Cynthia Estlund, Why Work Is a Social Good and Freedom Is Overrated [2020 C4eJ 53] (Symposium)

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium]

Cynthia Estlund*

I. Introduction

Many labor scholars in the US and abroad hold two potentially contradictory views about work. On the one hand, they (henceforth “we”) are intensely aware and critical of the unequal, unfree, unjust, and undemocratic conditions that many people face at work. Yet we tend to valorize, even romanticize, work and workplaces. There is obviously no contradiction in exploring the gulf between what work is and what it should be. The very weightiness of work in modern society sensibly motivates efforts to bring greater democracy, equality, freedom, and justice into people’s working lives. But tensions between the valorization of work and the critique of existing work relations rise to the surface when the focus turns from the quality of work to its quantity or centrality. What if paid work receded from the center of our social and economic lives, or were more of a genuine unforced choice?  

Those questions have arisen recently in connection with the predicted impact of automation on the demand for human labor and the idea of universal basic income (UBI). Both predictions of a job-scarce future and proposals for basic income have recurred throughout the history of capitalism, and both intersect with another recurring debate over whether to welcome or fear a future of less work.

First on the predictive front: Technology has been replacing human labor, both destroying and creating jobs, for centuries. Still, recent developments have drawn anxious attention.[1] Already, nearly half of all the work that humans now do in the U.S. economy is automatable based on current technology.[2] The automation of already-automatable work is sure to accelerate in the wake of the recent COVID-19-related economic collapse.[3] In the meantime, new labor-saving technologies are rolling out almost daily—robots and algorithms that rival or surpass humans on tasks long thought to require uniquely human skills.[4] That process of “task encroachment,” as economist Daniel Susskind calls it, will continue as machines’ capabilities are rising much faster and with fewer natural limits than those of humans.[5]

The debate among economists and technology experts is not over whether automation is destroying jobs—plainly it is—but whether automation will also generate enough new wealth, new consumer demand, and new jobs to offset job losses. The conventional wisdom among economists has been that historical patterns of “creative destruction” will continue, and that the new wave of automation will yield both productivity gains and plenty of new jobs. But among those who closely study the impact of technology on demand for labor, a consensus is emerging that this time is different. Automation is already exacerbating inequality by reducing demand for merely ordinary human skills, and will continue to do so going forward.[6]

Beyond that, and frankly beyond the current consensus, looms the prospect of a future of less work as machines continue to encroach on humans’ comparative advantages. As Susskind puts it:

Machines will not do everything in the future, but they will do more. And as they slowly, but relentlessly, take on more and more tasks, human beings will be forced to retreat to an ever-shrinking set of activities. It is unlikely that every person will be able to do what remains to be done; and there is no reason to imagine there will be enough demand for it to employ all those who are indeed able to do it.[7]

In the meantime, those who make or own the technology will reap the lion’s share of economic gains from automation. To be sure, some skilled workers will be in high demand, and may end up working long hours for rich returns. But for workers with merely ordinary human skills, competition from both machines and other displaced workers will not only depress wages but also drive some out of the active labor force.

This essay does not aim to persuade skeptics of the likelihood of net job losses.[8] It starts from the premise that automation-based job losses are likely enough that we should be considering policies that can mitigate the losses and spread the gains. Among the big ideas contending for public favor is the UBI, which has gained converts in the high-tech world and beyond, including former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang, based on concerns about impending job losses.[9] Proponents of the federal job guarantee (FJG) offer a radically different strategy for rebalancing the economy in favor of those at the bottom of the labor market.[10] Others would revive an animating goal of organized labor in the first century of industrial capitalism: reduce working time, thereby spreading both leisure and work to a wider share of the population.[11] None of these ideas is strictly a response to the prospect of technological unemployment; but each is touted by some as the single best response to that prospect.[12]

Underlying and complicating those contrasting policy approaches are divergent views on the valence and value of paid work. Some would welcome a world of much less work, provided that the large economic gains from automation were redistributed so to ensure a decent livelihood for all.[13] Others find that vision deeply unsettling, for they see paid work not only as a vehicle for distributing income and social benefits but as a source of important non-economic benefits.

