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The purposes of the work


The fifteenth installment of 'The World Then', a history manual on today's society written in 2120, deals with jobs and how people defined themselves by their jobs, while planning for the threat of robots, the end of human work.

They worked: in those days everyone who could worked, and not working was the clearest sign of failure.

Even the richest, those who could not, worked or said they worked.

Everyone worked: not working was being left out.

The one who didn't work was radically suspicious: who knows how he does it, why he does it, what he'll actually do.

Go find out who he is.

“It is a shame that there is so much work in the world.

One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours, day after day, is work.

You cannot eat eight hours a day, or drink eight hours a day, or make love eight hours a day... the only thing you can do every day for eight hours is work.

And that is the reason why man makes himself and everyone else so miserable and unhappy”, had written William Faulkner, a highly respected American writer who was no longer read by anyone.

In that system that they called “capitalism” (see chapter 12) people's lives were built around their jobs.

Work was the quintessential way to get money to get all the rest, but it wasn't just that;

it was, above all, the center of those lives.

Work was the way to be in the world: to be useful, to become “someone”.

Most people who could do so spent a crucial period of their youth—the longer, the better—preparing for certain jobs.

They thought of it as an investment: I now give all this time and effort and money to obtain the benefit of a well-paid, well-regarded job in the medium term.

The logic was perfectly financial.

Then, when they got it, the work ordered everything else: people thought first of the demands in times and situations that their jobs posed to them and they did all the rest in the moments that they left free;

“private life”—their lives—was what happened to them when they weren't working.

Work was also what identified everyone who had one.

People didn't say I'm melancholic or I'm a good reggaeton dancer or I'm a Boca fan;

They said I'm a turner, I'm a doctor, I'm a bus driver.

And in that identity —and in those tasks— people judged how “life had gone”: they evaluated themselves, they felt complete or incomplete, satisfied or unqualified.

Having a job—even a dreary job, cleaning floors or running criminals—was a success in itself: it completed whoever got it.

Not having it was the most visible form of disaster.

That society —and each one of its members— was absolutely marked by that dogma of work.

And work was, of course, a school of life: it was where people learned how to behave.

They learned to obey the orders of their superiors, to do what they were told to do —even if they didn't know why—, to comply, to abide by: they learned to live in a system where the hierarchies were more than clear and not accepting them left them in the dark. the street.

(We prefer not to remember the origin of the word


. But, just in case:


comes from

tripaliare , which in Latin meant “torture” —because an instrument called a


, a kind of cross made of three sticks,

was often used for that .

where the prisoner was hung: from there,


is also to suffer, to be tormented, and there are philologists who suppose that this is why it was first used to talk about "labor," pain and suffering, and that from there it passed to any labor. Even, curiously, the daunting task of moving:


, in English, comes from the French



Commuters near Boston's South Station in June 2009. MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images (MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

Each person's job defined their place in society and often their sociability.

In those days when people who worked on the same thing did it in the same place, the “colleagues” spent many hours together, they were the people that each person saw the most.

The romances began in the workplace, the various alliances, the demands and the initiatives.

And, beyond working hours, people used to meet people who did similar jobs, with whom they shared a background, a history, a vision of the world.

What they called “home working” —or teleworking, work at home— began to break those circles: in this new method, meetings with colleagues were limited to very limited exchanges through screens and work, little by little, began to separate from sociability.

(Telecommuting offered, in principle, advantages for everyone: employees did not have to spend hours in transport, in a waste that nobody compensated for; companies could use smaller, cheaper spaces, and fortunes were saved on "business trips"; it avoided the waste of all that hallway time and gossip that flourished so much in any office.At the same time, it was a strange return to old mechanisms: home-working, England 1750, before the creation of great textile machines led to the invention of the factory. Telecommuting was already widespread when the 2020


(see chapter 6) gave it a decisive boost. Of course, it worked for a very defined type of worker: MundoRico, the middle class with desk jobs. plague

defined as “essential” in general they could not telework: drivers, toilets, garbage collectors, police officers, supermarket repositories had face-to-face material jobs —and dangerous and highly threatened by the robotic invasion.

