By Wallerand Bazin and Elisabeth Darrobers
The 1973 French film L’An 01 was all the rage in spring 2020. Narrating the euphoric collective strike against productivity-driven and crisis-ridden market economies, it appeared a blueprint for a post-work society. In this fiction, bakers slip recipes into chocolate éclairs, discovered by mesmerised munching customers who read: ‘Do it yourself so that we can go to the beach.’ A couple pretends to wake up at 5am for work before going back to sleep in laughter. Apartment keys are thrown out the window along with Wall Street bankers as stock prices drop. Workers leave factories to picnic in meadows.
Two years later, it seems naïve to have believed that our work-centred society – shelled by decades of neoliberal obfuscation where ‘reducing labour market rigidities’ is a euphemism for slashing employment protection legislation – would live up to the film’s adage, ‘Let’s just stop and rethink everything’. Everything had already been said in the pre-pandemic Ken Loach film Sorry We Missed You (2019). This despairing portrayal of the life of a contemporary low-income couple could not be more prescient of the covid future that Michel Houellebecq foreshadowed to be ‘the same as before, but a bit worse’. Abbie is on a zero-hour contract where she gets paid by the visit despite working 12 hours a day. That’s two hours less than her husband Ricky, who just started as a self-employed and uninsured delivery driver. As one of the elders under Abbie’s care asks: ‘What happened to the eight-hour work-day?’.
Covid, while not the catalyst of total transformation, nevertheless compels us to reconsider work in ways that appeared both undesirable and politically infeasible for the past few decades. During the 2007 French elections, the conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy branded ‘work more for more gain’ as his political slogan, enshrining productivism and threatening to backtrack on social achievements like the 35-hour work week. In the months before lockdown, Emmanuel Macron’s draconian pension reforms revealed that, 13 years later, little had changed. In the blink of an eye, however, Covid forced governments to reconsider constraints on welfare spending and roll back austerity measures. Sending shock waves through the sacrosanct Protestant work ethic, successive Janus-faced lockdowns exposed millions of workers to the possibilities of regained time and the crude inequalities of our labour system. To the sound of promised reforms and over-zoomed urbanites applauding at their apartment windows, essential workers in the care, food and delivery sectors continued to shoulder the lowest-paying and most Covid-exposed jobs. The centrality of work was simultaneously foregrounded and challenged by those finally ‘finding the time’ to read and recognise their jobs as the meaningless work analysed in late David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (2018), sparking an unprecedented mass resignation movement known as the ‘Big Quit’.
All heralded post-Covid work futures – digitalisation, automation, outsourcing work, work time reduction – stem from this paradoxical hinge point, varying in the degree to which they challenge work in its current form and inevitably reassert it as the nuts and bolts of our current system. Isn’t it time to go against the liberal slogan and work less to live better?
Calls for the end of work, or work reduction, are not new. As early as the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes argued that gains in labour productivity through technological progress would remove the need for his grandchildren to work more than a paltry 15 hours a week. But post-work advocates must reckon with the strong historical evidence that technology has rarely been harnessed to reduce working time. Rather, the effects of technological improvements have counter-intuitively often expanded capacity and work. Most famously, domestic labour increased in the 1950s partly because the purchase of home appliances rose in tandem with hygiene standards. Similarly, information communication technologies have significantly encroached on leisure time since the 1990s, most notably with the rise of the home-office.
Last March, Microsoft published a brazen report on the enhanced flexibility of home-offices: responding to calls for increasing the time workers can dedicate to health, well-being, and family, companies allow teleworkers to compensate for the time spent with their children in the afternoon by working after dinner, creating a triple peak day, with productivity culminating not only before and after lunch but also from 6pm to 8pm. Resentment towards work is diagnosed in the report as an opportunity to merge corporate and personal interests by allowing employees to work from home and spend more time with their families. Couched in a Silicon Valley rhetoric of flexibility and self-empowerment, which equates work with ‘fun’ and ‘possibility’, the outcome threatens work-life balance with the pervasive expectation that teleworkers be constantly online and available. The potential perk of a reduced commute does not necessarily translate to more leisure time. Instead, it is replaced by lengthening work days and screen time that increasingly blur the separation between professional and private life. Compulsively checking emails before going to bed or answering important phone calls on weekends constitutes unpaid and unseen shadow work.
This notion of ‘shadow work’, coined by Ivan Illich in the 1970s, also extends to automation more broadly as work has shifted from the retailer to the consumer, who is now in charge of self-registering at the airport or scanning items at the till. Initially justified on the grounds of replacing tedious and unmeaningful jobs, the automation of cashiers has arguably not made the lives of employees in charge of automatic cashiers – running from client to client in need of technical assistance – any less tedious. The dystopic future of a fully automated society is perhaps best encapsulated by the robotic voices of self-check-outs shrieking, ‘Thank you for shopping at Tesco’.
Critics of socially blind automation policies argue that enhanced consideration presents a better path to revaluing the status of socially underappreciated jobs. Premising work as a social marker, indispensable components of a society (read: essential workers) should be recognised as such, to create an equal and just society. The Wages for Housework campaign initiated in the 1970s illustrates this struggle for recognition. Efforts to recognise domestic labourers, however, have mainly resulted in the professionalisation and consequent outsourcing of maintenance, childcare, and care work. Does paying someone for household chores – for example, hiring a cook or cleaner – help recognise unpaid domestic labour? Although it can acknowledge its previously disregarded value, it does not rectify the larger injustice. As bell hooks argues, it merely dumps tedious work on lower-income labourers largely from minority ethnic groups. While commodifying domestic activities can be used as an argument for women’s liberation, it only shifts domination as white women free themselves from domestic tasks by employing Black maids or nurses. Beyond the feminist struggle, the racial and class struggle remains a democratic challenge. The demand for home services such as cleaning or food deliveries is unsurprisingly highest in countries with the greatest income inequalities. On the contrary, both the demand for and supply of housekeepers are low in more egalitarian countries like Sweden.
