Relinquishing Work

A collective reduction in working hours could benefit all, including those in insecure jobs.

With the government constantly crowing that unemployment rates are at all-time lows, it becomes ever more vital to consider more nuanced metrics that describe the conditions of employment, not just the levels. Most of the discussion around our current crisis of work and its future is firmly grounded in the context of the ‘precariat’, of the working classes and of low-skilled jobs at risk of automation. From a socialist perspective, this is understandable—our limited resources compel us to focus on protecting those with the worst working conditions—the ‘lousy’ jobs—while diminishing or even disregarding the plight of those in ‘lovely’ jobs. However, this approach threatens any push to emancipate the working class as a whole, as it fails to recognise the inextricable link between these two types of jobs.

Andre Gorz attempts to explain this link, saying that maintaining poor working conditions in one area of the market is vital to ensuring the desirability of jobs in another, and that the relative desirability of certain jobs creates its own form of control over those workers.1 The struggle of one set of people to find secure work is not incidental to the fact that another set are working longer and longer hours; they are directly connected. That the latter group - software developers, management consultants, bankers, lawyers - appear to work these hours out of a seeming gratitude for having a job they can claim as part of their identity complicates the matter.

How Technology Shapes the Nature of Work

The basic mechanics of job disruption due to technology in moments of revolutionary industrial change are long established. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, knitting machines were able to mechanise the skill required to weave fabrics meaning that there was a lower barrier to entry to producing such materials. As a result, the supply of qualified personnel increased which, in turn, reduced the wage that someone manufacturing fabric could demand. For the classical political economists, Marx and Smith, the effect of this under capitalism was straightforward: though individuals may lose out, as more material could be produced with less skill, more jobs would be created.

The mass, affordable production of the computer had similar ramifications. Access to a computer effectively increased the numeracy, literacy and knowledge of all workers and allowed them to complete job-specific tasks that previously required greater levels of training or experience. Typing, accounting and calculation were all significantly de-skilled by software, but the software industry exploded. Here again, we see the twin effects of reducing the skill level required for many jobs, by codifying complex processes within technology, but also increasing the number of high-skilled jobs as a result of more people being employed to create said technology.

Adam Smith describes the industrial technology of his time as “machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many”2. This succinctly summarises the underlying role technology plays: that it reduces the requirement for labour and hence increases competition within the labour market, but at the same time improves productivity and, in the most optimistic scenario, facilitates the possibility of new industries and job opportunities. In 2018, however, it is difficult to ignore the emergence of a much more sinister effect. Described by Hannah Arendt as the conversion of ‘work’ into ‘labour’3, technology demands the routinisation of tasks: breaking down complex procedures into simpler and simpler operations.

Many commentators feel that we are in one of these revolutionary moments right now, driven by a much-enhanced ability to codify. The invention of the smartphone has put computing power in the hands of two-thirds of the UK population. Access to the vast amounts of data, combined with increasingly sophisticated algorithms, machine learning and enhanced overall computing power has caused another sea-change in technology’s impact on employment.

The effect of this on organising work are particularly visible in so-called ‘platform capitalism’. Both Uber and Deliveroo combine the work of software developers and systems engineers creating intelligent, beautiful software with a workforce of couriers who have been explicitly de-skilled by a tighter division of labour and by devaluing the tacit knowledge which allowed unskilled workers to compete in labour markets. This inevitably and purposefully makes individual employees more and more interchangeable, which, without the collective protections of trade unions, further weakens employees’ bargaining positions.

A seemingly innocent example of technology that provides a signpost to the full extent of this trajectory is the Wetherspoons mobile app, which allows customers to order and pay for their food and drinks within the app, to be delivered directly to their table. The app removes the requirement for (and the opportunity to practice and enjoy) the most basic social and language skills, reducing the jobs of bartender and waiter to literally the physical transportation of goods across a room. We must remember that the trend towards complete interchangeability and replaceability of employees is not a by-product of these technologies - it is their intention.

The Danger of Working Longer Hours

The uptake of software for labour management, as well as the refocusing of its aims, emphasises how the creation of technology functionally decreases labour security. A second, less obvious link is how the number of hours worked by mid- and high-level workers affect the entire jobs market.

Inevitably, the design of new technology requires specific skills and likely a higher level of education, and so offers software developers natural protections against the replaceability experienced by Deliveroo couriers. What is not inevitable is that the socialisation of these skills into forms of labour is not treated as a physical act in which labour is paid by the hour. Instead, it’s treated as a project-driven role in which employees work longer hours at no direct extra cost to their company. Most office-based, salaried roles will include contract clauses stating that employees are “expected to work such hours and days, as are necessary, to fulfil the duties and requirements” of their position.

As Gorz describes at length, a central tenet of the post-Fordist agreement is the hegemonic idea that in return for jobs that allow some autonomy and the opportunity to make creative decisions, one should be explicitly grateful and furthermore, take on this job as a core part of their identity. Yet in many ways, these types of roles require the sale of a more valuable aspect of one’s self. Rather than just your labour, your entire identity is commoditised. “No-one is quite as poor as the person who sees his relations to others or his language abilities reduced to the status of paid work”.4

This line of argument risks gross paternalism towards these workers. There is evidence that in many sectors, especially in more creative roles, people genuinely do enjoy their jobs enough to want to work 80-hour weeks, something which Gorz does not readily account for. However, where exploitation is present in these environments it seems to have been established in a quiet way, appearing as if by accident while whole teams were absorbed in their work. While it is difficult to say that enjoying your job is wrong on an individual basis, when this behaviour dominates industries it becomes problematic in a number of visible ways.

