The Post-Work Myth


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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32 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Someday perhaps more people will value a marginal hour of leisure than what they can earn with a marginal hour of work. Notice that that is a far less dire-sounding claim that most post-work-ers claim.

    I would think so. It’s Saturday. Millions of people are doing exactly that right now, and have been Saturday after Saturday for generations.Report

  2. Avatar Roger says:

    According to Robert Whaples at the Economic History Association, leisure/discretionary hours per lifetime in the US has quadrupled since 1880 and the trend continues to improve at a rapid pace.

    People start work at a later age, work fewer hours, spend fewer hours at household chores per day, and retire earlier than we used to. As long as we continue to make economic and technological progress this trend is likely to continue — worldwide.

    I agree that leisure choices continue to rise and improve. Productivity continues to improve. We will continue to see the transition to more and more leisure. The trend continues.Report

  3. Two points, one somewhat tangential and the other completely tangential.

    1. This

    That’s a version of what happened with banks and ATMs. That a machine will do your job doesn’t mean you will be out of a job. It means you will be out of that particular job.

    is probably true. But if we’re talking about a specific individual, he or she may lose the job and not be hired back in the other part of the bank. So in this case, the “you” may very well be out of a job. For how long? Hopefully not long, but it is a disruption to the person involved for the time being. You don’t deny it, and your OP isn’t really about that. But I think it’s worth pointing out.

    2. The “myth” of a post-work society, regardless of whether or in what ways it is true or false, is also a “myth” in the sense that it’s a story some of us tell in order to explain or understand our world. Depending on whether that society is envisioned as dystopian or utopian, it can be a story about pessimism or optimism in the face of progress, or rejecting or welcoming certain changes. Or, to put it in James Hanley’s phrasing in the title of his symposium post, it can be a story by which we can imagine and convey what it is we really want.

    Again, my first point is partially tangential, and my second point is whollly tangential. Just some thoughts.Report

    • >1.

      Yes, a fair point. I was debating whether to include an additional point about the effect of technology on labor rates are also ambiguous. There might be plenty of people who know how to sew by hand but few who know how to operate machines, and thus we might see wages decline. Or, machines in an industry might require special skills to operate and thus lead to higher wages. (E.g. airline pilots make more than bus drivers.)


      I think that’s also fair.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        The issue isn’t that workers displaced by technology won’t get jobs. The issue is with the type of jobs they would get. I believe that in the classic example, the weavers of England, new technology in textiles did lead to rising standards of living because the cost of clothing decreased but the former weavers suffered from a decreased living standard because their new jobs paid much less. Promising people that they would still have jobs if they are displaced by technology isn’t that comforting if the new job doesn’t offer the wages, salary, or benefits of the old job.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Over the long term, employees are going to be paid based upon their marginal productivity (unless markets are actively interfered with).

        In studying historic economic progress — which is pretty much isolated to the era post Adam Smith’s writings — there is the ever present issue of what I call INCUMBENCY.

        The problem with change is that change, even when improving things on net overall, tends to create relative or absolute winners and losers. Incumbents tend to be threatened by change. Incumbents can be existing employers, existing employers, or whatever.

        Incumbents have several advantages which the future “winners” of change don’t — they exist today, they are organized, and they can use their earnings as incumbents in defense of resisting change. (See Mancur Olsen)

        Thus the paradox. Progress and increasing productivity and creative destruction requires change. But incumbents are threatened by change and are often powerful enough and organized enough to stop it. So they do.

        In places where incumbents are able to resist change, they do, and those places have little or no progress relative to those places or industries which minimize incumbency privilege.

        Free markets face the eternal problem of game theory. We all benefit long term by cooperating and not claiming privileged incumbency status. However we benefit more if we claim privilege while nobody else does. Prisoners dilemma.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I also don’t think we will have a post-work economy as a complete Star Trek utopia.

    I do think we are going to see a lot of suffering as decently paid work with good benefits is replaced by much lower-paying contingent labor work that contains much fewer or even no benefits. Some progressive cities are picking up the slack. SF has a policy that requires companies to pay into Health Savings Accounts for their long-term temps. I got a few thousand dollars out of this when working as a contract lawyer for a year.

    On the adjunct thread, I asked if we could switch to a world in which less than 40 hours a week was the norm without much suffering. Patrick said no. My concern is the suffering.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Well that’s the issue isn’t it?