I will argue in Part II that decent remunerative work is a social good that we should be striving to preserve, create, and distribute across the citizenry even in a future of less work. In particular, I will argue that the experience of working together in comparatively diverse workplaces cultivates social bonds that are indispensable in a diverse democratic society.[14] Part III will take up the problem of compulsion that clouds the case for the social value of work—that is, the economic compulsion of workers to sell their labor and the managerial compulsion that they face at work. I will argue that, paradoxically, the social value that arises out of workplace relationships depends in part on the unfreedom surrounding work.

Part IV turns to some implications of the argument for policy responses to a future of less work. The social value of work counts against a UBI that would allow people to opt out of paid work, and in favor of both job creation and shorter working hours. That is, we should aim to spread work (as well as leisure) by reducing working hours per person rather than allowing a growing share of the adult population to get squeezed out of the world of work. There is value in drawing and keeping individuals engaged in paid work, even if technology eventually both shrinks the demand for human labor and generates enough social surplus to keep a large non-working population fed, clothed, and housed.

II. The Social Value of Paid Work in a Future with Less of It

The claim here is that paid work is itself—apart from the income it produces—a good that should be widely and fairly distributed. In traditional economic analysis, by contrast, individuals seek to optimize leisure and income, while work is a disutility—a means of gaining income by sacrificing leisure, but not a good in itself.[15] Those of us with meaningful and rewarding jobs might demur, but many workers with boring, arduous, or demeaning jobs would surely agree with that view.

Workers and their allies have long struggled to mitigate the “bads” of work—forced labor, dangerous working conditions, or excessive hours, for example—and to set a floor on terms and conditions of work through public lawmaking. The resulting body of law represents a society’s evolving judgment about what jobs are worth having at all, and rejects the notion that any job is better than no job. In keeping with that judgment, I argue here for the wide distribution of decent work, meaning work that meets a society’s basic labor standards.[16]

Recall the economists’ view that work is a disutility for individuals—a means of gaining income by trading away leisure. Read “income” here as shorthand for material resources; and read “leisure” as shorthand for time outside of paid work—time “for rest and … for what you will,”[17] including sleeping, socializing, recreation, civic, religious, political, cultural, or recreational activities, or unpaid domestic work.[18] Thus defined, the value of both income and leisure for individuals is fairly self-evident. Both are resources that have an almost infinite variety of uses, and that enhance individuals’ freedom to live as they choose. Everybody needs and wants at least a decent quantum of both leisure and income, however they choose to spend them; and that is because they mostly do get to choose.

Work is different. Clearly work is not a resource that can be spent as one wishes, nor is it a matter of sheer necessity as are both material resources and time away from work. Paid work takes the shape of distinct and infinitely varied jobs, some of which are not intrinsically rewarding and most of which entail far more subordination than freedom. Moreover, a good life without paid work is plainly possible (though only for those with another source of material support). Even so, I will maintain that we should strive to maintain decent paid work as a central organizing feature of most people’s lives even in a future in which there is less need for human labor and less work to go around. That is one benchmark—along with adequate income and leisure—for assessing strategies for a future of less work. 

A. Familiar Arguments for the Value of Paid Work

The idea of work as a moral imperative runs deep in Western religious thought, though its religious foundations bear little weight for many citizens today.[19] As capitalism eventually displaced most independent production, and work became virtually synonymous with selling one’s labor in exchange for a wage, the supposed moral imperative to work took on a more ideological hue, serving to legitimize the commodification of labor.[20] And individuals’ motivation to work—once stripped of its spiritual content—seemed to come down to a disheartening mix of sheer economic necessity and market-fueled appetites for more stuff and the status stemming from conspicuous consumption.[21]

If that were all there was to the value of work, then we might do well to wean ourselves off the venerable “work ethic.” In particular, a society that produced enough wealth to enable its citizens to devote their lives instead to caring for family, communing with friends, volunteering, or sharing music, art, and literature—to leisure in whatever form each chose—should set its sights on making that possible. Something like that utopian vision underlies support for a UBI among some on the left.[22] That vision, even if it is only a thought experiment, challenges the pro-work camp to scrutinize deeply rooted but normatively dubious grounds for the attachment to work.   

