to do so. The real problems we face today are not technological but social and economic. Like it or not, a radical reorganisation of work is under way. The question is whether we can shape it to benefit the world as a whole, or whether it will continue to enrich the few at the expense of the many. As Dunlop concludes, “We have been told that when it comes to work, there is no alternative. What these new technologies suggest is that maybe there is.”