The pandemic, work, and wages

by Emrys Westacott

Numerous reports have been compiled and articles written about the way that the covid pandemic has affected, or will affect, work: the way people do it, and their attitude towards it. But although certain general trends can be identified–e.g. the percentage of meetings held online rather than face-to-face has, naturally enough increased–people’s attitudes towards work and the workplace haven’t been affected in a uniform way.

Many of those who have been able to work more from home relish the advantages of doing so. They avoid time-consuming and often stressful commutes; they are able to integrate the business of ordinary living–going to the dentist, picking up a prescription, working when the kids are off school, etc.–with getting their work done. Hours can be more flexible, and the same goes for the dress code.

For others, though, working from home all the time has many drawbacks. Commuting may have a bad reputation, but for a surprising number of people it can be positively enjoyable. A Canadian study found that where the commute take less than 30 minutes more than 50% of respondents said that they enjoy their commute. And among people who cycle to work, almost a fifth said that the commute was the best part of their day.[1]

The flexibility and freedom that working from home allows is undeniably a plus. But for some, the stricter routine provided by a requirement to show up at the workplace by a certain time brings order to the day and to the use of one’s time.

Most of all, though, physical workplaces serve an important social function. Just as it is good for our physical and mental health to to get outside every day and to be in regular touch with the natural world, so it is beneficial for most of us to meet and interact with other people regularly. The relationships in question may not be the most important ones in our lives: those with our fellow workers often are not. The conversations we have don’t have to be especially intimate or stimulating. But they can still be meaningful: occasions for sorting out a problem, cracking a joke, complaining about something or someone, giving or taking advice, offering or receiving a compliment. Read more »

Why aren’t people paid according to their social contribution?

by Emrys Westacott

What should we do with our leisure? In his Politics, Aristotle identifies this as a fundamental philosophical question. Leisure, here, means freedom from necessary labor. If we have to spend much of our time working, or recuperating in order to work more, the question hardly arises. But if we are free from the yoke of necessity, how we answer the question will say much about our conception of the good life for a human being.

It is to be hoped that the question will one day become the primary question confronting humanity. This hope rests on the prospect of a world in which technological progress has advanced to such a degree that no one needs to work more than a few hours per week in order to enjoy a reasonably comfortable and secure existence. Before the industrial revolution such an idea was a mere fantasy; but given the rate of technological progress over the past two hundred years–and particularly in light of the recent digital revolution and the advent of what has been called “the second machine age”–the prospect of a much more leisurely life for those who want it is at least conceivable.

The fifteen-hour work week envisaged by John Maynard Keynes in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930) is hardly just around the corner, though. One problem, of course, is that there are some kinds of work that are not easily automated. Consider home care for the disabled, sick, and elderly. Machines are capable of cognitive tasks far beyond the ability of humans, yet many of the basic manual tasks caregivers perform are still very difficult for robots to replicate. Beyond that, though, caregivers also provide human contact and companionship. For machines to offer an adequate substitute for this takes us well into the realm of science fiction (which is not say into the realm of impossibility).

The deeper problem, though, is political rather than technological. Read more »