Generations of thinkers have explored the normative case for work in the modern world, after disenchantment and apart from sheer necessity.[23] Work has been called a secular calling, a source of fulfillment and self-realization, and a means of cultivating human capabilities.[24] I make no pretense here of assessing these accounts, except to make a few points: First, they tend to be quite individualistic in focus; they mostly ask what work does for individuals apart from the income it yields. Second, these accounts might ring hollow for the work skeptics, for they typically have little good to say about work as it actually is for most people. Even work that meets the societal threshold of decent work mostly falls short of the idealized visions of work that emerge from this normative literature.[25] 

Social scientists have also explored the value of work and its contribution to individuals’ feelings of self-worth, social standing, and overall well-being.[26] A recent survey finds ample empirical evidence that work has “latent psychosocial benefits including time structure, collective purpose and social contacts, identity and activity,” and that unemployment causes psychic harms beyond the loss of income.[27] The psychic returns to work are obviously greater for those with fulfilling and high-status jobs, many of which are also well-paid; but they are not limited to those workers. This literature is still focused on the returns to individuals, but it suggests that the allocation of work in a society is a matter of distributive justice.[28]

Still, this body of empirical research can take us only so far in making the case for work in a society that needs less of it. For one thing, the psychosocial case for work must weigh individual benefits against burdens. Work that is degrading, dangerous, monotonous, or exhausting might be worse than no work at all (apart from the income it yields). That might point either toward redoubling efforts to improve the quality of work or toward supplying income in lieu of work—depending on how we value work itself. Moreover, the psychosocial rewards of work reflect in part the pervasive societal drumbeat in favor of work and not just its intrinsic value. Most Americans especially have been socialized to measure their own and others’ worth and status on the basis of their jobs.

Perhaps individuals could be socialized out of associating paid work with psychic rewards, and toward finding those rewards elsewhere. But that begs the question whether a society should undertake such a reprogramming project. There might be sound societal reasons to cultivate an association between paid work and self-worth, self-realization, and social status—and to do so even if it were possible to release many individuals from the sheer economic necessity to work. That is what I will argue here.   

B. Paid Work as a Source of Social Capital, Social Integration, and Solidarity

A heterogeneous democratic society requires a thick substrate of social ties—not just intimate ties among close family and friends, but the connections and connectedness among strangers and once-strangers that come from cooperating toward shared ends. Those overlapping networks of purposeful cooperative activity are part of the glue that holds a society and a polity together.[29] They are a source of “social capital,” or bonds and norms of reciprocity that enable people to cooperate in pursuit of shared objectives, including shared governance.[30]

Paid work has long been the primary locus of purposeful cooperation in our society, but that does not mean it must be so. Obviously, voluntary associations formed around religious, political, charitable, cultural, or even recreational aims can also foster sociability, solidarity, and connectedness, and are usually less tainted by the economic compulsion and hierarchy that are typical of workplace organizations. Many theorists of civil society thus locate voluntary associations at its core, and discount the value of workplace ties in supporting social cohesion and self-governance.[31] They might share with the work skeptics the goal of enabling people to opt out of paid work and to spend more time in voluntary, non-remunerative activities and associations. But these accounts overlook the distinctive social value of workplace ties.[32]

To begin with, most working adults spend much of their waking lives interacting with co-workers in doing the job, before and after work, and around the proverbial (or virtual) water cooler. Over weeks, months, or even years of working together, co-workers often develop ties of empathy, solidarity, and friendship. Obviously workplace ties can also be tainted by conflict or resentment. But given all that is at stake in a job, people often find ways to work through or around conflicts and to get along, or at least get the job done, despite friction. That tends to give bonds among co-workers a resilience that will rarely be replicated in voluntary associations. In short, paid work is far more likely than other associations, for reasons explored below, to bring and keep people together closely enough and for enough time to generate those bonds.

The history of the labor movement provides ample evidence that shared work provides a rich medium for the growth of solidarity—a willingness to take risks and make individual sacrifices for the group—and a platform for organizing and collective self-help among ordinary people. Recent strikes among teachers, fast-food workers, Amazon workers, and Uber drivers reminds us that common work and its discontents can elicit enactments of solidarity that are rare outside the sphere of work. Fortunately, shared discontentment is not a prerequisite for cultivating valuable workplace ties. Shared work can be a source of shared pride and purpose, shared frustration, or both; either way, it can generate valuable kinds of co-worker connections and connectedness.  