In any case, teleworking gradually became established and introduced that radical change in the idea of ​​work as a social place, a place of belonging: there was nowhere to go, there was no occasional companionship.

And of the division of time: that cut that jobs put in lives —from 9 to 5 my time is theirs, from 5 to 9 it is mine— was also erased with that irruption.)

* * *

The central characteristic of “capitalism” was that work was a commodity: that it was bought with that regular sum called salary or, if anything, with punctual sums —fees, commissions.

A few activities remained excluded from the circuit —such as the work of a farmer who lived off what he produced on his land— but, unlike other moments in history, the vast majority of the supposedly productive activities had a monetized value: they were bought and they were paid, generally poorly.

Employer businessmen boasted that their contribution to society was to “provide work”;

his employees used to know that the biggest beneficiary of those jobs was the employer, who took much more than he gave.

Certain currents of thought called this difference “surplus value”.

From the beginning, the differences in appreciation between buyer and seller of labor power - between employer and employee - had given rise to all kinds of conflicts, which in turn gave rise to riots, repression, political changes.

In the 19th century, “unions”—groups of workers in the same sector who claimed common interests—had been formed.

A century and a half of strong unions had greatly improved the situation of workers: their hours, their wages, their various rights.

Those associations had an important role in the politics of the 20th century;

Already in the 21st century, although their influence had diminished in many countries, they continued to have some weight as a tool for negotiating wages and working conditions, which varied so much.

But in many cases their own affiliates began to consider them as corrupt, bureaucratic structures, and they stopped believing in them, they abandoned them.

For the moment, nothing had replaced them: those workers, then, had no way to defend themselves, in general, and they were defenseless.

They forced them to compete for each trip, they did not give them stability or guarantees.

And the worker no longer only sold his labor power but also had to provide the necessary tools —the bicycle, a thermal box, a mobile computer.

It was the return of the law of the jungle to the world of work.)

Facade of a Madrid office building.

samuel sanchez

In those days there was no discussion of what was a job and what was not.

What defined the work was not the activity itself but that it was paid: that whoever did it received it.

Many times people did for pleasure the same things that they or others could do for money, and then it was not considered “work”: from hunting and fishing—which had been a central task for millennia—to gardening, weaving, carpentry , writing, cooking or many other things.

But, at the same time, they were so permeated by the ideology of work that the idea went beyond their strict definition: they also talked about working their bodies if they did gymnastics, working on their personal relationships if they fraternized, working on their problems if they tried to live better.

And much of the social fabric of rich countries continued to be based on the idea that anyone could "make it" if they worked hard enough, if they tried hard enough: that carrot, that way of taking the blame - "if you don't make it, it's because you don't try”—was an important function of the job.

In poor countries the myth did not work for lack of examples: there were no neighbors or acquaintances or relatives who had skipped class thanks to their efforts, unless they were soccer players or singers or hitmen.

The myth, on the other hand, did persist in the nouveau-rich countries, where many worked too much.

In China, for example, in the most dynamic industries, many employees were working nonstop—and many couldn't keep up.

The authorities estimated that every year half a million people died "from overwork."

(There were always millions of people who died for their jobs. But, in general, they were slaves or serfs who did it under the whip of their foremen, or workers who had no defenses against extreme exploitation or prisoners in concentration camps. Different, in those days, was that they did it convinced that it was for their own good.)

In rich countries, people worked an average of 40 hours per week — although it was less in France or Spain and more in the United States or Japan.

In the poorest countries, the figure was inconstant: many jobs did not have fixed hours, they depended on various variables, and there were those who worked 20 hours a week and wanted to work much more and those who worked 80 hours and could barely endure it.