      If labor is valuable enough that you can sell less than 40 hours of it all week and make a good living, then labor is valuable enough that people who want to improve the economic circumstances will try and sell more than 40 hours of it a week. And then the iron laws of micro economic equilibrium kick in.

      Alternatively, if there is only enough demand for labor that less than 40 hours a week can be sold by most people, that means that the price that consumers of labor will pay for it is relatively low. Again, the microeconomic pressure towards equilibrium take us away from a place where smaller amounts of labor are going to produce higher amounts of compensation.

      Maybe it will be the case that society and works labor generally needs to be sold and lower quantities per individual is only possible when goods necessary for survival are so cheap that labor need not be sold in large quantities. In other words, the trend towards a post-work society will be achieved with commoditizing basically everything and making it available with very high productivity, very high efficiency, and very low cost at market. That, in turn, suggests that basically all production will be done by very large, very well capitalized, very geographically distributed corporations. A post work society will see, compared to what we have today, fewer small businesses and sole proprietorships.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “I do think we are going to see a lot of suffering as decently paid work with good benefits is replaced by much lower-paying contingent labor work that contains much fewer or even no benefits.”

      Just to clarify… Labor markets are becoming increasingly global and the trend worldwide is historically unprecedented acceleration in more jobs, with better conditions and higher wages and benefits. Seriously. We added close to a billion jobs and took a billion people most in need out of poverty in the last thirty years. We should be celebrating.


      Of course, the previously privileged top tier wealth first worlders (looking in mirror) are now competing with an additional billion people. This has slowed wage growth. Supply and demand.

      Long term, wages and benefits will always be a factor of marginal productivity. Nothing else makes economic sense. Progressive cities are just getting in the way. They throw sand in the machine and then complain about how the machine no longer works. Funny how that works.

      “My concern is the suffering.”

      Mine too. Alleviating suffering does not come just from compassion, it comes from knowledge. We must understand how wealth is produced, how prosperity is fostered and how progress is stimulated if we want our children to have better lives than our parents.Report

    • I asked if we could switch to a world in which less than 40 hours a week was the norm…

      One of the points that economists miss again and again and again is that the majority of workers don’t get a choice to reduce to 38.723 hours per week because they’d like a bit more leisure time. Burt may say that I didn’t work under a contract, but the deal was $X thousand per year for 40 hours per week minimum, more hours if that was what it took to meet the deadline. Small business owners don’t usually get the option to say, “I’ll open at 9:15 instead of 9:00 each day, because I want more leisure.” At least, not if they want to stay in business and can get all of their competitors to agree to do the same.

      Places where less than 40 hours become the norm have required large unions getting the deal for everyone, or government intervention.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Michael Cain says:


        Agreed. A lot of conservatives often seem to really not understand the idea of “asymmetry of power” and that workers don’t have the choices. Or they reframe the choice as “You don’t have to be an adjunct, you could go into something else.” Or insert any career buy an adjunct.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I’m not convinced that many leftists do, either, as I almost always see it either just asserted, or explained in a hand-wavy way at best. Can anyone point me to a rigorous model of asymmetry of power that is a) grounded in economics, and b) not just a trivial restatement of the laws of supply and demand?Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Michael Cain says:

        In a world of competing employers the asymmetry of power is of negligible importance. The employers compete for the employees.

        If employees prefer shorter working hours to other benefits relative to the net cost to the employer, the rational thing for an employer interested in profit is to give it to the employee and thus maximize the cost benefit of employee costs.

        My employer and I tested shorter work weeks, remote work and so on countless times at countless locations. Some experiments survived, most didn’t, often due to employee demands for NOT working fewer hours or due to customer issues. (And the customer is the real source of power in markets)

        I hate to burst any bubbles, but as an employer I never actually set a wage. I set job requirements and gave HR my skill requirements and preferences that I thought were needed to do the job. They used their expertise to then suggest a salary to attract the candidate. They then tested the market and saw if it worked by attracting the proper type of candidate. If not, we raised the wage. If we got tons of candidates we upgraded skills and hired a better caliber thus not leaving profit on the table and HR lowered their starting base next time.

