From the snappy work-focused slogans of politicians (“jobs and growth”, anyone?), to conversations about a universal basic income and concerns about the rise of AI and robotics, the spectre of jobs and the future of work occupies a central position in current conversations and concerns.
Robots and AI have moved out of the futuristic pages of science fiction, transforming the 21st century in ways that are yet to be fully realised, invoking fear about the future of work. Harvard University’s Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology Jean Comaroff, points out that this fear centres on concerns about the need for human agents in work. “The concern about ‘the end of work’ comes also from a lively fear that wealth and value are increasingly produced, in our times, by means other than human labour – by AI or robots or finance capital, i.e. by means that render human labour redundant,” she says.
As Jean clarifies, this idealisation of ‘good jobs that pay well’ as the primary mode of work is historically unfounded. The modern ‘gig economy’, it turns out, has a much longer history. “Despite the ideal of dignified jobs that support viable livelihoods, more people have always been wageless than waged, especially when one takes in domestic production, colonial economies, and racialised regimes of labour like slavery, in both its classic and more recent forms,” Jean says.
New or not, the model of work exemplified in the modern ‘gig economy’ has, and has always had, very real consequences for those who occupy the more prevalent unwaged jobs or waged jobs that don’t support livelihoods. “The issue here,” says Jean “is that without a radical restructuring of total national economies in terms of taxation and redistribution, it is quite unclear how those without work will live and eat. Those in the informal economy tend to work long hours at multiple tasks to evade precarity.”
For some, moving away from the idealised ‘good jobs’ model of mass employment springs to life a number of possibilities for a different kind of future of work, remarks Jean. “From imagining a three-day week for all workers, to more radically redistributive models of political economy, to the kind of slower, more local, more low-tech, recyclable existence …these imagined options speak of the possibilities that forced joblessness could serve to reverse experiences of alienation and disconnection that many see as integral to ever high-tech, maximising, commodified styles of life. They dream of having more time and energy to devoted to sociality, mutuality, and to non-utilitarian artistic and philosophical pursuits.”
Join us for the free public lecture ‘After Labour: A World Without Work?’ to hear more on the future of work from Harvard University’s Professor Jean Comaroff.
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