Work: ask and ye shall receive?

One more thought about the persistent centrality of “work” to the 21st century economy. Kind of obvious, but it feels worth jotting down, and we are after all just a couple of days from the old Labor Day-bor.

It occurs to me this morning that, maybe, in some sense, contemporary society gets the economy that it demands. Or at least, the economy we get is powerfully shaped by what economic structures people focus on most. One of which is, most definitely, jobs.

Job creation, job creators, job growth; job losses bad; jobs added good! Job reports. The problem of joblessness. Get a job! Jobs, jobs, jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs.

Now, compare. How much is said about, say, leisure as a policy priority?

There’s basically no comparison so far as I can tell. Leisure growth, leisure reports, the problem of leisure loss? You have to stretch even to demonstrate these as more than hypothetical concepts, and even then there’s nothing like the obsession with bountiful opportunities for paid work. The fact that “full employment” policies are, at present, largely the preserve of progressive politics seems to emphasize how completely “job scarcity” is taken for granted as the priority for economic policy making.

The closest that mainstream conversation comes to any consideration of leisure as a priority is probably occasional stories about “paid time off.” Even here, such real energy as can be found seems mostly focused on time off for child rearing, which is not really leisure. Recurrent articles about how Americans have meager vacation time (and often don’t even use all of it anyway) seem to cause not even a faint ripple in policy debates. Increasing attention to sequestration of economic growth in the one percent is, in theory, compatible with placing greater priority on free time, in that more money can in theory be exchanged for leisure time… But in practice, it seems that even liberal aspirations to “spread the wealth around a bit more” mainly envision more consumer goods purchases, rather than any substantial increase in self-directed time.

I presume that we have this consistent focus on work as priority for various reasons; in addition to those I’ve examined recently it perhaps feels “elitist” or “unAmerican” or simply a sign of weakness to suggest hey, I think we should focus on a system that is less about toiling for wages.

Is it really so strange, then, that such a system seems as remote a prospect as ever, even with automation capable of more and more and more? Or so implausible that, given this context, a determined focus on making work for everyone, as a policy goal, results in an economy that consists increasingly of make-work jobs that serve essentially political rather than materially productive ends?

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