        Wages, benefits and working conditions in the broader market are not set by anyone over the long term in half-way competitive market. They emerge.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Agreed. A lot of conservatives often seem to really not understand the idea of “asymmetry of power.” … they reframe the choice as “You don’t have to be an adjunct, you could go into something else.”

        Now I’m a conservative?

        And adjuncts really can’t get another job? Or do you mean it’s not easy to get another “PhD level job”?

        Because given the complaints about the shit pay, they could surely earn as much in other, lower level work. And given how grueling being an adjunct can be if you’re teaching at multiple schools, they could surely find a job that’s less draining.

        And given that they’ve evidenced intelligence by earning a PhD, they ought to be able to work their way up to better positions, not PhD required positions, not the idealized “life of the mind positions,” but real for sure paying jobs, assimetry of power or not.

        Pity for adjuncts is a pretty damned privileged pov!Report

  5. Avatar Richards says:

    I have to disagree with this “James Jobs are going to disappear”…. the largest growth in employment seems to be (outside of the oil industry…) seem to be in the low-paying-no-benefits variety WalMart/McJobs sector.

    What technology has done in most cases has not so much as automated drudge labor (there’s those jobs still aplenty) but replaced high skilled manual work.

    “My concern is the suffering.” I sign on with that statement as well… however, there is an attitude that “meh… we’ve always had suffering, as long as it’s not me, why worry?” The economic parable that says that the tide will float all boats assumes that everyone can afford hunk of plywood to hang onto when water comes rushing in.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Richards says:

      “What technology has done in most cases has not so much as automated drudge labor (there’s those jobs still aplenty) but replaced high skilled manual work.”

      I think it’s more complicated and multi-faceted than that.

      It’s definitely what Henry Ford did.

      What McD’s does is design every input, every output, and every intermediate step around the ability for a high turnover workforce to crank out deliverables within a minute or two of customer demand. And sloughs off personnel management responsibility on franchisees. The most amazing thing about McDonalds is not the pay of their line worker (who are there an average of less than 4 years), but how lowly paid their managers are.

      Walmart gets by with a superior supply chain up to the store’s loading dock, and sheer size and inertia by this point, but inferior practices inside the store, which is counteracted by a sizable but low paid staff. In contrast, Costco manages both up to the loading dock and inside the store a lot more efficiently and with more technological savvy, resulting in a lower headcount, but higher paid employees.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Kolohe says:

        Agreed, I mentioned somewhere else in this threat that the effect of technology on the type of work workers do is going to have to deal with the technology.

        Fast food service work requires a lot of fine motor control skills, which humans have but have been difficult to automate. But it’s not inconceivable that those jobs too could be automated.Report

      • Avatar Richards in reply to Kolohe says:

        The point I was trying to make is that skilled labour (the expensive kind) is what gets automated away… the low skill jobs (apart from the “fine motor” skills… and surprise, customer service) with low pay is what gets retained. The more replaceable you are, the more likely your job isn’t going to be automated.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        And I’m saying that’s hardly universal – it depends on the nature of the industry, nature of the technological advance and pre existing social and regulatory factors.

        Take the highly skilled job of a personal chef. Tech advances haven’t made their job obsolete, but rather has reduced the reuirement for an army of support staff, the Downton abbey daisys of the industryReport

  6. Avatar LWA says:

    “People have a near insatiable demand”

    Yep, thats pretty much the nut of it.

    I don’t believe there exists any such point where people will say, “I have enough, I no longer wish to acquire more.”Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to LWA says:

      I question the claim, myself. At least as it applies to material goods. I think that in the absence of a cultural machinery which very intentionally equates acquisition of material goods with “success” and all the other associated nonsense, manymany people would be pretty dang happy with less. And therefore “demand” less.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to LWA says:


      I think one of the major dynamics behind this is that the range of consumer goods expands as the economy grows. People always demand more because there are always new things to acquire.Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to LWA says:

      I don’t believe there exists any such point where people will say, “I have enough, I no longer wish to acquire more.”

      Maybe not, but people regularly decide that they prefer leisure over the acquisition of more stuff, which is really what would happen. If stuff comes for free, most people will gladly consume stuff as long as it keeps rolling in. But as the number of things we can do with our leisure time increase, the amount of stuff we already have piles up, and we get more tired of the work we’re doing, most of us eventually call it quits if we can.

