Low/no work world: why we work and what we might do instead

Now is the time to re-think not only why we work, but how we assign meaning, capital and judgment in a potentially “work”-free future

We’re overworked, under-employed and over-consuming. Lacking the time to live sustainably yet terrified that the march of robots will render us obsolete, now is the time to re-think not only why we work, but how we assign meaning, capital and judgment in a potentially “work”-free future.

On 12 July 2016, the CIPD and Jericho Chambers co-hosted a conversation — under The Chatham House Rule — engaging a group1 of 15 academics, key media, business leaders, HRDs and politicians to explore the possible low/no work future. The following is a write-up of the main themes, questions and ideas that were raised.

Work and sustainability

The current fear of mass unemployment is wide-spread and pervasive, but how worried should we really be about the march of the robots? It is estimated that somewhere between 10– 47% of UK jobs are at risk of automation. A key word here is “risk”. These jobs might be replaced by robots — but equally they might not. Even if they are, we could show “solidarity” towards human jobs and attempt to resist automation, but realistically, would we want to pit professions against the future?

In the past, jobs have been destroyed at pace but also created. Of the jobs that existed in the 1980s, many are no longer around today, yet employment in the UK is currently at an all-time high. For example, there are currently more people in the UK space industry than the skiing industry. Uber drivers may be terrified of driverless cars — yet they are the ones who are threatening to put the black cabbie out of work. Something currently unimaginable might threaten automation in 20 years’ time.

Either way, we can’t hold back a tide and for many, work is likely to become more precarious and less secure. We may not stop working completely but we are possibly going to be working less — maybe much less. If this change is coming, we need to look at how best to reap its benefits. Instead of fighting against automation we could see it as a liberation from certain types of work or from draconian hours and working conditions.

Case for less work

In the 1930s, Keynes predicted we would be working a 15-hour week by the start of the 21st century. As we know, the current reality is quite different but Keynes was right about the direction of travel. On average, we are working less hours than ever before (around 38 hours per week compared to 57 hours in 1870).

The “21 hours” report (2010), championed a slow and steady move to a shorter week (around 30 hours initially). The concept was identified as being good for society, the environment, the economy, work-life-balance, as well as civic and social life.

Shorter working hours manages unemployment, allows more time for citizenship, removes the need for unsustainable “convenience” consumer goods and travel, and fosters a more sustainable economy (one without unchecked growth).

Suffering and virtue

When faced with the prospect of a 100-year life and a retirement age of 70, people very quickly realise they cannot (and do not want to) continue working at the current frantic levels. But culturally, are we prepared to accept a short working week? One of the main challenges to a low/no work future comes from society’s deeply embedded ascetic ideal. We tend to assume there is something virtuous about suffering and toiling through a 50-hour week — and that those who choose not to are lazy or inadequate in some way.

Yet there is a huge gap between what we say, do and think. Many high-power, full-time working mothers claim (off-the-record) that they are miserable, and CEOs who choose to work part-time feel unable to come clean in front of their shareholders.

Power and collectivism

In recent years, we’ve seen the quality of work diminish in terms of satisfaction. Many people have very little influence over their jobs and feel powerless at the hands of their employers. While some people can’t get away from work, others are waiting by the phone for scraps.

Research shows that millennials want jobs with purpose, portfolio careers, and long weekends rather than sabbaticals — building sustainability into their lives from the start. But recruiters are reluctant to hire part-timers (especially at higher levels) leading to the feeling that one must trade flexibility for progression. The Timewise Power Part Time List aims to remove the stigma but more people need to step forward to legitimise and celebrate a life not spent constantly working.

Our increasingly fragmented and solitary lives at work (with more and more people working independently) exacerbates this imbalance of power. The more individualised we are as a society, the less power we command to affect change. To co-create a meaningful working life we need to shift from individualism to collectivism.

Money vs meaning

The issue of pay raises a number of challenges. We currently distribute capital according to labour but how can this continue if we no longer work or if we work reduced hours? Most workers could not survive on anything less than their full salary so the success of a low-work movement would rely heavily on higher pay or universal basic income (see also the article “Your services are no longer required“).

However, the real issue at the heart of the debate isn’t money — it’s meaning. One comment that was made was that winning the lottery would be a nightmare as there would be no excuse to keep a beloved job. For good or ill, what we do tends to define us. It gives purpose and direction.

The conversation highlighted a number of other competing forces in a time of huge fragility: shareholder value and human business; London and the rest of the UK; Dhaka (globalisation) and Daventry (economic nationalism). Openly addressing and resolving these polarities opens up huge opportunities but we are equally in danger of knee-jerk reactions brought on by panic. A new narrative is emerging which is less about work as “hard work” or presenteeism, but as a meaningful activity. Work is like Voltaire’s God — if it didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. Now is the chance to reinvent work, it’s up to us to determine what it looks like.

1 Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy, New Economics Foundation; Caroline Lucas MP; Christine Armstrong, Co-Founder, Jericho Chambers; Colin Wilson, CEO, Cushman & Wakefield; Dan Kieran, Co-Founder and CEO, Unbound; Janvi Patel, Executive Chairwoman & Founder, Halebury; John Gibson, Strategy Projects, 10 Downing Street; Karen Mattison, Joint CEO, Timewise; Kevin Rowan, Head of Organisation and Services Department, TUC; Neal Lawson, Chair, Compass; Peter Brennan, Vice President, Hotel Operations and Performance Support — Europe, InterContinental Hotels Group; Peter Cheese, Chief Executive, CIPD; Professor Lynda Gratton, Organisational Theorist, London Business School; Robert Phillips, Co-Founder, Jericho Chambers; Zoe Williams, Columnist, Guardian

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