The problem with normalised presenteeism is that it removes the option for an employee to work their contracted hours and no more without jeopardising their career prospects relative to colleagues. Being judged on a metric which is outside of one’s contract - and in many cases outside of the law - is patently unfair to anyone, but it particularly penalises those who simply cannot stay late at the office every night. As examples, this means those with certain disabilities or those with caring duties, which for the foreseeable future is disproportionately women. In effect, it makes submerging yourself in your work a feature of labour itself, effectively representing a skill of its own. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that working longer hours has significant impacts on both physical and mental health, with people who work 55 hours per week or more having a 33% greater risk of stroke, a 13% greater risk of coronary heart disease, and being 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.

The Impact of Longer Hours on the Labour Market

These two issues emerge from examining certain jobs in isolation, but jobs do not exist in isolation. Perhaps less obviously, when society nurtures an environment in which employees are willing and allowed to go beyond what is legally required of them because they ‘love’ their job, it applies a downward pressure on the entire economy by artificially increasing the scarcity of jobs. When people work more hours than they are paid for, those jobs produce more work that they should in principle and so the required number of jobs is reduced.

The ‘lousy’ and ‘lovely’ jobs that come from new technology are not governed by the same market rules. The amount of work required to create the technology can grow without proportionally increasing the number of jobs; much of the savings made from moving work off the front line and into the office come not from inherent efficiency savings but from an increased keenness of employees, a willingness to work for free. This artificial scarcity not only keeps some people out of work but drives down the wages and the bargaining power of those that are in work. It short, it shifts power away from workers.

The weak negotiating position, poor working conditions and insecurity of much low-skilled work is a function of the level of competition for this work. In the cases of Uber and Deliveroo, the competition is increased by lowering the barriers to entry. This is achieved partly by de-skilling - removing the requirement for knowledge of the local area, say - but it is worsened by the ostensibly flexible conditions which make it accessible to a fresh pool of over-skilled workers who cannot find work matching their level of education. Figures indicate one in six UK employees being overqualified, with the number growing each year.

As we have seen, the pattern of technology is to de-skill some work but create new high-skilled work as result. However, on the one hand our employment culture minimises the number of jobs generated from this high-skilled work, whilst on the other, the pursuit of interchangeability of employees removes the opportunity for education to be of any benefit in the newly de-skilled jobs.

Though capitalism’s ability to support technological development and simultaneously ensure people are educated seems like a positive achievement, the labour relation is undermining these benefits. Capitalism educates, but blocks labour from utilising these skills, and indeed uses them to undermine others’ rights. Socialising labour as ‘lovely’, with long hours being the norm, means that in the simplest example, four mid-level employees delivering 50 hours a week on a 40-hour contract are, between them, obviating one position. This one opening created may not be appropriately filled by the typical UK jobseeker, but it may well be suitable for a currently over-qualified worker whose removal from that labour pool will decrease the level of competition and shift power back towards workers.

Building Broader Notions of Collectivism

To stop this artificial increase in the supply of labour, workers must collectively disarm and refuse to compete in gratitude and keenness by working more hours than they are paid for. Enjoying your work is not a skill to be exploited; it’s an aim of political struggle which we should try and achieve for all.

The truest expression of this would be a shift to the accepted standard of a 4-day week but even to limit ourselves to the de facto 5-day week would be a powerful transitional step. Employees who truly want to spend their time ‘working’ and find that to still be true once the hegemony has changed can surely find creative and productive ways to use the same skills outside of employment.

The more traditional notion of collectivism, manifested in the form of the trade union movement, must convince workers that by negotiating as a collective, they will, in the end, improve the conditions of the whole, which of course includes themselves. More often than not, this fight is for protection against exploitation, but also has a long history of demanding to each work less so that all may work.

This idea continues to be pertinent as we see new technologies and a fresh wave of automation. However, the last three decades have seen significant changes in the composition of the workforce, with mass-computerisation pulling huge numbers of people into desk-based jobs that sit outside of the expected view of a unionised workforce. To prevent this new class of worker acting as a release valve to the pressure applied by trade unions, we need collectivism at all levels of employment and between levels.

For many holders of ‘lovely jobs’, their extra hours are not recognised as exploitation. It means that any desire to lower hours and improve the working conditions for others requires solidarity with those in precarious work across society. Despite clear and mounting evidence of the damaging effect of long working hours on both mental and physical health, to many aspiring graduates it will seem a manageable risk for the sake of career progression. Many may be convinced of enjoying their time at work more than anything they could do outside of work. For some, that may be true. It is not obvious to recognise that this sacrifice they are prepared to make in order to further their own ends has a significant impact elsewhere in the jobs market.

By allowing a small number of employees to absorb large amounts of high-skilled work, exploitation is expanded and the benefits of education are missed. A collective pledge of labour to work the hours for which they are paid (and no more) would prevent the unrecognised exploitation of those employees. Crucially, though, by rejecting unpaid labour, it would also stop the unfair and discriminatory competition for those very jobs as well as create new openings. It is through collectivism that we can ensure more paths to career progression and improve the plight of workers at all levels.

  1. Andre Gorz, Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society (Polity, 1999). 

  2. Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford University Press, 1976). 

  3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958). 

  4. Gorz, Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, pp 38.