What culture for a post-work world ?

Excerpted from Ezra Klein:

“How much of the trauma of unemployment comes from the weight of society’s disapproval, the shame that comes when a friend of a friend asks, “And what do you do?”

One of the hardest things about imagining a post-work world is imagining the social value put on non-work. But you can see hints of how transformative it is even now. In Timothy Ferriss’s runaway bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, he frames his advice as a manual for joining the New Rich. What separates the New Rich from the Old Rich? Mainly that the new rich barely do any work, and they don’t much care about money. “Gold is getting old,” Ferriss writes. “The New Rich (NR) are those who abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility.”

In other words, rather than working hard now to enjoy a lavish retirement in the future, the New Rich figure out how to retire now and work hard never.

If all this seems a bit soaked in economic privilege, well, of course it is. The New Rich, in Ferriss’s book, outsource much of their work to call centers in India. The extreme early retirement movement that Mr. Money Mustache leads works best for people who have a high-paying job in their 20s and so can sock away hefty savings quickly and then live off the interest.

But that’s actually not the most interesting kind of privilege being employed here. What these efforts suggest is that people who begin with social status can figure out ways to carry that social status into a post-work lifestyle. Saying “I’m unemployed” is very different than saying “I retired at 32, and it’s amazing.” The question is, can someone who doesn’t start with much social status — Ferriss is a Princeton graduate, Mr. Money Mustache an ex-software engineer — manage the same trick?

This is one of the questions that will decide whether a post-work world becomes a dystopia. Does whatever replaces work get branded more like unemployment or more like extreme retirement? What happens when you tell someone you just met on Tinder that you don’t have a full-time job, but you really love hiking?

I am not worried that a post-work world can’t be a good world. I am just worried that it won’t be — that guilt-free early retirement will be a luxury reserved for people who can get good jobs, and denied to people who can’t. But there is, in this, some optimism to be found looking backward. As Thompson writes:

As late as the mid-19th century, though, the modern concept of “unemployment” didn’t exist in the United States. Most people lived on farms, and while paid work came and went, home industry—canning, sewing, carpentry—was a constant. Even in the worst economic panics, people typically found productive things to do. The despondency and helplessness of unemployment were discovered, to the bafflement and dismay of cultural critics, only after factory work became dominant and cities swelled.”

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