The United States of Work

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By Miya Tokumitsu
The New Republic
April 18, 2017

Work no longer works. “You need to acquire more skills,” we tell young job seekers whose résumés at 22 are already longer than their parents’ were at 32. “Work will give you meaning,” we encourage people to tell themselves, so that they put in 60 hours or more per week on the job, removing them from other sources of meaning, such as daydreaming or social life. “Work will give you satisfaction,” we insist, even though it requires abiding by employers’ rules, and the unwritten rules of the market, for most of our waking hours. At the very least, work is supposed to be a means to earning an income. But if it’s possible to work full time and still live in poverty, what’s the point?

Even before the global financial crisis of 2008, it had become clear that if waged work is supposed to provide a measure of well-being and social structure, it has failed on its own terms. Real household wages in the United States have remained stagnant since the 1970s, even as the costs of university degrees and other credentials rise. Young people find an employment landscape defined by unpaid internships, temporary work, and low pay. The glut of degree-holding young workers has pushed many of them into the semi- or unskilled labor force, making prospects even narrower for non–degree holders. Entry-level wages for high school graduates have in fact fallen. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, these lost earnings will depress this generation’s wages for their entire working lives. Meanwhile, those at the very top—many of whom derive their wealth not from work, but from returns on capital—vacuum up an ever-greater share of prosperity.

Against this bleak landscape, a growing body of scholarship aims to overturn our culture’s deepest assumptions about how work confers wealth, meaning, and care throughout society. In Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It), Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, explores how the discipline of work has itself become a form of tyranny, documenting the expansive power that firms now wield over their employees in everything from how they dress to what they tweet. James Livingston, a historian at Rutgers, goes one step further in No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea. Instead of insisting on jobs for all or proposing that we hold employers to higher standards, Livingston argues, we should just scrap work altogether.

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