To hell with jobs!!

Or how left parties should begin to rethink the full-employment idea.


My father always tells the same terrific anecdote from his childhood, and I think it epitomizes one of the most important aspects of this article.  Try to figure out: Spain, in the middle of the 60´s, a very small village in Galicia, northwestern region of the country. One of the neighbors is constantly bullied by the community after he decided to add a longer handle to his hoe, obtaining that way a better position to work less stooped. Something should be admired and an evidence of intelligence ended up making that poor man to gain the nickname of “O folgazán” (Galician term for lazy). My father always says he never understood why his neighbors treated so badly that poor man. Maybe my father was too young to realize how embedded was (and to a certain degree still is) the Judeo-Christian belief that stays jobs are better the harder they are.  That way, job makes us better men, fulfills us and becomes the most important part of us.

I don´t remember exactly when I fell into the trap, but I´m sure I haven´t been the only one. But yes, during years I´ve been one of those people who really think job dignifies, is necessary and makes us what we are. It took me several years to understand that those who usually tell us job dignifies us are rich people, nobility and clergy. Yep, exactly: those who have never lifted a finger.

No, work rarely dignifies: to the contrary: it´s degrading, alienating, monotonous and takes a large part of our lives. Few people are lucky enough to enjoy the job they do and, even those who do it end up getting bored or simply hoping they could do other thing. . I´m not trying to say I´m an unhappy worker: I love teaching, and working with teenagers is a privilege that keeps your mind young if you´re not afraid to empathize with them. But I must confess some days I´d rather stay home sleeping, not checking papers etc. but even if you enjoy your job, like me, it shouldn´t be the epicenter of your whole life. We tend to define ourselves as professionals and consumers and I really think it´s a horrible, tremendous mistake. To talk about the second part is not the matter of this article, so let´s try to focus our attention on the first point from now on.

During our whole life, but especially when we´re studying, is influenced by the aspiration of becoming someone relevant, a successful person, and success nowadays is sadly attached to money, and money is linked to our job, and so our education is not anymore developed to make us exceptional human beings, to empower our skills and aspirations. Our parents, when it comes to education, don´t worry about us becoming responsible citizens, well-educated and cultivated for the inherent pleasure of being it; no, today everything is focused on a future unpredictable job:  we study English, if we are not native speakers, because we need it, not because we want to read Shakespeare´s King Lear. And so, our future unpredictable job becomes the major reason for a lot of decisions we would take: for a good job we should even give up to our coherence. Logical consequence when our Job define ourselves more than our values.

En we do all these thing… for what? I guess I´m not revealing nothing new if I said that in the last 30 years competition for obtaining a job has multiplied exponentially, generating an extra pressure over our students. Nowadays, the vast majority of people enrolled in Universities or other educational programs suffer from a felling close to anxiety, especially if their aspirations include to be part of the Ivy League Universities´ World. William Deresiewicz explains magisterially this phenomenon in his book “Excellent Sheeps”, a brave testimony of the absolutely unnatural and close to the slavery rhythm that people who are already studying in the top universities of the world or want to do it are subjected nowadays and the scarce benefits obtained after all. Deresiewicz defines them as “living deads”, people with an absolutely astonishing multidisciplinary education that includes brilliant academic results, good sport performances and musical skills and a handful of so-called solidarity actions who actually don´t like what they are studying, are forced to practice sports or to play music and have no interest on supporting ONG or being solidary. People who never took a decision by themselves, following the path designed and paved by their parents and teachers without being asked about their aims, ambitions or desires. All in the name of the perfect desired job.

But then reality is stubborn, and a lot of people don´t know how to deal with it: they don´t imagine that job usually is to cope with not always fair bosses, to fight for a decent salary, etc. All that effort made throughout 20 years to realize that, after all, they are in the same position they started: with someone asking them for extraordinary efforts and sacrifices with promises no one know they would be or not accomplished. Everything done because we think our job defines us. If we don´t work, we are no one, not just because without job we couldn´t buy the things that a material society forces us to buy, but also because our job, our profession, is, somehow, us. It´s more us than our bodies, is more us that our thinking, is more us than ourselves.

Job has been something so important that, in the last decades full employment has been included in all the political programs, no matter the ideology they represent: everyone must have a job to be happy and fulfilled person. The outcome, though, has been barely the opposite: today is obliged to have a job to keep your lifestyle, your own personal aspirations, and for keeping and obtaining it we are willing to sacrifice our health, our interests, coherence or even our own offspring, putting the rearing of our children in professional hands to earn enough money to allow them to follow the same path we made, repeating the same scheme again and again.

But we know already full employment is a chimera: technology is allowing us to do more with less, and that means less job positions.

By 2013 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne form Oxford wrote a paper in which they assured that in the next years around the 47% of the current jobs were in risk to disappear. Merrill Lynch, the financier division of Bank of America says by 2025 the impact of the productivity will be between 14 and 33 trillions of dollars, and around 9 of them would come from the elimination of jobs.

According to The McKinsey Global Institute, a very prestigious think-thank, Artificial Intelligence and technological revolution are contributing to our society transformation “10 times faster and 300 times more powerful than the Industrial Revolution”.

However, no one wants to make a move in the political sphere, no one seems to be alarmed. When we think in the conservatives, it´s easy to see their reasons for being calmed: less employees mean more benefits, less job offers means more competition for the remaining positions, and therefore more willingness to accept salary cuts and loss of rights. It´s, indeed, the position of the left parties that surprises us the most: it´s maybe because for them work has traditionally constituted something to be proud of, the only product the proletariat could sell to earn a living, the one that Marx gave a halo of mysticism and divinity inspired by Hegel, who took it himself from the Lutheran morality that recognized work and effort as the only respectful ways to become rich without committing a sin.

