The Problem of Work

The problem of work is one of the central philosophical, ethical, legal, economic, cultural and political questions facing civilization today.

The problem is a simple and rather obvious one that many are ignoring: for the past two centuries the concept of work has been at the center of public, family and to some extent private life in much of the world. A person’s work defined who they were, what they did, how they lived, which candidates they voted for, how much money they had and their status in society.

How Technology Created the Problem of Work

Yet we now face a situation in which technological progress will greatly reduce the need for traditional work. There will soon be a situation in which here will be no work for a large segment of population, or work that does not fit the popular conception of the term.

An example of things to come can be seen in the United States where around seven million men of prime working age have left the labor force, according to the Brookings Institution. Brookings’ analysis of US Labor Department Data also shows that up to 12% of America’s men may not be working.


Part of the reason for this is technological progress particularly automation and robotics. Production of durable goods in the United States reached an all-time high in the United States in 2015, yet five million manufacturing jobs vanished between 2000 and 2015.

The Problem of Men and Work

America’s high rate of male unemployment persists even though its economy is very good at producing jobs; around 154,000 jobs were created in September 2015, ADP and Moody’s Analytics reported. Yet millions of men are apparently lounging on the couch; or hanging around at the corner bar griping about unemployment, rather than working.

A possible explanation is that the majority of the new jobs being created are in positions that many people may not regard as “men’s work.” The largest area of new job creation was professional and business services office jobs, which added 45,000 positions. The second area was franchise positions which includes, retail, restaurants, hotels, sales positions and business services; jobs widely regarded as “women’s work” which added 26,000 positions.

Only 15,000 jobs were added in trades, construction, transportation and constructions men’s work. Meanwhile, around 6,000 manufacturing positions disappeared and only 3,000 new jobs were created in goods-producing industries.


Work and the Economy

The employment figures clearly define the problem: we now have an economy that creates jobs that a large segment of the population does not regard as work.

Many people associate work with labor; they believe that people who sell, make decisions, spend their days in offices or work at computers are not working. Others view only certain varieties of labor as respectable; toiling in a factory or a coal mine is seen as noble and dignified, but stocking shelves at a grocery store is not-  even though all three positions may involve back-breaking repetitive labor.

A related problem is large numbers of people in our society are now making vast amounts of money and good livings from activities or positions that involve little or no traditional work. A good example of such an individual is Donald J. Trump; who has made a good living through marketing activities, self-promotion and real estate deals that involve almost no labor.

Another would be entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Elon Musk who have amassed large fortunes through their abilities to identify new opportunities in technology and business. Their wealth; and that of investors like Warren Buffett, is based on their ability to think not their capacity for “work.”


This creates a situation in which traditional labor is marginalized. It also creates a vast amount of jealousy; when the unemployed factory who cannot find what he regards as a “real job” sees the wealthy thinker driving past in his new Porsche.

Is it the End of Work?

The social, political and cultural fallout from this paradigm shift is going to be immense and ugly. What will those whose self-worth is based upon work do if it disappears or changes beyond recognition?

Some, particularly the young; will find new sources of self-worth this might include religious faith, patriotism, tribal or group identities real or imagined (see the Alt Right and Black Lives Matter for examples of this), activities like video gaming, hobbies, or sports fandom.

Others will retreat from society and seek to create alternatives perhaps low-tech or off the grid communities. An example of this is the growing craft movement, where artisans create what would normally be mass produced by hand (think craft beer) and sell it a high price.

Yet what happens to those who lack such outlets, people who do not play video games or make craft items? Where do they go when work disappears and more importantly how do they feed their families?

Robots work on automotive parts at a production facility of Austrian specialty steel maker Voestalpine in Linz, Austria September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader
Robots work on automotive parts at a production facility of Austrian specialty steel maker Voestalpine in Linz, Austria September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Will society end up supporting them through basic income, or perhaps support needless industries to generate jobs. For example a mine that produces coal that is simply dumped onto the ground and never burned to give miners a “job.” We already have a partial example of this in the U.S. prison system, which generates jobs by locking up harmless or nonviolent offenders.

Expect to see make-work jobs of all sorts proliferate in years ahead. Especially as candidates like Donald Trump win votes by promising to “protect” or bring back “jobs.” Or will the reaction be violent, perhaps some sort of luddite revolution in which workers smash computers and vandalize robots?

Civilization will survive the End of Work

The end of work; or work as we know it, will be bring dramatic and painful change, but it will not be the end of civilization. Civilization will survive because it is far older than our concept of work.

The modern concept of work only dates to the early or mid-19th century. Through much of human history, most thinkers, leaders, philosophers and religious leaders placed little or no value on what we call work.

The Greeks and Romans regarded labor as drudgery only fit for salves. The nobility of medieval Europe believed only war, the church and scholarship were noble pursuits. Labor to them was an ugly chore, best left to peasants. An attitude they shared with China’s nobility which regarded only scholarship and government service as noble pursuits. China’s mandarins even regarded military service as contemptible and fit only for peasants or barbarians.


Similar attitudes prevailed in most cultures throughout human history. There was some change in the Renaissance when Europe’s merchant classes elevated finance, law and entrepreneurship to the status of noble pursuits. They valued hard work but viewed those who worked with their hands as failures to be scorned rather than virtuous laborers. Only the self-made man that got rich was worthy of admiration, the person who swept the floors or labored in the mines was still a drudge without status or value.

It was only the 19th Century when entrepreneurs needed bodies to fill the factories; and politicians needed the vote of the working man, that the elevation of work to noble status began. The advent of labor unions which venerated workers as noble, popular culture which marketed entertainment to workers and mass manufacturing and retail which marketed goods to workers completed the process.

Our concept of work is an idea created by the social, economic cultural and political forces of the last two centuries rather than a reality. Unfortunately that concept may longer be relevant in our world, a reality that we will have to face and deal with if our civilization is to survive.