We Need to Start Shedding Our Old Romantic Ideas About Wage Labor

Technological advancements increasingly allow us to conceive of a world without wage labor. But the fact remains: a lot of people are very attached to the idea of having a job. Many pundits who talk about these issues are aware of the possibilities of automation but still maintain that jobs are an important source of meaning and purpose in our lives.

Andrew McAfee, MIT economist and coauthor of Rage Against the Machine, is fond of quoting Voltaire: “Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need.” In a live hangout on Google+, McAfee’s partner Erik Brynjolfsson suggested that there is an important psychological value to people having work, which is why a universal basic income would be a bad idea.

People do need meaning in their lives, but nowhere is it written that people must get this meaning from wage labor. Our reverence for wage labor is culturally determined. In America especially, identity is very much tied to what one does for a living. But this is not how things have to be, and I think we ought to start changing this value system if we want people to feel happy and well adjusted in a future rife with automation.

Wage labor is a mechanism that forces you to work on what the short term market finds important, rather than what you yourself find important. This is perhaps the dominant form of coercion in our lives. Do your job or lose it. Lose your job and face poverty, debt, and loss of status.

I’m not saying all jobs are bad. But let’s not celebrate the glory of wage labor without also reminding ourselves of how terrible and soul crushing jobs can be. How many questionable or even terrible things have been done because someone was scared of losing their job? How many times have people uttered the common refrain “I’m just doing my job” in order to justify behavior entirely contrary to their conscience and character? Where is the dignity in that?

As automation advances, it’s not even clear if wage labor is economically efficient. Wage labor has a built in bias towards short term outcomes. If you are living at the low end of the wealth spectrum (as increasingly many of us are) the imperative of living expenses forces you to fulfill short term market niches to the exclusion of more long-term economic projects. What is the opportunity cost when smart, talented people take on taxing day jobs that preclude them from innovating or starting entirely new businesses?

2 thoughts on “We Need to Start Shedding Our Old Romantic Ideas About Wage Labor

  1. wage labor will disappear as the value of human production declines – human production will decline as a consequence of automation and the rise of AI. This is axiomatic for this blog I think? Therefore, the vast labor pool of humanity will be unemployed and the current economic model based on scarcity will no longer serve us. A new means of organizing society will arise – I imagine something like a favor-based exchange; what people can do for eachother when each already has all basic needs, and indeed virtually ALL needs met. There may be a large portion of humanity that simply vanishes into VR worlds and is no longer engaged in real world activities? For those who continue to get their hands dirty, mutual favors may be all we have to exchange.