Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Cynthia Estlund's "Automation Anxiety"

Cynthia Estlund is the Catherine A. Rein Professor at New York University's School of Law. She has written widely on the law and policy of work, including three prior books: Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy (2003), Regoverning the Workplace: From Self-Regulation to Co-Regulation (2010), and A New Deal for China's Workers? (2017).

Estlund applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Automation Anxiety: Why and How to Save Work, and reported the following:
Page 99 drops the reader into the middle of a very brief account of the rise and fall—here, the fall—of the venerable shorter hours movement in the US. It picks up during the Depression, after the near-enactment of a 30-hour work week in 1933 and the shift among New Dealers away from shorter hours and toward “full-time, full employment” as a goal:
Some New Dealers doubted that most people could, or would, or even should replace productive work with salutary “higher” pursuits. And they questioned whether the American economy was indeed close to meeting the people’s material needs. After all, parts of the country still lacked access to electricity. In the meantime, many workers themselves, having gained a modicum of leisure, aspired to higher incomes and the security and comforts they could buy; their unions followed course.
After describing the shorter hours movement’s culmination in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (which prescribed a national minimum wage and a 40-hour work week plus time-and-a half for overtime, and which excluded many middle class and poorer workers from coverage), I turn to the movement’s decline (and this passage sneaks onto the top of p. 100):
The movement for shorter hours soon began to fade. The war made full-time full employment a national imperative; after the war, pent-up consumer demand helped fuel a drive for material prosperity. Some labor leaders, especially the few women among them, sought to keep the shorter hours movement alive, and some unions successfully bargained for shorter hours. But most unions put their clout instead behind higher incomes—bolstered in part by more overtime—that would support a stay-at-home wife and a house in the suburbs for their overwhelmingly male members. In the meantime, the rise of anti-Communism lent an almost un-American ring to the goal of “higher progress” versus material abundance (not to mention the goal of peacefully overturning capitalism). In the Cold-War battle for hearts and minds across the world, America advertised capitalism as a path to prosperity; and at home, consumption took on a patriotic tinge, while increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns fueled consumer appetites for comforts, luxuries, and status goods.
Page 99 hints obliquely at a core point of the book: there are reasons to welcome, and not just to fear, a more automated future of less work if we mount a constructive response. (Four pages later I turn to policy prescriptions.) Studying the history of the shorter hours movement, and especially its more idealistic strains, helped cement in my mind the potential upside of a future of less work. By the same token, the movement’s decline evoked a certain wistfulness about what might have been—captured here, I think—if the labor movement and progressives had kept their eyes on the goal of reducing working hours, and of “higher progress”—an evocative phrase from Walt Whitman—rather than shifting so wholeheartedly toward pursuit of material affluence in the post-WWII era.

My initial interest in, and anxiety about, automation took root in my own conviction (explored in Chapter 4 and elsewhere) that widespread engagement in shared work has vital social and political benefits apart from its economic outputs—goods and services, and income for workers—and apart from its individual psychosocial benefits. There’s both more actual interaction and more ethnic and political diversity at work than elsewhere in most adults’ lives. Through sustained cooperation and sometimes shared adversity, co-workers develop weak and strong ties of familiarity and solidarity with once-strangers, which help bridge the gap between family and intimates and the larger diverse society. Hence my anxiety about the prospect of a future with fewer jobs, especially for those who lack higher education and specialized skills.

At the same time, most people would clearly choose, if they could afford it, to spend less of their lives at work. We see that in both the historical movement for shorter hours and contemporary calls for better work-life balance. The key to a solution lies in spreading work from those with too much of it to those with too little. That is, we should aim for widespread work, though less of it, for nearly all rather than little or no decent work for many. We can start by catching up with the rest of the rich world in terms of guaranteed paid vacations, sick leaves, and parental leaves. That’s only the beginning, but—like nearly all of what I propose—those steps all make sense here and now, whether or not automation ends up reducing total demand for labor.
Learn more about Automation Anxiety at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue