Donald Andrew Henson II

What Happens to the Protestant Work Ethic When There’s No Work?

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm


It is a rare opportunity that a working stiff like me gets to take a few weeks off from work for no particular reason – not sick or laid off, haven’t received a financial windfall or a lottery payout (I wish!), nor have I suddenly become a member of the moneyed leisure class. I’ve simply finished up a contract with my previous employer, and so far am not overly excited about any of the others I’ve been offered. So, I’ve temporarily absconded to SE Asia where costs are low enough that I can do absolutely nothing, on the cheap while job hunting. (If you’re interested, I’ll soon be posting my travel adventures at

When not engaged in the monotonous tasks of writing cover letters and doing Skype interviews, I’ve been catching up on all the books, articles, and TED talks I didn’t have time to indulge in when working. I find that a lot of what I’m reading/listening to has to do with the decline of the American Dream, and the precarious future in store for those of us who need to work for a living.

Of course, whenever a person is out of work, even by choice, there’s at least a tiny voice in the back of his head telling him he’ll never work again. Go a few days without even so much as an automated response to your inquiries, and that voice becomes decidedly louder. Perhaps that’s where my interest in this topic is coming from.

But I think I’ve also sought out information of this sort because of the recent elections in the US; it seems a man laughably/frighteningly unequal to to the task of being president was put in that office because of the great anxiety people have about the disappearance of quality work. There’s a common belief, it seems, that the grand old industrial economy of yore will come roaring back, once the demons of over-regulation, over-taxation, illegal immigration, and poorly-negotiated trade deals are exorcised.

However, I’m finding that the truth of the matter is that kind of economy is disappearing forever – not because the Chinese or illegals are doing them on the cheap, but because technology is making them obsolete.

Elon Musk thinks we could easily be looking at 15% unemployment in 10 years’ time, due to new technologies. Two Oxford scholars say that 47% of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by algorithms in the next 20 years. A recent Business Insider article predicts that automation will create unemployment rates of 50-75% worldwide in the coming years. In some European countries, unemployment of twenty-somethings already stands at 20%. And it’s not because they picked the wrong majors – those much-vaunted STEM degrees provide the kinds of skills that are MOST likely to be replicated by a computer in the very near future.

Yuval Noah Harari writes in ‘The rise of the useless class’ that “99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.” Ironically, our over-specialization over the past decades has made it much easier for us to be replaced by a machine or algorithm.

In a way, this is basically what happened 300-500 years ago, during the English enclosures. For centuries, there had been common areas of land that were reserved for public welfare. The landed gentry controlled the vast majority of real estate, but peasants were allowed to hold back a portion of their agricultural produce, and were free to hunt or cultivate crops in these common areas in order to ensure their survival. However, by the 1500s, land owners were finding they could make better returns from large scale agriculture, so they began to purchase common areas, enclose small holdings into larger plantations, and to remove unnecessary laborers from their land. For centuries the labor of small farmers had been required; when no longer needed, thousands were removed from the land with little or no consideration as to how they might survive.

Wikipedia says, “Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit.” I hardly see how it can be argued any other way – and we see a similar government takeover by the wealthy elite happening in the US today.

Fortunately, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were just underway and, although I’m sure there were instances of deprivation and hunger, perhaps starvation, the towns and cities where cottage industries were starting up were able for the most part to absorb that labor. Historians seem to be divided as to whether this excess labor allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur – or whether it was just lucky timing for the displaced farmers. In any event – people were able to find work, and were able to continue to exchange their labor for the necessities of life.

But what if they hadn’t?  What if those deprived of a livelihood suddenly had nowhere to go?  What if the financial and technological changes of that century had simply created a surplus of half of the labor force, with millions of people finding there was no market for their skills?

Coming back to the 21st century, consider a not-so-hypothetical situation. Imagine an incredibly powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is developed in the next couple of years, a breakthrough so dramatic that by say 2025, it could replace the jobs that 95% of us currently do. All of the goods and services we currently enjoy in the West could be provided to everyone in the world, with dramatically improved efficiency and reduced cost. Natural resources would still exploited, cars and iPhones still assembled, food still produced and packaged, beer still brewed and whisky distilled. it’s just that the services of you and me – and six billion other people – are no longer be required.

Let’s assume that the owners of such a technology just happened to be the top 1% that control the vast majority of capital in the world already – safe enough assumption. Perhaps another 4% would be needed in some kind of maintenance or management role. What would we do with everyone else?

What does this have to do with secularism, you might ask? Well, as the title suggests, there would have to be changes in our assumptions, especially the Protestant work ethic and all that idea entails – God helps those whose help themselves, those who don’t work don’t eat, etc. Think about what effect that would have on our current assumptions about work, labor, respect, compensation, etc. Both conservatives and liberals tend to think of what we deserve based on our labor. Even as I write this, GOP legislators are hoping to insert a work requirement into ACHA – you wouldn’t be eligible for health insurance without working.

How would these assumptions about contributing to society (the topic of my next post) be turned upside down?  When nobody’s work is needed – and work is no longer a commodity – what then do people deserve?

What would we do with all those unemployed – unemployable – people?

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