And that is, no doubt, the problem: Work has a moral part we can´t identify ourselves without it:  work constitutes us, it is part of us. But the reality indicates that having a full time job that allows us to live under our current premises is almost an Utopia. So, what can we do? Should we, taking in consideration the data we have analyzed already , thinking that full employment is the only way to build a better society and promote equality? Is it possible to keep on thinking that the whole welfare state system could be supported just by the contributions and taxes from employment?

Well, it might be hard to believe that not only the “lefties” are thinking about that, but it´s true: by the end of the 60´s and the beginning of the 70´s Richard Nixon created his famous FAP Program (no, it wasn´t about masturbation, as the name could suggest) FAP stands for Family Assistance Plan, and it was a laboratory for testing new ideas coming from Milton Friedman and his School of Chicago. Nixon put two young cocky completely unknown men in charge of the project:  Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

F.A.P was never something serious in the Republicans´Agenda, in fact it was basically an economic compensation for families where the parents weren´t working, without even having in consideration their incomes. The curious part about it is that Nixon never called FAP by its real name: G.A.I (No, I promise I´m not joking). The G.A.I (Guaranteed Annual Income) was similar to the assumptions of the universal basic income and under Nixon´s point of view was to close to communism. The term was not far-fetched at all: to guarantee minimum annual incomes was closer to a right, and therefore something you can ask for it than a specific plan destined to solve a specific problem.

And what were Cheney´s and Rumsfeld´s roles in all this project? Well, their mission, as young henchmen of Nixon and the Republican Party was to check an hypothesis the Republican Party took already for granted: that providing a jobless family with economic resources will make it dependents to that help, lazy, beggars because for conservatives there´s nothing more liberal than assure work dignifies us and makes us to become relevant men and women.

Reality, tough, revealed to be different: subsidized family members who found a job not only didn´t reject the jobs, but also proved themselves more efficient, hard worker and engaged with the company they were working for, and overall more happy.  The alarm bells automatically rang in Republican Party´s headquarters: Every time I try to think about it I can´t avoid to recreate the Kubrick´s “Doctor Strangelove” scene, and imagine the premier members of the conservatives analyzing data in the dark, around a big table, completely scared: they have discovered that, apparently, make lives of your citizens easier not only doesn´t have negative outcomes on the employment sector, but stimulates and makes the economy to grow up.  After this revelation, and blinded like Paul in his path to Damascus, they buried the results. Wow. You can expect almost anything about Nixon, but being the Universal Basic Income´s father…

So maybe it´s time to rethink some aspects about our full employment policies and the way we redistribute the wealth today:

First of all: it doesn´t matter how hard we would try, the full employment idea is already a utopia, because full employment goes beyond the idea of having everyone working, but giving them jobs with reasonable salaries that allow them to live with a certain level of security and stability, granting pensions and minimum levels of public healthcare and education. Nowadays, the vast majority of people under 40 years old with a job is facing precariousness, with badly paid and unstable jobs, concatenating contracts with the same bad conditions that make thinking on future plans, like having a family, impossible.  Furthermore, if the solution to keep the public pension system is to increase the number of years you should wait or work to have access to, we are forcing elder people to work at the same time we block young people to have their opportunity, condemning a whole generation to live worse than their parents do. Such an achievement.

A second relevant aspect is to rethink the idea of add value or capital gain: in the past, a successful company benefited the country too: during its expansion, the company generated more jobs and therefore more opportunities. It´s been a long time since this idea was true: nowadays, the largest benefits of the companies come from the financial economy, and so the idea of a company that reinvests its benefits in the community that hosts it it´s a chimera, not just because probably if the company is successful enough it will move its business abroad, but also because a bigger capital doesn´t necessarily mean a bigger business and a bigger business doesn´t necessary mean more workers needed.  So this is the paradox: in the moment in history with the biggest benefits per worker, the workers don´t receive any extra reward, any compensation, any improvement for their effort.

So what can be done, instead? The simplest idea is to guess that, since technology is allowing the workers to be more productive nowadays, that should have a repercussion on his work conditions; better salaries our less hours working and so more free time for our personal education, recreation, taking care of our families, etc. . A laziness´ elegy, for some people, but an option to take in consideration in the future for me.

And how are we going to pay for it? Well, we shouldn´t forget that Adam Smith himself defined economy as circular, so every change we make has repercussions in the other factors. So we must suppose that having happy workers with stable and well paid jobs will make them to spend more money, reinforcing the economy and generating benefits in other companies, that will buy new things and hire more people, generation more benefits and stimulating a continuous movement of money that, soon or later, will come back to us. On the other hand, it´s necessary to tax more and better the biggest companies.

And now I know what you´re thinking: there´s always that fear of, by taxing the companies too much, to see how they move to another places, abandoning us. But I´m going to tell you a secret: they are abandoning us already. It´s time for new alternatives, new ways and new realities. We must be ambitious and pay attention to experiences are already taking part in places like Finland.

No, unfortunately, we can´t say no to jobs right now. It´s not necessary, by the way. We just need to change the way we interact with it and remember that, even if we love it, it´s far away of being us or a substantial part of us. No, work never dignifies. It could steal our coherence, our health, even our lives. Such a small benefit for that supposed dignity.