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In Defense of the Three-Day Work Week

Has “the job” as we now know it become obsolete?

Unemployment metrics have become the best proof that our economic recovery is incomplete. Free market advocates are using high unemployment figures to show that Keynesian-style government spending doesn’t really move the needle. Leftists use the same figures to argue that corporate capitalism has reached its endpoint: Investors make money in the stock market while real people earn less income, if they can find jobs at all. But what if joblessness were less of a bug than a feature of the new digital economy?

Don’t get me wrong. I feel the pain of those whose livelihoods have been replaced by computers and robots. In fact, we may be reaching a stage of technological efficiency once imagined only by science fiction writers and early cyberneticists: an era when robots can till the fields, build our houses, and even revive the sick. It’s an era that was supposed to be accompanied by more leisure time. If robots are doing all the work, shouldn’t we get to lie back and enjoy some iced tea?

But something is standing in the way of the prosperity we all deserve. The toll collector whose job is replaced by an RFID E-Z Pass doesn’t reap the benefit of the new technology. Instead, he’s out on his ass, looking for a new job in an economy where everyone else’s jobs have been replaced by one technology or another. The newspaper tells him to learn new programming skills so that he can be the one programming the E-Z Pass—but there are far fewer people required to program a toll collection computer than to collect the tolls manually. Nine out of 10 unnecessary workers are still without a path to gainful employment.

That is, if gainful employment is really the objective here. But is it? Who really wants a job, anyway? We may want money and security, but is that the same thing as a job? It hasn’t always been. In fact, hourly wage employment didn’t really appear until the late Middle Ages, with the rise of the chartered corporation. Until that time, people were craftspeople, service providers, and farmers who would bring their products to market. They traded, bartered, and used local currencies in order to provide and receive what they needed. The marketplaces of this period worked so efficiently that people actually worked a whole lot less than they do today. Three-day workweeks were common, and people ate four or five meals a day.

The problem with this thriving economy was that it left out the ultra-rich. When people make money by creating and exchanging value, it makes it awfully difficult for the wealthy to exploit them. So the wealthiest families of the time made deals with fledgling monarchies to gain exclusive dominion over particular industries. Craftspeople were no longer allowed to make and sell goods; they had to work for the chartered monopolies—the proto-corporations—that had the authority to make those products.

So people who once worked for themselves now had to go and find what became known as “jobs.” They no longer sold what they made. Instead, they sold their time—a form of indentured servitude previously only known to slaves. The invention of the mechanical clock coincided with this new understanding of labor as time, and made the buying and selling of human time seem more regulated and verifiable.

The time-is-money ethic became so embedded in our culture that few today question the importance, even the integrity, of getting a job. But we should. Not only are jobs an artifact of a very particular moment in history, and not only were they invented by an elite who had only their own best interests at heart, but they are obsolete in an era when machines can do so much more, and so much faster, than people can. It’s time we accept the dark truth that we don’t really need everyone to work 40 hours a week anymore. We have to wind down the clock, and remap our time and labor in a way that’s appropriate for a post-industrial society.

Those who want to live in luxury can work for a living. They can start by solving the real problems of our society: topsoil depletion, global warming, renewable energy, and so on. Some of these problems will be mitigated simply by taking our emphasis off the relentless quest to employ even more people the old way; others, like global distribution of resources or the lifting of stultifying trade agreements and debt on developing nations, will become more clear once we’re no longer worried about growing the economy to create more jobs. To begin with, we have to look at employment for what it is, remember where it came from, and treat it less like a goal than a relic.

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