Note: This article follows on to The Missing Automation Crisis
It may be hard for younger people to imagine, but in the mid twentieth century there was in many circles a presumption that liberalism was the ideology of the future, and that in particular the ideas of fundamentalists were in remission. Nobody was taking the objectivists too seriously, and the concept of an unholy objectivist/fundamentalist/chamber of commerce alliance calling itself “conservative” and pretending to a cohesive worldview was pretty much unimaginable. An alliance between academics and labor seemed a far more natural heir to dominance in a technocratic and generous civilization.
Lyndon Johnson’s slogan of a “Great Society” is barely remembered, its meaning lost under the avalanche of “conservative” obfuscation. It really was a pity about that damned war. Johnson narrowly missed greatness.
But the Viet Nam fiasco war wasn’t on the horizon yet, and what became the culture wars hadn’t gone past the jukebox, in the context in which the concern about an employment crisis due to “Automation” was first raised, and as a matter of urgency. Thus, once Wiener got it into the heads of Serious People his ownership of the problem faded. The general idea was that the general prosperity would in some way be rebated to the general population, and that there would be no great economic consequence to the unemployment once it arose in earnest. Thus the Automation Crisis morphed into the Leisure Crisis. Symposia were held, and academic essays written: How were we to deal with our lives now that even those of modest means would have ample free time, all the work being done by machines?
Yet, not only did the expected decline in employment fail to arrive. The cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s thoroughly changed expectations in many aspects of modern life, but none so strongly as the role separation of males and females.
You can look back at the hippie literature that pushed this change, and it’s often regarded as perhaps the greatest success of the cultural revolution. Even the most conservative culture warriors nowadays accept women as equals. Should things go especially badly, after all, we may spend a great deal of time in the next few years contemplating Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, hardly the vanguard of one-world mysticism and rejection of materialism.
But when you look at what they (okay, okay, we) were saying, it wasn’t ONLY that women should be accepted as equals in the workplace. It was ALSO that men should be accepted as equals in society-building, child-rearing, and self-expression. And we were hardly a work-oriented bunch. The idea was EXPLICITLY about job-sharing. We would all soon be blissfully half-time.
And this expectation, on its face, makes sense. Double the work force, and EVEN WITHOUT THE MACHINES the amount of work per head would be halved. Sure, there would still be driven people being brain surgeons and all, but the average person would be working substantially less.
What was the outcome?
Contrary to all expectations, Americans are working harder than ever. Juliet Schor presents the astonishing news that over the past twenty years our working hours have increased by the equivalent of one month per year a dramatic spurt that has hit everybody: men and women, professionals as well as low-paid workers.
Well, there’s the “America’s favorite fries” argument that McDonald’s makes. Since, as a matter of free choice, Americans eat more McDonald’s fries than any others by a large margin, they must be everybody’s preference. (I would argue that McDonald’s fries are the favorite of few individuals over the age of 4. But very few people never eat them. And nobody is forcing the matter.
The ideology of Polyannism will claim that Americans make a free choice to work hard so they must want to. And this is surely true of some people. But others work many more hours than they would prefer.
And once we have most people choosing to do things they wouldn’t choose to do that we have a very interesting economic quandary. And one that reflects very oddly on one of the few remaining points of bipartisan agreement: the more employment, the better.
Really? Or perhaps not? What happened to the Leisure Society?