What worries you most, and/or excites you most, about the future of work and workers? Put another way: What will be the most consequential changes in the world of work and workers, and what anxieties and possibilities will they produce?
I was invited to respond to this question with a short essay for a column, “The Future of Work and Workers,” in Pacific Standard, a print and online magazine with a western perspective and a national readership. The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford asked the same question of business and union leaders, social scientists, technology thinkers, activists, and journalists from around the world, and columns were published every weekday from early August through November, 2015.
I’m happy to have contributed one of these essays, “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” published on November 3, 2015. A slightly revised version of it follows below.
Pacific Standard has archived these columns on its website here, and I highly recommend reading others as well. They give a good feel for the range of discussion and energetic debate this topic is generating these days.
Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value
“I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.” Marilyn Waring wrote this in the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. The contributors to this column could have written it now, in 2015.
I’m sure these columns were work for all of us, and I’m certain they’re of value. They raise questions that matter, offer a wide range of perspectives, identify problems, and suggest directions we might take to find answers, maybe even inspiring us to action. Yet payment was not part of the bargain.
The work of writers and journalists and poets is an essential public good and a fundamental part of civil society. In most cases we work for something more than a financial return. You might say it’s a “calling,” or a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, one we probably consider morally good.
When Marilyn Waring wrote her book, I was an artist and moved primarily in artists’ worlds. Observing us as a group, I wondered why we didn’t seem to fit into the economy, despite hard and persistent work and the value the art gave to so many. The artists around me made a distinction between the “jobs” that paid their bills and the “work” they felt compelled to do, perhaps you could say, their “calling” – that is, their paintings or poems or songs. Although some artists find a niche for their work that pays well, the percentage of income that most artists earn from their art work – that is, not from their jobs of teaching, waitressing, data entry, or bus driving – is nominal.
The distinction between jobs and work serves me still. Although I first saw this scenario among artists, many people do work that’s valuable to others but that goes unpaid or is paid poorly. It’s valuable work, but it’s a terrible job. Work that strengthens the common good – caring for the young and the old, teaching and sharing knowledge, making songs and poems, improving the environment, or engaging civically in other ways – seems to fall low on the pay scale or outside it altogether. And increasingly, inequality is making this worse. I’m reminded of another column in this series in which Lydia DePillis asks: “Why should a fast-food cook or a home health aide make less than a machine operator anyway?” Is the work somehow inherently less valuable?
Many of us who work in public service or for the common good care about our work. We often actually like working, especially when it matters in the lives of others. The problem is it’s hard to make a living this way.
Is it possible that we who labor for the common good can find common cause? Can we activate a collective will to be part of finding solutions that would let us and others dedicate ourselves to work with purpose and meaning, while also making a decent living – with health care, time off, and savings for when we can’t work?
We won’t find common cause in the workplace where workers have found it in the past. The fact is, many, if not most, of us are people who work in what’s increasingly called the “gig economy.” We’re scattered across distances as independent contractors, freelancers, volunteers, temporary or part-time workers. We don’t have a shared workplace in the conventional sense, though some of us make our own shared space as when we work in close proximity in coffee shops or co-working spaces or when artists come together to share a studio.
To find common ground we need starting points. The words and music, images and stories of poets and other artists can be our inspiration. We need sources of knowledge to spark ideas and to put words to what we’ve experienced. We also need places to gather and talk, both for the chance to share our experiences and what we’ve learned, and also for the kind of creativity and ideas that, in a conventional workplace, might come up around the water cooler.
As I look around me, I see these places being created. I hear of new conversations and salons, post-event discussions and roundtables more now than I have in all my decades. These conversations don’t emerge from specific workplaces, and they tend to be, like our work, dispersed and unconnected. They have names like Soup Salon, What’s Up?, Geeks Who Drink, Penny University, Civic Cocktails, Poetry Potluck, the World Dance Party, Pecha Kucha, Think and Drink, and lots more in Seattle alone. Many are started by young people who are active in digital and social media but who use the same tools to find each other in physical space
Speaking in Seattle in 2014 about the future of work, Andy Stern – former president of the Service Employees International Union – stressed the importance of aligning our economy with work that’s valuable and needed in society. For one thing, he suggested we find a way to provide a baseline income to people who do that valuable work. Since then, he’s taken this idea farther and has a new book coming out next month titled, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream. Two years ago, Stern’s message was, “We just don’t have a great set of new ideas!” Beyond his own efforts, though, I think his greatest hope back then still stands – that “a whole group of people will come up with a whole new set of ideas about how to do this.”
So where will the ideas come from?
As artists have learned through time, we will just have to do it ourselves, that is, all of us, laboring purposefully but often unpaid. Coming together in many configurations, across different industries and interests, asking questions, arguing, sharing what we know, being inspired to learn more, and beginning to connect with other groups doing the same is the way we can start to find the great new ideas.