The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology's slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether. That's 600,000 people who would be out of work, and another 480,000 pensioners facing an adjustment in terms.
We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit -- at least in this case -- is e-mail. People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did four years ago, opting for electronic bill payment and other net-enabled means of communication over envelopes and stamps.
New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures -- from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.
We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.
And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs -- as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?
We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.
Our problem is not that we don't have enough stuff -- it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff. …
While this is certainly bad for workers and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?
Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.
The Guardian recently had a column noting that (for those with jobs), the trend towards a shorter working week was rapidly reversed by the arrival of the corporate Blackberry and the “tyranny of technology" - Four-day working week? Three cheers!. Personally I have no trouble ignoring work related email over the weekend, but apparently I’m unusual in that regard.
Oddly enough, the four-day week was once envisaged as the future. As Prime Minister in the 1950s, Winston Churchill saw a time when accelerating technological advancement would enable us to "give the working man what he's never had – four days' work and then three days' fun". This did not seem as improbable then, as it sounds now. After all, the weekend was a comparatively recent and expanding invention. "What's a weekend?" asked the (fictional) Edwardian Dowager Countess of Grantham quite plausibly in Downton Abbey, set at a time when Saturday mornings were still worked.
Thirty years ago, as a schoolboy, I spent a summer working as a warehouseman in the London district of Moorgate. We had a practice of doing no work after tea-break on a Friday afternoon, sitting around playing word-games until it was time to clock off. "You'll see," the foreman said to me. "Soon, everyone will get Friday afternoons off."
Now the warehouse is a bank with a fleet of chauffeured Mercedes parked outside at all hours. I'm sometimes nostalgic about my conversation with the foreman, as I am about the horse-drawn cart that still delivered beer from the nearby Chiswell Street brewery. So where did it all go wrong? Not only has the concept of the three-day weekend evaporated, but, for many, the two-day weekend is in jeopardy. A survey of 4,000 workers conducted by Premier Inn last November found we don't unwind, on average, until 12.38 on Saturday night; by 3.55 on Sunday afternoon we are beginning to worry about work again and 53% of us are "too tired" to enjoy the weekend fully. Nearly half check our work emails over the weekend. ...
My own research into the use of a BlackBerry, and other smartphones, took workers from all over the world in a variety of organisational sizes and contexts, and measured email behaviours. I compared those that used BlackBerry (or similar "smart" devices with "push" functionality) with those that checked email through other means (an older phone or a laptop). Those with BlackBerrys, or similar, had 13% higher email volumes but spent two and a half times as long as the second group checking their emails outside working hours.
It is as if simply owning a BlackBerry, or similar device, drives this compulsive checking behaviour. Of course, our brains are "wired" to seek out new information – in our ancestral environment information about a food source or the presence of an enemy might have made the difference between life and death. Today, it is more likely to be a mundane email about somebody losing their keys in the office. Yet the vibrating device, with its flashing light, stimulates our brain's dopamine system in much the same way as the flashing lights of a fruit machine do to a gambling addict. The weary jokes about "CrackBerry" and email "addiction" have more than a grain of truth. ...
While the way we work in the 21st century may be long on hours, but short on productivity, there are other ways in which the culture of frenetic activity actually works against us. We are not, after all, production workers like Churchill's "working man" of the 1950s. A far higher proportion of us – men and women – work with our brains doing tasks of cognitive complexity. Our job titles include words such as analysis, knowledge and intelligence; almost all of us are required to do some level of deep thinking.
And yet the unintended result of our busy way of working, straddling evenings and weekends, is that we have crowded out deep thinking. If, even in our time in the car, we are in thrall to the inbox, there is a risk that we simply do not give ourselves the space for problem-solving, reflection and creativity. How often have we stumbled upon the answer to a problem when doing something else altogether such as showering, gardening or taking a walk?
There have been a number of recent advances in the understanding of the way or brain works – or doesn't work. Most of the cognitively complex work we are required to do is highly dependent on the brain's pre-frontal cortex, and neuroscientists, such as Russell Poldrack of the University of Texas, have observed that too much dopamine – perhaps the result of over-stimulation from our flashing BlackBerrys – can cause the functioning of the cortex to falter, leaving us frazzled, forgetful and finding it difficult to focus.
Is it any wonder that attention deficit disorder specialists are observing that we can invoke the symptoms of this malaise simply by the way we work? Worse still, for those in senior positions, the frenetic way we work can affect our leadership capabilities. As we fire from the hip as each email arrives, we risk losing the art of delegation – thereby taking yet more work on our own shoulders – but also start to slip on many of the other pre-frontal cortex functions such as the treatment of people. We lose our sense of decency and courtesy as our 24/7 way of working leads to irascibility.
It has long been recognised among occupational psychologists and physicians that proper rest and recovery is important, not just for long-term health and happiness but also for resilience at work, productivity and performance. The sad truth is, most of us are simply too busy to wake up to the facts.
So while we are further than ever from enjoying a four-day week as a permanent fixture in the calendar, the period about to unfurl before us offers us an opportunity to feel what it might be like. So treat this bounty of bank holidays as a chance to unplug from work and allow time for recovery, reflection and deep thinking. Who knows – we may end up reclaiming the two-day weekend. ...
A short history of shorter working
c.890 King Alfred the Great reputedly proclaims: "Eight hours' work, eight hours' sleep, eight hours' play, make a just and healthy day."
1496 Henry VII orders a 14-hour work day for field labourers from March to September (5am-dusk in winter).
1815 Foundation of the Ten Hours Movement, which aims to restrict hours for industrial workers.
1847 Women and children granted 10-hour working day, with a max of 60 hours a week, incorporating a shorter working day on Saturdays.
c.1900 Concept of two-day weekend forms in US as labour movements try to help Jewish workers taking Saturday instead of Sunday as the sabbath.
1926 US car manufacturer Henry Ford (pictured left) shuts down factories on both Saturday and Sunday while paying staff the same rate as before. "The country is ready for the five-day week," he announces.
1953 Winston Churchill foresees end of the Cold War heralding increased production and more leisure time for workers. "A four-day week, then three days' fun," he predicts.
1974 Government introduces three-day week to conserve electricity, in short supply due to miners strikes.
2008 Onset of credit crunch forces many UK manufacturing firms to restrict workers to four-day weeks.
2010 The New Economic Foundation claims a 21-hour working week would reduce power consumption and increase productivity.