Where'd everybody go?

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What We’ll Do When the Work Is Gone

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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I stayed home today because I have a cold. Instead of taking a sick day, I decided to go ahead and write a column. In fact, I didn’t even think twice about it. It’s not that bad a cold, plus I’d rather accomplish something today than not.

This is, I think, pretty common behavior among those who are able to work remotely. Sometimes it’s driven by job insecurity or fear of letting work pile up, but it’s often just that getting work done is more satisfying than lying around reading or watching TV.

In my case, there’s the added twist that the work sometimes consists of lying around reading. While doing just that this morning, I came across this:

We work because as we do so we can see the changes we’re making in the world, on the world, and in this vision, derived from an infantile but nonetheless indispensable notion, is what we call freedom -- the ability to be causative, to reshape the inherited conditions we didn’t choose, to remake ourselves and the world at once.

It’s a little highfalutin, but yeah, that sounds like a good description of the satisfaction and empowerment I get from work. It’s one of the reasons why, when I ponder the fact that millions of Americans have dropped out of the labor force over the past decade and a half (which I have been doing a lot lately), I can’t help but see it as a tragedy.

That’s not what the author of those words sees, though! He’s James Livingston, a historian at Rutgers University, and the passage above is from his new book,  “No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea.” It’s time we got past the centuries-old fixation on work as a source of meaning, Livingston argues. The ancient Greeks and the early Christians saw freedom from work as essential to “the ability to attain truth through reasoning.” It was only with the Protestant Reformation that work itself became a virtue.

That attitude has been credited with the rise of capitalism and the concomitant spectacular rise in living standards in much of the world. But now capitalism has become so successful that work risks becoming extraneous, with wealthy economies struggling to create enough jobs to keep everyone occupied. So maybe it’s time to stop griping about it, and instead embrace the fact that we don’t have to work anymore!

Or so Livingston’s argument goes, although that was a pretty anodyne rendering of it. In its original form there are a lot more swear words and references to Hegel. This is the second book by Livingston I’ve read -- the other was 2011’s similarly contrarian “Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul” -- and I’m still not sure what to make of him. He’s part jokester and part intellectual showoff, and prone to economic generalizations so sweeping that they might make even an economist blush.

Still, in his new book he addresses one of the most important questions of our time, and does so with both admirable brevity (it’s only 111 not-very-big pages) and great erudition. One fruit of that erudition is evidence that smart people have been pondering the end-of-work problem for more than a century, and proposing solutions to the income side of it for half a century. Livingston is partial to the Family Assistance Plan proposed by Richard Nixon and passed by the House (but not the Senate) in 1970, a precursor to what is now referred to by its advocates in Silicon Valley and elsewhere as “universal basic income.”

An even bigger challenge, though, may be finding meaning and satisfaction in a world where work isn’t needed. Livingston’s response:

We don’t need to work. But if we want to survive, we have to love each other, as ourselves -- we have to be our brothers’ keepers.

Again, it’s a little highfalutin. I’m not even sure I know what it means. But if we can’t all have work, we definitely will need a lot of love to keep our society together.

  1. Friday is the official publication date, but you can already get the hardcover (although not the ebook) on Amazon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net