Most of them did not work on the weekend —which in a good part of the world included Saturday and Sunday, although the Sunday function —the day of Dominus, of the Lord— was sometimes fulfilled by other days: Friday in Islam, for example, or on Saturday in Israel.

And four-day work weeks were beginning to appear in certain European countries, still timid.

(The works also unified the rhythms of the days: it was rare the person who did not see sunset —if they did not look at it, at least they were there, they noticed the passage from day to night—; on the other hand, it was increasingly rare the who saw dawn.)

Image of skyscrapers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in January 2023. Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

The salaries were highly variable.

It is curious, seen from now, to think what things were paid more, what less.

The people who took care of people's health or the people who took care of educating them in their childhood received much lower salaries than many others—an advertiser, for example, or a bank manager—who might be supposed to be much less crucial.

But it was not an error but the consequence of a logic: in “capitalism” the remuneration of a job did not depend on the importance or utility of the task but on the economic benefits that it could produce.

It was also a time of great salary differences.

In the second half of the 20th century, in companies in rich countries, these differences had narrowed: the highest salary used to be 20 or 25 times greater than the average salary of its employees.

It was not little, but by 2020, after the liberal reaction, the differences had become enormous: 200 or 300 times more was common in many important companies.

And in the poorest countries it was not even measured.

The world, however, had reached a kind of consensus that boys shouldn't work.

Up to what age could be discussed, but there was agreement.

Like most of those agreements, this one was not honored either.

The age of entering the "labor market" showed the extreme inequality in the maturation of people: in the MundoRico, a 12 or 13-year-old boy had already had access to a mass of information and equipment that half a century would never have achieved. before, but it was likely that he would not start working in earnest until 10 or 15 years later.

In the MundoPobre, on the other hand, many boys of 12 or 13 years old had to work or—especially in the case of girls—take care of their home and their siblings while their parents or mother worked.

It was estimated that 265 million boys—one in six in the world—still worked long hours a week.

The number had dropped: twenty years before there were 80 million more.

But even so, the amount was brutal and brought to the fore a cruel paradox: how to convince a 12 or 13-year-old boy —and his parents— not to work if his pay was decisive for the survival of his family? the family?

As in so many other topics, MundoRico proposed a moral principle that clashed with the material realities of others.

His justice was indisputable;

its realization needed more than good intentions.

* * *

Jobs were also divided into sectors: in those years the tripartite division was maintained between primary —producers of raw materials—, secondary —manufacturers of things— and tertiary —providers of “services” (see chapter 14).

It has been said: agriculture, which half a century before employed half of the world's workers, in 2020 only employed 27 percent: around a billion people.

The differences between countries were abysmal: the more people worked in the fields, the poorer the country tended to be.

And to top it off, it was unsuspectedly dangerous work: official reports said that the proportion of deaths from work accidents was higher than in any other branch of production.

Just over a fifth of the active population worked in industry, from bread to aircraft carriers, and also the gross differences: 26 percent in Germany, Mexico or India, for example, and 2 percent in Burundi. or Chad.

What grew without stopping were the “services”.

In those days, everything that was not extracting or producing raw materials or manufacturing something with them was called “service”.

It was an abuse of the classification that could include the president of a large bank and the immigrant who cleaned his toilets, a neurosurgeon and a street sweeper, a kindergarten teacher and a judge (see chapter 14).

But it was used, and the richer a country was, the more people it employed in its "services."

Their number grew non-stop: in those days it reached half of the planet's workers — against 30 percent forty years earlier.

With their enormous differences, of course: in Israel, Canada or the Netherlands, 80 percent were service workers, and barely 20 percent in Niger or Malawi.

Its growth was the best indicator of the complexity of an economic system: people moved further and further away from the production of what they needed —food, above all— and began to obtain it through complicated chains of large producers and various intermediaries ( see chapter 14).

It was a sample of what, already then, some began to call "post-industrial society": the title, as we know, would not do it justice.

