The future of work

For a few years, I’ve been thinking about the problem of work in the West. It’s been apparent at least since Bertrand Russell’s lifetime that, as globalization and more specifically automation came to be employed in the workforce, there’d be less of it to go around for the average first-world laborer (yes, I know that terminology is out of date). As that happens, the cost of labor goes lower, and the problem of a living wage looms for more and more people.

It’s become much more apparent in the last few years, with the stagnation of incomes, the massive increase in part-time jobs, the introduction of automation into what were traditionally white-collar domains like law, accounting, research.

This should be a cause for celebration. We’re on a trajectory toward a world where menial labor is becoming a choice, not a necessity for staying alive, where we get to choose to spend our time doing meaningful work that imbues our lives with joy (sorry for the utopian hyperbole). But we still have the fundamental problem: in our society, remuneration for labor is how you stay alive. No work, no pay. So for every advance toward the mindless-labor-free world, there’s huge and justified pushback from those whom it should benefit but who would be deprived of the income required for a decent standard of living.

The problem is the link between the income required to live, and the work required to maintain that income. So long as the Protestant work ethic is a major driver in our society, it will not be feasible to just hand out money to those unwilling to work. Passing minimum wage laws are a stopgap that arguably create as many problems as they solve. Welfare systems are subject to abuse, and engender resentment by those upstanding citizens who support the idea of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

Just the other day, though, I realized that we as a society went through this once already. The transition from wage to salary for the professional classes is exactly the decoupling of work from income that I’m thinking of. Wages are paid for a certain amount of time spent doing a minimal quality of work, where the unit of value is the work-hour. Salaries are paid based on the job to be done, with the unit of pay the job to be performed. There’s a notorious elasticity in the amount of time a worker spends ‘at work’ when they’re salaried; the expectation is that the job will be done. In contrast, wage earners are meticulous about the amount of time they spend at work, and when (overtime, holidays, …) because that’s the unit of value in their work life.

Salaried employees negotiate income based on how much they need to live. Salaries can be a measure of how well someone does at their job. There is a much looser connection between the ‘amount’ of work in a salaried position and the income earned than the connection in a wage position.

We need to find a mechanism like this for the coming world of work, where income and labor are much less directly connected. That way, we can all share in the riches of that world without consigning those who aren’t CEOs or come from wealthy families to just scraping by.

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