Ross Douthat, Obama’s Artful Anguish
Ross Douthat sees a world just ahead where blue collar work is steadily on the decline:
[…] the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.
Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms — on the left as the economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.
But it’s worth linking today’s trends to the older dream of a post-work utopia, because there are ways in which the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.
Douthat’s arguments are macro-economic, and conveniently blur the details, particularly the micro-economic troubles of specific people who had assumed they’d have continued employment when they joined the workforce in the past, or as the graduate high school, today. The social safety net that a prosperous society could — in principle — provide is often absent. As a result, people scramble to make ends meet with multiple part-time jobs, at the mercy of employers who are optimizing for margins, not employee convenience.
So in the final analysis, his argument boils down to a ‘maybe someday’ scenario. Yes, we may have a future where people that might have once worked 40 hours a week on an assembly line, cleaning floors in office buildings, or pumping gas are instead working 20 hours a week at a community center in exchange for their basic needs. But today, people who run through their savings and unemployment benefits while trying to find work can hit a wall, and afterward, their finances and options might be permanently damaged.
Douthat makes this seem like the workless are opting out of work, philosophically:
There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?
This is the subtlest form of blaming the victim: choosing one aspect of victimhood that seems positive, and arguing that those who comment on the sad state of the victim are trying to deny them that positive aspect. So if I make the case that in a healthy and supportive society, all those that want work should be able to find it, Douthat wonders why I would deny the workless the joy of having no boss.