The relative resilience and density of workplace ties is especially important because workplaces tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse than families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, or clubs and voluntary associations.[33] That is partly because employment discrimination law has countered (to some degree) forms of exclusion and segregation that are less regulated, or even constitutionally immune from regulation, in other social settings.[34]

The density of interactions among comparatively diverse co-workers helps to make workplaces the most prolific sites of sustained interaction, and the most frequent sources of friendships, among adults of different racial and ethnic identities.[35] The point is not that friendships offer a magical solution to racial exclusion and divisions but that they attest to the larger reservoir of weakly positive ties that can flourish among co-workers. Daily cooperation, informal sociability, and shared experiences and interests among comparatively diverse co-workers can help to break down stereotypes and biases. One recent empirical study finds, for example, that white individuals who work with at least one black co-worker manifest significantly less racial bias than those who do not, and finds clues that the link is causal.[36]

Obviously out-group biases and in-group affinities persist at work as elsewhere, and burden groups that are still underrepresented in good jobs, and especially in management. Still, in the real world it is in the workplace, and often only there, where citizens of different racial and ethnic groups must find ways of getting along over sustained periods of time. Sustained cooperative interaction across group lines tends to produce more positive and egalitarian intergroup relations and attitudes.[37] Moreover, personal connections across group lines provide a medium for the exchange of experiences and opinions, the discovery of commonalities and differences, and the cultivation of diffuse qualities of empathy and broad-mindedness that shape political preferences, facilitate compromise, and enrich public discourse. Those workplace connections, multiplied across legions of adult citizens, strengthen the social foundations for democratic governance in a heterogeneous society.

Let me be clear: My claim is not that demographic diversity—at work or elsewhere—enhances the formation of solidaristic and friendly ties; that is sadly not the case. The claim is that diverse societies must find ways to foster individuals’ ability to transcend the differences and frictions that come with diversity, or to get along in spite of them; and that the experience of working together is a comparatively promising medium for doing so.   

Unfortunately, even as workplaces have become more diverse since the 1960s, work has in other ways become less conducive to the formation of strong workplace bonds than it was in the factories and the large integrated organizations that dominated 20th century labor markets. Major trends in the organization of work since the 1970s—the shift from manufacturing to services, the decline of job tenures and the rise of contingent and precarious work, the fissuring and disintegration of firms, and the rise of the “gig economy”—all tend to undercut the potency of “working together” as a source of connectedness and social solidarity. Still, we have to ask: Compared to what? What other social spaces are as promising for fostering those interpersonal and intergroup bonds?

While work is neither as necessary nor as universally valued by individuals as is some modicum of both income and leisure, there is profound social value in work and working relationships that cannot be replaced by income or leisure, and that is far less likely to arise in other associational settings. That proposition raises questions about how the economy of the future will perform along that dimension, and how it could be nudged to do better, especially if “this time is different” and job destruction outstrips job creation in a more automated economy. But first I want to drill down into the paradoxical role of compulsion in “working together,” as it is crucial to the distinctive nature of workplace ties.

III. The Paradoxical Role of Compulsion and Necessity in Workplace Ties

Unlike me and most of my readers, the vast majority of workers face explicitly hierarchical, even autocratic managerial power at work—power that is backed up by the economic necessity that drives workers to seek and hold onto a job. Elizabeth Anderson has recently cast a harsh spotlight on employer domination—on what she calls “private government”—at work.[38] In the US, the prevailing rule of “employment at will,” which allows employers to fire employees without justification, plays a pivotal role. There are many exceptions to employment at will, mainly for cases of discrimination and reprisals against protected activities; but the at-will presumption undercuts those exceptions in part by casting the heavy burden of proving an unlawful motive on the employee.[39] The upshot is that employers exercise considerable power over most employees most of the time.

The decidedly unfree and unequal dimensions of employment raise a question about the role of workplace relations in a democratic society: How can social ties formed under conditions of subordination and economic necessity contribute to the sustainability of democratic self-governance?

Paradoxically, the integrative potential of workplace ties stems partly from the very features that lead many theorists to disqualify them from the exalted realm of civil society: the presence of need, compulsion, power, and hierarchy. That is, the crucial convergence of diversity and cooperation among co-workers is possible partly because of the economic hold that the workplace has on individuals, the power that managers exercise there, and the role of legal compulsion into employment relations. The economic compulsion of workers to sell their labor and the managerial compulsion to cooperate in production are at the heart of enduring critiques of capitalism. But those elements of compulsion also give workers a powerful motivation to find ways to deal with conflict and friction, and to carry on cooperating with co-workers with whom they did not and would not choose to associate, rather than simply walking away.

