We’re producing stuff faster and cheaper than ever. Why do we still spend so much time at work?

Now that technology lets us fulfil our basic needs without having to work as many hours as before, you’d think we’d all end up working less. Instead, we’re working just as hard if not harder, producing far more than the world needs, and somehow still facing the issues of unemployment and poverty. How on earth has this happened?

Politicians often talk about job creation, boasting about however many jobs they’ve added to an economy during their time in office. But a lot of people criticize the jobs we’re creating today as being so repetitive and impersonal that people lose a sense of purpose when doing something they know anyone else could do. Others disagree, seeing today’s workplaces as the next step up from industrial centres, giving people the stability of an income in an environment that’s clean, safe, and easy to blend into.

But if technology means that we really don’t need to work so much to have enough to survive, and actually we’re producing far more than we need, why are we still spending so much time in our workplaces? A lot of the reasons relate to our relationship to work itself, and these are explored more in Your Livelihood - but some have to do with our workplaces as well. There’s the fact that technologies like mobile phones and email have created a situation where we can’t really escape work - everywhere becomes a workplace when you’ve got a smartphone, and that makes it hard for people to switch off. And both in urban and rural workplaces, the spread of electricity meant that where previously we were forced to stop working when it got dark, there’s now no limit as to how long we can stay in the workplace.

So if we’re able to produce anywhere and everywhere, and don’t seem keen to slow down, how are people who want to work still unemployed? The answer to this question is huge and complex, but it relates to the question of the culture of a workplace - until we reach a point of equal opportunity for education, of equal rights to work, and of social welfare systems that effectively steer people from unemployment into the area of the economy they’re best suited to, our workplaces still have a way to go before they truly represent the working population in the economy.