Employees of a Huawei factory in Chongqing, China. VCG (Getty Images)

One of the problems with the expansion of “services” was the elusiveness of their result: there were more and more workers whose product was not clear.

For centuries what a worker made was visible, palpable;

even if he didn't control it, at least he saw it.

In those days, everything was often sunk on a computer screen or a stack of papers or a few words or a sale.

The bureaucracy—public, private—had grown enormously.

And it always managed to seem necessary: ​​years before, a Mr. Cyril Parkinson had enunciated his "law", which said that "work inevitably expands to fill the time available", that is: that bureaucracies created tasks that only served to justify their existence. .

“A world without teachers and dock workers and garbage collectors and nurses would soon be in trouble.

But it is not entirely clear how humanity would suffer if all financial CEOs, lobbyists, public relations, notaries, actuaries, telemarketers or legal consultants disappeared in a similar way”, wrote an agitator in those days.

It was too noticeable that many jobs basically served to ensure that these people received a salary and survive and support the maintenance of the system that supported them — and also to keep them busy, considering that people without work are a political and moral danger and all those things .

From the point of view of the workers, the worst thing was the feeling of uselessness of what they did.

Or rather, of a single bitter utility:

All of which boiled down to one question: “Would you really do this if you didn't need this money?”

The answer divided society into two little-recognized but radically different classes: those who only worked to survive, those who did work that excited them.

It was not easy to know how many people each one made up, but there were clues: one of those large companies that tried to improve the productivity of the staff of large companies carried out a global survey every year for that.

One of their questions to employees was whether they felt enthusiasm and dedication for what they did in their jobs, since "engaged employees care about their work and the performance of the company and feel that their effort makes a difference," the report explained. .

The result was eloquent: in those years, in the world,

four out of five respondents answered no.

In other words, 80 percent of the workers were not interested in the tasks to which they spent eight or ten hours every day of their lives.

A domestic worker cleans the dust in one of the houses where she works.


(It is true that this was not new: for most of its history, work was a sad pact that men accepted and which consisted of giving up a decisive part of their time in exchange for being able to feed themselves and their loved ones. religious books justified it in various ways—condemnations, mistakes, bad choices—and so many men and women accepted it as that form of punishment. The review was just beginning.)

* * *

But even those workers who did things they didn't care about considered themselves lucky in the face of the huge mass of people who didn't have jobs.

In the Rich World the amount varied—and, in general, these people had allowances from the state and help from relatives.

But in the rest, millions and millions barely survived.

It was curious that one of the sectors where mechanization had advanced earlier had been, curiously, the most archaic field, the countryside.

In this sector, the improvement of machines —and also seeds and agrochemicals— had greatly reduced the number of people needed for the work: a tractor or a mower did the same as dozens of arms (see chapter 14).

Whereupon millions were left without work;

Only, then, the way out for the newly unemployed was obvious: they emigrated to the cities, where they hoped—and sometimes managed—to find new jobs.

So many had lost their place and their task;

many had never had them and continued in the most extreme poverty.

Of the 4,500 or 5,000 million adults who inhabited the planet at that time, a good quarter did not have a job —or had some minor occupation that was not enough to cover their most basic needs.

It was one of the most extreme failures of that global economic system: more than a billion people had no place in it.

Or, put another way: that system did not know how to use a huge percentage of the available labor force, it was wasting it.

His vaunted “rationality” was, at that point, absolutely debatable.

In general, in those days, work changed.

To begin with, the defeat of the unions and the increase in technology had made corporations get much more out of each employee.

In 1965, for example, a large American communications company, AT&T, was worth a constant $267 billion and employed more than 758,000 people: each person representing a value of about $350,000.

A possible 2020 equivalent, Google, was then worth $400 billion and had 55,000 employees, more than seven million per person—twenty times as many.

Much fewer employees, much more performance: the trend, then, was very clear.