It is more or less definitional of the employment relationship that employees are subject to managerial control and supervision. Managerial control may be more or less hierarchical. Either way, managers with a mission to accomplish have both strong motives and powerful organizational tools for inducing workers to overcome their differences and cooperate in production. If managers find it necessary to deal with diversity within their workforces—an “if” that turns partly on the efficacy of laws and norms against employment discrimination—then they will have to find ways to foster cooperation across lines of division. Those managerial imperatives have generated a cottage industry of specialists and consultants in diversity and inclusion, and a profusion of corporate diversity initiatives, some of which are mere window-dressing or even counterproductive.[40] But the point is that employers have good bottom-line reasons for figuring out what actually works in promoting integration at work. That is true for any organization that seeks or simply has a diverse workforce, and that depends on cooperation among workers to accomplish its objectives.

Managers also manage and workers work under the shadow of antidiscrimination laws. Even relations among co-workers are indirectly regulated by the law of discriminatory harassment, which may sometimes hold employers liable for co-worker harassment. (Most religious or other voluntary associations are largely shielded from regulation by the constitutional freedom of association.) The highly-regulated nature of workplace relations is, for some theorists, another reason to exclude them from the domain of “civil society.”[41] But in a society riven by intergroup divisions, regulation plays a crucial role both in making workplaces more diverse and in mitigating the interpersonal conflict that diversity can entail. Managers have operational and liability-based reasons to enforce a measure of civility at work, especially among diverse co-workers; and those relatively constrained relations are an indispensable component of the varied ecosystem of public discourse.

Again, I do not mean to overstate the law’s efficacy in combatting discrimination, stratification, and intergroup conflict at work, or in achieving diversity, especially in the best jobs. Workplaces are much less diverse and integrated than we might have hoped more than a half-century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and less diverse than the law could help to make them. But for present purposes the question is still this: Compared to what? Compared to the voluntary associations that are the heartland of civil society?

It would be nice to believe that individuals, if freed from the bare compulsion to work, would enjoy a richer mix of voluntary associations that would cultivate social solidarity and connections across persistent lines of social division. But many would not. Freed from the need to work for a living, some people would slip out of any constructive social networks and into isolation or antisocial behaviors.[42] But let us put aside that unsettling prospect for the moment, and assume that most people would replace co-worker ties with a wider range of voluntary associations. Some would choose to associate with diverse others, perhaps on a more egalitarian basis than they do at work. But we see all around us the evidence that many people would choose instead—because they often do choose when they can—to live and associate with others from similar backgrounds and racial and ethnic identities.

It is manifestly easier for both individuals and societies to cultivate bonds of trust and reciprocity among those from similar backgrounds and identities. That is both a lesson and a consequence of human history. It has thus been easier for ethnically homogeneous societies to cultivate the kind of social solidarity that underlies generous and inclusive social welfare programs.[43] All advanced capitalist societies today are more or less, and increasingly, diverse due to cross-border migration flows.[44] That has been a flashpoint in regional and national politics across the developed world in the past decade, and poses a major challenge for maintaining and fortifying the solidaristic social models that put a human face on capitalism in the 20th century.

Now more than ever, it is essential for diverse societies to find ways and places to cultivate bonds of empathy and reciprocity across group lines. And that may require the kinds of legal, economic, and organizational compulsion that shape the experience of working together. The point is not that work-based associations are more important than voluntary associations, but that they are a crucial part of the associational mix because they can foster social bonds that are especially valuable and especially scarce elsewhere.

IV. Curbing the Economic Compulsion to Work (with Reflections on the UBI)

Suppose I am right about the distinctive value of workplace bonds in holding together a diverse society, and about the paradoxical role of managerial and economic compulsion in cultivating those bonds. What does that imply about efforts to curb compulsion at and around work, especially in a future of less work? Here I set aside the problem of managerial compulsion on the job, and focus on the economic compulsion of individuals to take and keep a job.  

