Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Labor and Social Links

I've been working intensively on another project in the last few weeks, so blogging has been lighter here. There's a build-up of things I want to blog about and say.

I just wanted to note this column by Ross Douhat in the NYT about the decline of work, however. The transformation of work is a major theme on this blog.

If the utopia of a world without work is being achieved, Douhat says, it isn't because the upper classes can afford it and it will gradually spread down to laborers and high school dropouts. It's happening from the bottom up.

Yet the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.

The problem with this, he says, isn't so much income or survival. People are not starving. It's lack of social integration. It's part of the wider trend of the decline of community and social links.

One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

The answer is yes — but mostly because the decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.

It's a problem of flourishing.

In a sense, the old utopians were prescient: we’ve gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before.

But human flourishing is another matter. And it’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work.

This is an interesting take. And of course I agree that the prime question is how our institutions contribute to human flourishing, so he is going in the right direction.

But he doesn't go far enough, perhaps. There is a difference between the labor market, which is going to keep getting more productive, and a sense of vocation.

What is clearly at issue is motivation and purpose, and how you retain and encourage and cultivate them when the economy is changing. Our civil discourse has become very bad at providing that, as I've often argued , such as here.