Less work and more leisure: Utopian visions and the future of work

Technological change has always provoked both utopian and dystopian visions of the future. Part 3 of Jill Eisen's series on the future of work looks at the promise of technology — how it can lead to a world that’s environmentally sustainable and one in which we have the time and the financial security to do what really matters to us.

The future of work has become one huge, nerve-wracking question mark. Technology was once believed to be our deliverance. We'd be working shorter hours, and about the only stress we'd have would be to figure out what to do with all our leisure time. But technology hasn't quite delivered on that promise. We're working longer hours, there are fewer jobs and and a lot less job security. In Part 3 of her series on the future of work, Jill Eisen looks at the promise of technology — and how it can lead to a better world.

This episode originally aired September 27, 2017.

Technological change has always provoked both utopian and dystopian visions of the future. The economist John Maynard Keynes seemed to invoke both when he published his short essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren in 1930. Although it was the depths of the great depression, Keynes predicted that new technologies would eventually revolutionize the lives of working people.

Keynes died in 1946. He never got to witness the computer revolution — which really took off in the 1960s. That was another period filled with both fear and optimism about technological change. I was a university student back then. The huge mainframe computer on campus occupied a room the size of an auditorium and it took three days to get the results of a problem. But even in those days people foresaw big changes ahead.

One of the big books on campus in the '60s was One Dimensional Man, by philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The book was a scathing critique of consumer capitalism. It also imagined a world where technology would free us from drudgery, and liberate us to reach our true potential. 

It was an enticing vision — and back then it seemed entirely possible. The economy was booming, labour unions were strong, the welfare state was expanding and the digital revolution was just taking off. 

But that was the 1960s. The '70s brought a recession, and the '80s brought the Thatcher/Reagan era. And we all know what happened to the vision of less work and more leisure time: it never happened. 

There's no going back to the golden age of capitalism of the 1950s and '60s. But our technologies give us the potential to create a far better future. One that's environmentally sustainable and one in which we have the time and financial security to do what really matters to us. 

There's of course no blueprint for a utopian future. Each country, city and community will have to blaze its own trail through democratic processes. It won't necessarily be easy, and it may involve years of political struggle.

But ultimately, if that's the kind of world we want for our children and grandchildren, that's what it would take. 
– Jill Eisen

Guests in the series:

  • Martin Ford, Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and author of Rise Of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.
  • Nick Srnicek, Lecturer at King's College in London, England. Author of Platform Capitalism and co-author of Inventing the Future.
  • Robert McChesney, Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, and co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.
  • Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalization at the University of Hertfordshire in London, England and author of Labour in the Global Digital Economy.
  • Guy Ryder, Director General of the International Labour Organization.
  • Chris Roberts, Director of Social and Economic Policy at the Canadian Labour Congress.
  • Sam Gindin, Former Research Director for the Canadian Auto Workers – now Unifor – and co-author of The Making of Global Capitalism.
  • Guy Standing, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and author of A Precariat Charter and Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happen.
  • Sunil Johal, Research Director at University of Toronto's Mowat Centre and co-author of the reports, Working Without A Net and Policy Making for The Sharing Economy.
  • Juliet Schor, Professor in the Sociology Department of Boston College and author of The Overworked American and True Wealth.
  • Evelyn Forget, Health Economist at the University of Manitoba. **

**The interview with Evelyn Forget is from the IDEAS episode The Illusion of Money (September 21, 2016) by Anik See.

Further reading:

There's a huge number of books published on this topic since 2015. Here are some of them that Jill Eisen found helpful.

  • Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford, Basic Books, 2015.
  • People Get Ready, Robert McChesney and John Nichols, Norton Books, 2016.
  • Labour in the Global Digital Economy, Ursula Huws, Monthly Review Press, 2014.
  • A Precariat Charter, Guy Standing, Bloomsbury, 2014.
  • Basic Income: A Guide For The Open-Minded, Yale University Press, 2017.
  • True Wealth, Juliet Schor, Penguin Books, 2011.
  • The Overworked American, Juliet Schor, Basic Books, 1993.
  • Inventing The Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, 2015.
  • Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek, Verso, 2016.
  • The Making of Global Capitalism, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, Verso, 2013.
  • Utopia For Realists, Rutger Bregman, Little Brown, 2014.
  • The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W.W. Norton &Company, 2016.
  • Machine Platform Crowd, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
  • The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin, Tarcher, 1996.
  • The Future We Want, Sarah Leonard & Bhaskar Sunkara, Metropolitan Books, 2016.
  • Cyber-Proletariat, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Between The Lines, 2015.
  • The Wealth of Humans, Ryan Avent, St. Martin's Press, 2016.
  • What's Yours is Mine, Tom Slee, Between The Lines, 2016.
  • Peers Inc, Robin Chase, Public Affairs, 2015.
  • Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes, 1930.
  • Policy Making for The Sharing Economy, Sunil Johal and Noah Zon, Mowat Centre, U of T, 2015.

Related websites:

This is the opening session of the International Labour Organization's Conference: The Future of Work We Want. Lord Robert Skidelsky's talk starting about 14 minutes in is excellent. 

A talk by Robert McChesney, co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, Part 1. 

A talk by John Nichols, co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against A Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, Part 2. 

**This episode was produced by Jill Eisen and Greg Kelly.