The first great irruption of modern machines in production —when the “industrial revolution” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries— had required millions of men, women and children to operate them: they were mainly peasants forced to leave their fields , occupied by the lords, those who migrated to work in the cities.

On the other hand, the productive revolution that began at the beginning of the 21st century would not increase the number of workers but, on the contrary, would dramatically decrease it.

Increasingly, human labor was being replaced by machine functions;

more and more, human labor ceased to be a commodity in demand on the market.

One of the clearest features of employment in the early 21st century was that it was becoming dangerously scarce—and threatening to fall further.

In those days everyone expected the robotic invasion.

"What are we waiting for gathered in the forum? / It is the barbarians who arrive today", an Alexandrian poet had written a hundred years before.

News and comments about “robotization” were everywhere;

they announced it as a future topic, but the robots had already arrived.

The mistake, if anything, consisted in imagining robots with those humanoid forms that appeared in the futuristic movies of a few decades before.

There weren't many of those;

the others already abounded.

Smaller robots roamed the houses: the vacuum cleaners that moved by themselves, the speakers that answered questions and programmed devices, the controls that controlled temperatures, lights, and energy.

In the advanced operating rooms, the surgeons did not operate with their hands but with highly complex devices, surgical robots;

in airplanes, the pilots almost did not drive.

And, above all, in state-of-the-art factories, they multiplied: in 2010 there were one and a half million industrial robots worldwide;

in 2020 there were already three million.

Nearly half of those robots were working in China;

it was followed by Japan, the United States, Korea and Germany.

In all cases, they replaced people.

Office building in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

But still, for the majority, those industrial robots were nothing more than numbers, distant stories.

In services and businesses they were becoming more visible: a clear example —always in rich countries— were supermarket checkouts, where a square device began to replace the usual cashiers and cashiers.

It was a primitive machine, capable of reading product labels and avoiding deception by weighing them;

in the end he added them and the user paid him.

Each of these machines replaced a person who, before their appearance, spent eight hours sliding each piece of merchandise through a tag reader and getting paid;

many interpreted the installation of these machines as a danger to those jobs;

few were glad that so many women and men did not have to spend their lives in an archaic, tedious routine—which,

Because the problem, of course, was what the people who lived off those antiquated chores would live on.

Forecasts began to abound about the number or proportion of jobs that would be lost in a decade or two: all were made in rich countries to study rich countries, all said the outcome would vary from country to country, all agreed that the reduction would be dramatic.

Around 2020, a very serious academic investigation surveyed 700 different trades in the United States and concluded that 47 percent of jobs in that country "were at high risk" of falling into automatic hands in less than twenty years.

And they said the jobs most threatened were those in water and waste management, transportation, warehousing, retail and many of the manufacturing industries.

There was no panic—there was still not enough awareness—but there was concern: no one saw the new machines as a form of liberation but rather as a sentence.

Millions began, little by little, to live with the anguish that their jobs would disappear.

Many drivers, for example, knew that in a few years their vehicles would no longer need them—and that they would have to find a different way of life.

And old junk jobs—uninteresting, exhausting, poorly paid—were defended to keep their performers busy.

This “well-intentioned” defense of exploitation —on the pretext of defending the exploited— was one of the most shameful moves of those years.

to live with the anguish that their jobs would disappear.

Many drivers, for example, knew that in a few years their vehicles would no longer need them—and that they would have to find a different way of life.

And old junk jobs—uninteresting, exhausting, poorly paid—were defended to keep their performers busy.

This “well-intentioned” defense of exploitation —on the pretext of defending the exploited— was one of the most shameful moves of those years.

to live with the anguish that their jobs would disappear.

Many drivers, for example, knew that in a few years their vehicles would no longer need them—and that they would have to find a different way of life.

And old junk jobs—uninteresting, exhausting, poorly paid—were defended to keep their performers busy.

