Reconceptualizing Work

By Mike Koetting                   September 8, 2017      

This post addresses the third of my top three priorities for humanity—rethinking work.  Today’s post lays out some general thoughts and will be followed by posts elaborating some of the assertions made here.  Of all my posts so far, this has been the most difficult to write and the one where I feel most uncertain about what I have to say.  I think it’s important, but I am not sure I have gotten exactly where I want to go.  Why don’t any of you who might be inclined send me some thoughts?


The main problem with our conception of work, particularly in America, is that it is seen entirely through the old lenses of capitalism, which are too blurred for our current reality.  I think we need progressive lenses.

There are three reasons why the capitalistic approach to jobs is problematic.

First, “work” is used as justification for a winner-take-all economy.  Some jobs now simply pay too much relative to the rest of society.  This kind of imbalance is morally questionable and sooner or later leads to social discord.  From an economic perspective, the solution is simple:  put limits on how much any one person can pocket without paying high taxes.  Sure there are issues as to where and how you draw those lines and what mechanisms you use.  But most developed societies have created fairer, more inclusive societies without collapsing their economies.

Despite the fevered rhetoric of Republicans about “job creators”, reducing economic rewards is not a high risk strategy.  Even with higher taxes, most higher income people would continue doing what they do because “high status” jobs have many intrinsic rewards that will compel people to them even without such high stakes economic rewards.  Besides, these jobs will almost certainly continue to have some tangible rewards, just not as many.

The second problem in the way we have linked work and economic rewards is that the historic incentives to work are weakening in many parts of the economy because we have used the winner-take-all mentality as an excuse for keeping wages at the bottom too low.  People have noticed.  Large swaths of our society have become skeptical of the connection between hard work and “getting ahead.”  A 2016 study from the Pew Research Report showed that most Americans (65%) think the economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests”.  (The only group that did not hold this attitude, was Republicans with income over $100,000.)

To some extent, this kind of feeling is found in all societies:  people on the bottom feel abused.  But as mobility has declined—this is not just an impression but a statistical fact—the disenchantment has become more prevalent.  Whereas in previous generations, many people would work like dogs on the assumption that even if they didn’t get ahead, their kids would get a better shot.  But now as they look at how large the gaps have become and how unsure they feel about the kind of jobs that will be there in the near future, more people are wondering if this is worth the effort.  Especially since they are also finding the sledding in their own lives harder.  Many people who themselves, or their parents, once had jobs that allowed them to feel like they were a little ahead, are finding that no matter how hard they work, they are not able to get beyond just scraping by.

This is not new news.  But, for this discussion, the key point is that more people are giving up and simply slipping out of the workforce.  We are seeing the kind of widespread discouragement that has affected inner-city Black communities spreading into rural areas and communities that have been deserted by their manufacturing base.  One of the reasons the current unemployment rate is so low is the number of people no longer in the active workforce.  People who are outraged that the $15/hour minimum wage is destroying the market don’t seem to understand that it is in fact a last ditch effort to keep people in the market.  If workers feel that no matter how hard they work, they can’t get ahead, increasingly large numbers will drop out—either entirely or by developing work habits so casual as to be essentially useless.



“You first”

From a macro-economic perspective, and this is where the traditional paradigm starts to break down, the nature of the problem posed by these “job-slackers” is not clear.  Between automation and globalization, there are reasons to suspect we simply don’t need as many people doing many of the things that were historically necessary.

On the other hand, there is a real question as to what this does to the overall fabric of society.  Our first reaction is to think joblessness is a social catastrophe.  Looking at the carnage from “diseases of hopelessness” among the non-college educated whites supports the catastrophic nature.  But how much of that stems from the way we have historically defined what work granted full status in society?  If as a society we approached work differently, including the distribution of economic supports, could we make the fact that we need fewer workers in traditional kinds of jobs, not just less catastrophic, but in fact an opportunity?

Not that this is at all easy.  For openers, there is absolutely no reason to believe we are at—or even close to—a point where we don’t need current workers.  Hence, we need to be extremely careful.  For many reasons, we must employ all the people we can usefully employ, even if it means changing some parts of the existing paradigm.  There are all kind of things that need doing—we have massive infrastructural needs, particularly if one looks at infrastructure in the broadest sense of that term.

At the same time, we also need to be absolutely resolute that we cannot afford to trade off environmental concerns in the interests of “creating jobs.”  If we can’t preserve the environment, then all the short run gains are Pyrrhic victories.

Which gets to the third problem of seeing work solely through capitalist lenses:   The idea that society should be structured around creating jobs in the traditional for-profit industries has so constrained our thinking, we are painting ourselves into an environmental corner.  Making the provision of “jobs” a goal in itself without appropriate caveats is dangerous.  Any of the resource extraction jobs are easy whipping boys, but there are lots of other jobs that don’t lend themselves to sustainability.  Moreover we also need to be honest about what constitutes “environmental sustainability.”  There are jobs that by themselves have limited impact on the environment, but are linked to a web of processes that have material environmental consequences.  Many sales jobs, for instance, have themselves little impacts but the products being sold have impacts.

Figuring out what steps we need to take to mitigate environmental impacts would be the logical first step.  But, at least in America, we are handicapped by the preposterous partisan divide on whether there really are serious environmental threats.  Some of that is nothing more than business owners wanting to extract as much profit as possible.  But some is due to the deep, mental straight-jacket of thinking the owners of capital should define the kind of jobs that society needs.  Only if we can revise that thought process can we start to consider how many, and what kind of, jobs we can really afford environmentally and what kind would be most beneficial to society.  And only then can we begin to think through what the resulting work structure might look like.  Perhaps it will turn out we can create enough jobs without busting the environmental bank.  There are many needs that are environmentally neutral that are currently under-resourced, mostly in the public and quasi-public sector.  But environmental sustainability must be an absolute constraint, even if it means we have to back off the importance of having jobs.  Whatever the answers turn out to be, it’s a lead pipe cinch that these factors will change the nature of the job market in some very radical ways.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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