Work for work’s sake

There’s an employment crisis in the West. It is partly because of a Player Piano-style lean toward automation. It is partly because of the availability of cheap outsource labour in China. It is partly because of a gradual shift toward a post-materialist, post-oil mindset. And it is partly because of a global financial crisis brought about by corrupt speculators.

Whatever the reason, we are facing a situation in which we might want to think of the alternatives to employment.

The issue was tackled slightly in an interesting blog post by the creator of Choose Your Own Adventure books!

What if machines could do more work at less cost than all those in the bottom quintile of intelligence, education, and training? In no instance would it make economic sense to hire one of these individuals rather than plug in a machine to do the work. What happens to these people? We can’t let them starve. We don’t want to drive them to drugs or crime in response to the hopelessness of their situation. It would be demeaning and demoralizing to pay them a stipend so they could survive. Instead they should be given work opportunities in specially designed enterprises, even though machines could accomplish that work at less cost.

The “do it by hand regardless of inefficiency” solution comes up a lot, but such enterprises deny the reality that we can be free of toil, as a society, if we want to be. There’s a danger of becoming a “work for the sake of work” society, with the terrible belief that to be unemployed (or unused, rather) is the ultimate disgrace.

At least in earlier days of the consumer economy, one’s labours would be of some use to someone. If you worked on a pencil sharpener production line, you could at least be satisfied that your work provided much-needed pencil sharpeners to the pencil-sharpening public. Today, if machines can do the same job more efficiently, you’re wasting your time and your energy. To toil regardless of the machine reality is a mistake. I wouldn’t work for no reason. That’s the most undignified option of all. I’d take the “demeaning and demoralizing” stipend over pointless toil any day.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

5 Responses to “Work for work’s sake”

  1. Oldfool says:

    The day of the small batch handwork craftsman may return.
    I do a lot of work without the use of machines just because I can. Many others do the same. The more one can do with ones hands the less one needs gainful employment.

  2. Oh, totally. But I don’t think it was being proposed in the “avoid gainful employment” sense as much as the “generate gainful employment for the sake of it” sense.

  3. Sean Giere says:

    Even at Occupy Boston, people are clamoring for more jobs, jobs, jobs. It seems people don’t know what to do with themselves if they are not working.

    A person at my workplace was PROUD of the fact that she was able to show up to work during chemotherapy treatments.

  4. Hi Sean.

    Employment is what they always say they want. I suppose it’s because we have grown up in a world in which work is the main culture. Even art is seen through paradigms of work.

    We’ve forgotten that “job” a euphemism for “income”, itself a euphemism for personal dignity, social order, and quality of life. We’re two steps removed from the actual things that matter.

    Bob Black: “Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment.”

  5. Frank says:

    As Universal Basic Income looms, the Calvo-Industrial work ethic has already become a cudgel for angry right-wing rhetoric.

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