WORK. In the beginning was the Curse, and "work" may contend to be the first of all four-letter words. Then, anthropologists inform us that one hundred thousands years ago - give or take as many millennia as you feel inclined to - Homo Sapiens, "Man the Thinker", took over from his cousin Homo Faber, "Man the Worker", and began to rule this planet for better or for worse. We, the Smart Guys, joyfully awakened to abstract thought and began to outwit rather than outdo our lesser brethren.
Then and there, the story goes, our ancestors' jaws relaxed, their posture became more erect, and they picked up hobbies, like cave-painting, showing the same external signs of happiness as modern man whose day's work is over. The feeling of elation was both sensible and familiar; we may work to obtain a result, but work per se is absolutely distasteful, and efforts that bring their own reward are known by other names than "work".
The good feeling was a little bit premature. From stones and bones to copper and iron, from tools to machines, the quest for "time to think" and work-saving devices had to go on for roughly 99,960 years - give or take those loose millennia in the beginning - before a significant number of us, Smart Guys, could really obtain a modicum of leisure. When we finally did, it was our luck to realize, all of a sudden, that it was unemployment - the absence of work! - which had become the problem. And quite a problem: thirty five million (35,000,000) unemployed in the late Eighties in the Western Industrial Nations - (WIN's, for short), a figure very likely to double in the next fifteen years. Now that victory was ours, that the days of drudgery were done with and that we were more than halfway back to Eden, CRISIS!
A nonsense crisis of "no-more-work-to-do", while there were still obvious needs unfulfilled and so many wants and desires which remained unsatisfied. No more work to do? It certainly does look that way. Unemployment is a useful catch word, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg; it is work itself, it seems that slowly disappears. It is important to become aware that the time has gone for good when "sweat and toil" was everything for most everybody. Most people now do not work at all anymore, and those who still do are not at it very long.
Today, less than 60% of the "active population" - that is people 16-years old and over - even belong to the "labour force", meaning that the other 40% do not bother to look for work at all. Few of those who still are obliged to work do so more than 40 hours a-week (roughly 25% of their time) now, compared to some 80 hours - and more! - almost everyone had to deliver weekly until the late Nineteenth Century. To put it more descriptively, if all able-bodied Americans sixteen-years and over would share equally the burden of work today in the U.S., each of them would have to work only 23 hours a-week.
This is the United States, of course, but the situation is not much different in other Western Industrial Nations (WINs). In Canada, for instance, where statistical whims have youths join the active population at fifteen rather than sixteen, it is 21 rather than 23 hours a-week that the average citizen would have to work, to produce all the goods and services now available.
And then, there is work... and work. When those who still work are still at it, they are not working that hard either. Remember the old ballad, about the "Sixteen Tons" of coal that miners used to have to load daily? We have come a long way indeed from the days of sweat and toil, and these 23-hours a-week of work are not loading coal either. Not by a long shot! In most cases, the activity of today's common worker is so undemanding, physically, that it is only remotely related to what our forefathers used to consider real productive work. The tools have changed.
Not only have the tools changed, but so have the goals and targets of work. Let's take the industrial production of all manufactured goods; then, add agriculture, fishery, forestry, construction, mining... Don't you have about all there was to "work" a century ago? Surprise though! Now, all these activities together provide employment for only one worker out of three; the two others are busy with the production of services and "intangibles". So, if the workload were spread equally, each able-bodied American over the age of 16 would have to put up only 8 hours a-week to produce all these tangible goods that we consume, fill warehouses with, and export to the world. And it is the same all around the world; although "unemployment" is the social drama that raises eyebrows, it seems that it is "work" itself which has quietly faded away.
The Age of Toil is over.
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