In 1853 Karl Marx took issue with the British “Economist” magazine over its reporting on workers and wages.
A decrease in population had led to a slight increase in pay which afforded workers a golden opportunity to work harder, save, invest and join the capitalist class, reported the Economist. But instead of leaping to do those things, workers were marrying, multiplying and living “more luxuriously” instead.
The upstanding professionals of the Economist were aghast. Marx was not. Ten percent of pittance was still a pittance, he pointed out, and unlikely to advance a worker much. And the opportunity to eat a full meal, marry and multiply was golden too. Given a chance to work less, and live more, people made a rational choice.
I hear some of that 19th century debate in the reporting today on the post-pandemic labor market. To recap: More than 24 million Americans quit work between April to September this year—and many are staying out. Bloomberg reported this week that Germany, Japan and China were seeing the same phenomenon. Wages are rising, opportunities are abounding. Why aren’t people leaping? A social anthropologist told Bloomberg that it could be a sign of a shift back to a 1960s style counterculture moment.
If it is a shift let’s hope it takes us back further than that.
When Marx was writing, just under 200 years ago, jobs were still a relatively new and contentious concept. “Wage slavery” as the liberal economists of the day called it, forced people to rent their labor out to others – at a loss. It wasn’t slavery, but it wasn’t freedom, either. In the years since, jobs have gobbled up most of our time, our life, our expectations and our sense of self worth.
What if given even a tiny taste of an alternative, people chose not to submit to an all powerful boss? What if they made some other choice instead? We’re not free agents yet, so long as so much of our healthcare and ability to retire is tied to our employment. But the last time I checked, the Reddit site ANTI-WORK had 1.3 million members. Will that number multiply? We’ll watch.
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