      I don’t think that the “less work, more play” trend will necessarily come in the form of 40-year-olds going from 50 to 40 to 20 and then down to 0 hours per week. It seems more likely to come in the form of earlier and earlier retirement and the longer and longer postponement of the start of work thanks to wealthier parents supporting more discretionary education and live-at-home kids.

      People of prime working age are probably going to be the last people who cut their hours as we need less and less work done. Then again, it’s probably most efficient to have those people doing the work anyway.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        Absolutely, people love leisure time- its one of the reasons they work like mad.

        I’m just saying our desires expand infinitely- its one of the most plentiful data points we have.
        Given the choice of working till 40 and retiring to a condo in Florida, compared to now, sounds like a sweet deal.
        Until you tell someone that they can work til they are 50 and retire to the south of France; or work even harder, even longer, and retire to their own island.

        Work is one of those things like sexuality, that occupies several different territories in our mind, and is linked to irrational things, some of which are culturally constructed, some which are hard wired into our DNA.

        Extrapolating data points about income and wealth and predicting its behavior on how we work seems a bit like its missing most of the picture.Report

      • I’m partial to what @troublesome-frog is saying here.

        For at least some people, there does come a point when working less – or not working – for less money is attractive. I stay at home with the girl in part for this. We could have more money if I didn’t. But we look at how much I would make, subtract taxes and expenses and childcare, and the amount we would come out ahead is less than the stress of trying to balance everything. Of course, we may be an oddity in our income potential (money is tight right now, but won’t be starting soon)… but that’s part of the point: With wealth does come a different evaluations of the tradeoffs.

        I should note that I have also seen it at the other end of the spectrum. People living off paltry Social Security Disability checks or off-and-on unemployment when they could work and bring home at least some extra money.

        This is different from a society-wide tradeoff. But that’s where I would expect to see it happen. Here and there. Eventually, like a whole lot of other social trends, it probably does become a thing for a significant portion of the population. Maybe enough that, at some point, they can pass laws to penalize employers that want more. I think we’re a long ways off from the sort of material comfort we would need for this to happen, however.Report

      • +1, TF.

        >But we look at how much I would make, subtract taxes…

        Will, aren’t you touching a third rail there?Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Troublesome Frog says:


        TF said it perfectly. Status desires can be potentially infinite, but not for everyone and these desires are counteracted for desires for things like autonomy and leisure and discretion and watching ones kids play.

        As TF points out, what we are seeing isn’t primarily shorter work weeks for the most productive, it is more years before and after working age. We start a career later and retire earlier. In addition those with lowest marginal productivity stop working all together.

        Leisure time has quadrupled since 1880 and is still on a trajectory up.Report

  7. Avatar morat20 says:

    I think one thing worth nothing about “now” versus “then” in terms of disappearing jobs.

    Back then, the job of buggy maker went away because buggies were replaced by cars. The job itself disappeared, because a new product or service had rendered the job obsolete.

    The problem now is not that the job is gone — the job still exists. The worker is no longer needed, but the work remains.

    And some new work has arrived — design and build and run the machines — but that work is increasingly automated to. And it’s not a single industry, it seems to be creeping across the entire economy. (Lawyers, as an example, are starting to see data miners and smart engines creeping into their turf. First they came for the paralegals….)

    I’m quite curious as to how our economy will run, if an increasingly small number of people are sufficient to keep the whole thing running. If 25% of the population can produce all the “stuff” the population needs, that’s great. Except for asking where the other 75% are going to get the money to buy said stuff. (And indeed, how long the 25% will remain employed if no one is buying).Report

    • Avatar North in reply to morat20 says:

      The Hollywood theory is that the rich will somehow gate themselves away from the starving masses and live lives of endless idyl while the masses devour themselves with crime and fight like crabs over the few jobs that remain.

      The reality is probably that in a democratic state the hungering masses would inevitably vote for redistribution away from the rich to provide for the needs of the masses (and in a non democratic state they’d do the same thing only the rich would end up hanging by their feet from the lamp posts instead of getting a larger tax bill). In a society where only 25% of the people could produce for the needs of everyone then you’d probably see a guaranteed basic income or some similar phenomena along with an utter explosion of volontary low to no wage employment in the arts and entertainment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the population decline and eventually stabalize at some much lower number as well.Report