This “well-intentioned” defense of exploitation —on the pretext of defending the exploited— was one of the most shameful moves of those years.

The fear was prospective: in this, too, the future was seen as a threat.

An additional anguish consisted in the fact that no one knew exactly what type of work to prepare for: what to invest the formative time in.

At that time, articles and studies abounded that tried to teach parents "what their children should study to get a job in twenty years."

Most, of course, recommended something to do with computing, digital sciences and techniques.

On the other hand, few remembered the Kenynesian hope: a great English economist of the first half of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, had announced by 2030 a happy world where machines would do almost everything and men could work fifteen hours a week.

Not many trusted his forecast: many more assumed that such progress would not benefit the majority—the workers—but rather the few, the bosses.

The history of mankind is the story of how certain people got others to work for them.

They convinced them in different ways: with tales of gods, whips and guards, threats of hunger, the illusion of order, blackmail from the family, financial need, the fear of failure.

When a sweeping change was finally announced—that personal labor would almost no longer be needed to produce and manage things—those people who had always given up their labor became frightened: they worried about their survival.

They were still so convinced that living was working that they could not imagine other ways.

It was a very curious moment of bewilderment, very illustrative.

Unos pocos entendieron que, quizá, la meta entonces fuera una vida donde el trabajo ya no importara demasiado: donde otras actividades pudieran reemplazarlo. Y que, para eso, la base sería una pelea: la lucha por los beneficios de esos avances técnicos. Si los trabajadores del siglo XIX, decían, se unieron para conseguir mejores sueldos y mejores condiciones —una porción mayor en el reparto—, ahora tocaba a los contemporáneos hacer lo propio. Había, estaba claro, una diferencia central: aquellos obreros podían exigir porque eran indispensables, sin ellos nada funcionaba; estos estaban en la situación contraria: ya no eran necesarios. La pelea, entonces, contestaban, no sería en los lugares de trabajo sino en el resto de la comunidad: no sería una pelea sindical sino política. Y que esa pelea sería el dato central del siglo que entonces empezaba: la lucha por los beneficios de la tecnificación extrema —la “robotización”— marcaría el destino de aquellas sociedades.

El proyecto, entonces, era claro —y es curioso el efecto que causa visto desde ahora. Insistían, entonces, en que cada quien debería poder dedicar al trabajo las pocas horas necesarias y que todos obtuvieran un dinero —el “ingreso universal” o “renta básica”— proveniente de la redistribución de los enormes beneficios de esas industrias hipertecnificadas. Los que se oponían —la mayoría de los más ricos— citaban entre otros a F.D.Roosevelt, un presidente norteamericano “populista”, seguidor y contemporáneo de Keynes, que había dicho que era contrario a los subsidios para desocupados “porque desacostumbran a trabajar”. Tras pasarse milenios “acostumbrándolos” —gracias a las religiones y demás ideologías— era mal negocio permitir que se “desacostumbraran”.

Los que lo proponían decían que si existían los tractores con guía satelital no había ninguna razón para que un granjero de Oklahoma volviera a arar con un par de bueyes: que si la humanidad había conseguido todas esas mejoras técnicas no era para producir más y más y más sino para trabajar menos. Y que esa era precisamente la virtud de la nueva situación: que, tras siglos de poner el trabajo en el centro de la vida —”ganarás el pan…”—, llegaba por fin el momento de cambiar de esquema. Todavía no sabían cómo hacerlo. No era fácil, claro: debían inventar cómo reemplazarlo en su condición de eje y aspiración y justificación y sentido de todo. No sabían, y aún así decían que si algo importante iba a cambiar en ese mundo, sería eso.

Eso decían; el tiempo, como sabemos, no pasaría en vano.

Next installment

: 16. A world of things That world overflowed with things: everything was provisional, everything had to be broken, everything had to be replaced by something new.

The example of fashion and its dirty industries.

the world then

A history of the present

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Source: elparis

All life articles on 2023-02-05

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