Workers who lack alternative means of support will often tolerate miserable or abusive working conditions. The economic compulsion to sell one’s labor and its role in underwriting employer power has long been a linchpin of critiques of capitalism. For capitalism’s most whole-hearted defenders, the answer lay in labor market competition and the right to quit one job for another.[45] But no democratic society has pursued that strategy exclusively. All have pursued both regulatory and collective strategies to improve working conditions by setting a societal floor on labor standards, mandating certain employee rights, and enabling workers to exert collective power on their own behalf. And all have sought as well to temper the rigors of the market by supplying alternative means of support, especially for childen, the elderly, and the disabled, but also for able-bodied adults. 

In today’s United States, those who are deemed able to work but who fail to find jobs are relegated to a paltry and patchy social safety net that is largely contingent on willingness to work and is subject to intrusive and cumbersome “means-testing.” Ironically, those two features are often at cross purposes, for means-testing tends to discourage work by reducing benefits as wage income rises. The antithesis of this patchwork of means-tested and conditional benefits is the UBI concept of universal and unconditional cash benefits. A UBI would neither actively encourage work by conditioning benefits, nor would it actively discourage work by reducing benefits as income rises. A subsistence-level UBI—that is, a cash grant that is sufficient to live on—starkly illustrates the double-edged consequences of mitigating the economic compulsion to work.

One of the most appealing features of the UBI would be its provision of a “walk-away option” for workers. It would soften the compulsion to work or, crucially, to tolerate poor treatment at work, and would translate directly into much-needed bargaining power for workers in lower-wage jobs or those facing mistreatment. (Unemployment compensation, by contrast, rarely benefits those who quit their jobs.) Yet I have argued that part of what makes the workplace a relatively promising source of intergroup bonds is the economic pressure on individuals to deal constructively with conflict, to get past biases, to cooperate with diverse co-workers, and to stick with a job rather than just walking away. Better alternatives to employment—for all the good they do for workers and working conditions—would seem to undercut the ability of workplace ties to bear the weight and potential strain of intergroup contact and cooperation in a divided society. UBI—at least one that paid enough to make it a long-term alternative to working for a living—might draw some people out of the workforce completely.

A central figure in debates about UBI is the hypothetical “Malibu surfer,” who chooses to forego work and to live off of basic income that is paid for by the toil of others.[46] That raises a basic fairness concern.[47] But my focus here is on consequences: Workers’ attachment to not-great but still decent jobs would inevitably be more tenuous in UBI world. To be sure, those with scarce skills who could find good jobs would continue to do so, in part for the additional income. But some with lesser but still marketable skills, or with the capacity to develop those skills, would simply drop out of the labor market and subsist on the UBI. Freed from the need to show up, do what needs to be done, cooperate with others, and all the rest that goes with a job, some individuals would fall into a state of malaise, social isolation, or addictive behaviors.[48] If growing numbers of workers dropped out of the labor force, and no longer felt obliged to make the best of workplace relationships, that would be a serious loss both for individual dropouts (beyond what they might themselves appreciate) and for the polity. 

In short, cash means freedom, including the freedom to walk away from an exhausting competition for crummy jobs. Freedom is good—and freedom is the overriding virtue claimed for the UBI. Yet freedom can be overrated, both for individuals and for society.

For now the UBI might seem like an imaginary target. But that might change if technological change intensifies competition for ordinarily-skilled jobs, and begins to push a growing share of workers out of the labor market. In that world, the awesome wealth flowing to the top income earners from those technological advances might make it feasible both fiscally and politically to fund a UBI at a meaningful level.[49] But is that the best way to spend those resources?

Even it were feasible, the cost of financing a UBI would foreclose other valuable uses of those social resources, such as a large investment in public job creation. In particular, a full-scale UBI and a federal job guarantee are mutually incompatible, not only as a matter of sheer cost but also in terms of political appeal and normative foundations. It is almost inconceivable that a society would be willing to guarantee both a decent job to anyone who seeks one and unconditional basic income to all, including those who choose not to work. In contrast to UBI, a large-scale job creation program would distribute not only income but also decent work, with all its direct and incidental benefits to individuals and the society, while at the same time generating valuable public goods (infrastructure, social services, community development). Cash cannot do what decent work does either for individuals or for the society.

