Acton Commentary

Hot Fries and the End of Work

“The end of work” means at least two different things. The phrase can mean work stops. You had a job, but now you don’t. But “the end of work” can also mean work’s purpose or goal. This distinction is an important one. Derek Thompson contemplates “A World Without Work” in his Atlantic (July/August) essay on our robotic future, but if we make his crystal ball a mirror, we’ll see that, in one sense, work has already ended, but, in another sense, work never should.

Let’s not kid ourselves: The phrase “the end of work” usually means work stops. That’s why Jeremy Rifkin used it for the title of his book, way back in 1995. (Rifkin’s The End of Work is a nice reminder that technophobe scaremongers with visions of dystopian futures have a long and illustrious pedigree.)

Well, if you worry work will cease, then don’t: For many Americans, it has already. Almost 95 million Americans are currently out of the labor force, a record number. They don’t need robots to live in a world without work.

But there’s another way to understand “the end of work,” and, in this sense—work’s purpose or goal—there can never be a world without work. We are made to work. We flourish when we do, and we suffer when we don’t.

Thompson offers three reasons why we should fear for the future of work. Marx had these fears, too.

First, there’s the triumph of capital over labor. Corporations that previously relied on human workers can rely instead on their property, the robots. Karl Marx feared robots avant la lettre, dreading “a central automation” coordinating the work of machines, “a mechanical monster . . . whose demon power . . . at length breaks out into the fast and furious whirl . . . .”

Second, Thompson rightly laments the lack of interest in work by 25 to 54 year-old men, about one in six of whom are unemployed or out of the workforce. Thompson says economists suspect technological change. Yet again we have echoes of Marx: “The whole form of the movement of modern industry depends, therefore, upon the constant transformation of a part of the labouring population into unemployed or half-employed hands.”

Finally, there’s the shrewdness of software. Citing an Oxford study, Thompson says many workers are living on borrowed time. If you can do it without thinking, the computer can, too—faster and more cheaply. Here’s how Marx puts it in his Grundrisse: The machine “possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it ….”

If robots take people’s jobs, Thompson believes, “it is almost certain that the country would have to embrace a radical new role for government.”

But the government isn’t the solution to a world without work; after all, it contributes to the problem. In 2013, Michael D. Tanner and Charles Hughes calculated that welfare pays more than minimum wage in 35 states, and more than $15 per hour in 13. Gary D. Alexander considers a hypothetical single mother of two, living in Pennsylvania. The family’s income is higher if mom makes $29,000 than it is if she makes $69,000 because of the differences in taxes and benefits.

The government willingly spends money so that people work less, or not at all. The unsurprising result? People work less, or not at all.

Now, if we think about work’s purpose or goal, we will realize that work can never end. Philosophically, rational agents have specific conditions for genuine flourishing, one of which is work. The sociological data certainly support the claims that we are made for work, and that we suffer when we don’t. In Jewish and Christian theology, work began in the Garden, not as a result of the Fall. We were made to work.

But Thompson quotes University of Iowa Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt, who doubts mindless jobs can contribute to human flourishing. Well, he’s wrong. First, even mindless jobs provide opportunities for what Arthur Brooks calls “earned success,” which he defines in The Battle as “the ability to create value honestly.”

Second, mindless jobs can change lives. “You do a good job keeping the French fries hot.” That single sentence was transformative for one of theologian Wayne Grudem’s future students: “He remembers that remark as a turning point in his life,” Grudem writes in his Poverty of Nations. “Suddenly he realized that he was able to do something well.”

Finally, mindless jobs are better than the alternative. “By and large,” Thompson notes—to his credit—“the jobless don’t spend their downtime socializing with friends or taking up new hobbies. Instead, they watch TV or sleep.”

Some jobs may seem mindless; watching television all day truly is. If we’re going to get millions of Americans off the couch, and back to work, we certainly will need a “radical new role for government.” But instead of tempting us to frustrate God’s design through inactivity, the government should put the right incentives in place to foster work, and the flourishing that comes with it.