Outsourcing tasks or relying on automation and digitalisation are ultimately underwhelming solutions because they do not address the inherent environmental and social issues within the current labour system. Nor do they tackle the resentment that thousands of people have demonstrated in quitting their jobs even as the pandemic ebbs, creating a ‘Great Resignation’ movement. A more radical fringe of post-work advocates explores the possibility of a different solution known as work-time reduction (WTR). WTR – without changes in salary – would more evenly spread-out work, reduce environmental pollution and improve work-life balance.
While the job creation record of digitisation and automation is inconclusive at best and unpromising at worst, the reduction of working hours has historically helped fill the employment gap created by economic recessions and by a growing population outpacing job creation. Already in 1919, the French government accepted a reduction in working hours to eight hours a day to absorb the labour supply inflated by the sudden influx of demobilised soldiers. The principle of ‘work less to work all’ underpinning these temporary reforms has been recently invoked to justify long-term labour policies supporting four-day work weeks in Iceland, Scotland, Finland, and New Zealand. The main premise is that unemployment is not caused by a lack of work availability but by the unequal distribution of working hours between the over-worked, the unemployed, and the underemployed.
Work-time reduction is also a climate change mitigation strategy. It would both reduce emissions linked to work itself (such as transportation and heating) and facilitate the planned downsizing of extremely polluting sectors that transport workers between their homes and offices (aviation, automobile). As the ecological imperative makes this shrink necessary, the case for WTR grows stronger and stronger as remaining jobs will need to be spread across the rising workforce.
Despite conclusive evidence that links between simultaneously reducing working time and our ecological footprint, there are significant cultural and political barriers. In June 2020, reducing working time to 28 hours a week featured in the proposals of the French Citizens Convention for Climate but was quickly removed out of a fear of harsh political backlash. Climate-conscious critics have also voiced a concern that work-time reduction could facilitate additional leisure time spent on carbon-intensive activities. To be effective, WTR must therefore be coupled with ambitious public policies to control excessive consumption (such as a progressive tax on air travel) and channel additional time towards socially and environmentally beneficial activities.
These activities should ideally improve work-life balance and free up time to share domestic work more equally. Even while working full-time jobs, women still take on most domestic and childcare tasks, leading to higher burn-out rates (42% versus 32% for men in 2021, according to the well-informed McKinsey). WTR would enable workers to participate in enriching activities often sighed away for lack of time with a mixture of regret and complacency – gardening local plots, reading fiction, repairing bikes, volunteering, harvesting seasonal herbs and fruits, learning languages, playing an instrument. In his polemically individualistic essay on The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde argues that without guaranteed time and wage security, people only focus on an accumulation of material rather than inner wealth, inevitably leading to a creative and moral vacuum. WTR still falls short of tackling productivism if it is only justified on the grounds of greater working efficiency. Rather, challenging the nature of the work must go hand in hand with an extra-institutional process of cultural change that side-steps growth-centric production and unbridled consumption. Questioning the centrality of work implies moving away from the social hierarchy of activities embedded in a utilitarian economic model.
A ‘reduction in work time is necessary but not sufficient,’ opined André Gorz in Farewell to the Working Class (1994). Time freed up must neither fall in the excesses of consumerism – fuelled by the programmed distractions of mass media – nor in the totalitarian control of collective activities. Gorz advocates for expanding autonomy through the freedom to pursue self-realization as well as social and political engagement. The ridiculously small stipend local councillors receive in the UK makes the exercise of public function the preserve of wealthy and retired residents. Reducing time at work does not automatically mean an escape from work’s value systems. The prioritization of productivity infects all kinds of activities. As Hartmut Rosa shows in Social Acceleration (2013), a walk in the woods or a yoga retreat is often legitimised as a means for achieving greater efficiency later. It goes without saying that business models have rubbed off on education, where the quality of teaching in universities is ranked based on the salary of graduates. Stefan Collini has revealed how the crisis of imagination facing students looking unfruitfully for an alternative to consulting and investment banking is but a product of recent waves of privatisation and marketisation. Since 2010, the humanities have struggled to demonstrate their financial value to society and first-year undergraduates in these degrees have fallen. As cultural and creative sectors are relegated to the background, they become devoid of any meaningful content, passively absorbed by the over-worked as a palliative to ‘clear their head’ after a tiring day’s work.
Free time is not to be confused with a right to idleness or a vita passiva, to paraphrase Arendt. What’s needed is not empty leisure time but more autonomy. For Gorz, ‘the priority task of a post-industrial left must therefore be to extend self-motivated, self-rewarding activity within, and above all, outside the family, and to limit as much as possible all waged or market-based activity carried out on behalf of third parties (even the state)’ Gorz’s ‘convivial tools’ should be made available: do-it-yourself workshops, creative centres, vegetable gardens, rehearsal rooms, printing presses, common spaces. A public provision of cultural and environmental services like manual and intellectual training and green spaces would make it possible to occupy free time and build community. These convivial tools would help produce what Illich calls for: a convivial society. An emphasis on free time valued for its own sake and not integrated into a profit-making process would prevent WTR from being co-opted in the name of productivity. Working less should not only mean resting more but living more – without the thought of making more.
WALLERAND BAZIN AND ELISABETH DARROBERS are reading MPhils in Geography and Comparative Literature. One is planting trees, the other is at the opera. Siblings or dating?
Art by Dowon Jung