The pro-work objections to the UBI are not necessarily fatal. First, the impact of the UBI on beneficiaries’ work activities is an empirical question, and it depends on many contingencies. For obvious cost reasons, there have been not yet been field studies of subsistence-level, community-wide, long-term UBI in a developed country.[50] Second, the UBI’s impact on work is another “compared to what?” question: It might encourage work as compared to some existing means-tested benefits programs (though not as compared to a large public investment in job creation). Third, even if a UBI did lead some to drop out of the labor market, any resulting social and individual losses would have to be weighed against the considerable benefits of the UBI, including the freedom to walk away from a bad job and relief from the stress of severe economic insecurity.

If we eventually end up facing a future of much less work, some kind of UBI might become necessary to avoid large-scale immiseration. But in the face of more modest or slower job losses, we should be exploring strategies that maintain a central role for work in people’s lives.

V. Conclusion (and the Shorter-Hours Solution)

I have argued that shared engagement in paid work, especially within diverse workplaces, has crucial societal benefits, and that those benefits depend partly on elements of compulsion within and around work that are not otherwise virtuous. Therein lies a dilemma: Do those societal gains justify subjecting individuals to forms of economic and managerial compulsion from which it might be (or become) feasible to release them?

We might soften the dilemma of requiring individuals to bear the cost of producing social gains by recognizing the psychosocial benefits of decent work, some of which individuals might fail to recognize. There is thus a candidly paternalist strain running alongside my “public good” argument for the value of work. We could further soften the dilemma by improving the quality of work, constraining managerial compulsion, and democratizing workplaces. But I want to highlight another way to soften the dilemma—that is, by reducing the sheer quantity of work and redistributing the gains from a more automated economy in the form of both more leisure and non-work-based resources.[51]

Work is a social good, but nothing in the case for work turns on adherence to the current full-time norm of 40-hours per week. One understudied question for the pro-work camp is how much work is necessary or sufficient to yield the various non-pecuniary benefits of work. The UK-based authors of a recent study, focusing on the individual psychosocial benefits of work, call this the “dosage” question: Too much of almost any good thing, be it protein, medications, or sunshine, can be bad for you, or just more than you need to get the benefits. The same is true of work, as evinced by centuries of agitation and legislation against excessive working hours. But few have asked, as the UK researchers did, how much work is necessary or adequate to secure the non-pecuniary benefits of work. Their preliminary study reaffirmed the significant benefits of paid work for individual well-being, but found that those benefits tapered off and hit a plateau after about eight hours of work per week![52]

The UK study is hardly the last word on this “dosage” question. Apart from methodological questions flagged by the authors,[53] the study makes no effort to reckon with the practicalities or economics of chopping jobs up into such small pieces. More to the present point, the study does not purport to measure the social gains from work, such as the role in social integration that I emphasize here. Those intangible, and perhaps unmeasurable, gains might continue to rise with hours of work even if individual non-pecuniary benefits do not; they might require more hours of work in order to take hold.

Those qualifications aside, this study initiates an intriguing line of inquiry that might recalibrate the debate over whether to welcome or fear an automated future of less work. If work is good but much less of it is plenty, then the pro-work camp should set its sights on work spreading through shorter hours, and might embrace some form of UBI to replace lost income. UBI proponents, for their part, might find new allies in a renewed movement for shorter hours.

I have sought to raise concerns—more and less familiar ones—about the future that might take shape if decent middle-class jobs continue to dry up and if the scramble for less-skilled jobs drives a growing share of workers out of the active labor market. That could well happen as automation technologies advance, and as already-automatable jobs are automated. If the future is indeed one of less work—and if we can summon the political will to mount a constructive response—then, for the sake of both individual and societal well-being, we should focus on creating and spreading work, as opposed to replacing work with cash.

* Catherine A. Rein Professor of Law, NYU Law School. I wish to thank Molly Jacobs-Meyer for extraordinary research assistance.

[1] Including from me. See Cynthia Estlund, What Should We Do After Work? Automation and Employment Law, 128 Yale L.J. 254, 263–75 (2018).

[2] See McKinsey Global Inst., A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity, 48 (Jan. 2017) [].

[3] See The Economics of a Global Emergency: Kara Miller Talks with David Autor, WGBH (Apr. 17, 2020), available at; Mark Muro et al., The Robots Are Ready as the COVID-19 Recession Spreads, Brookings (Mar. 24, 2020),

[4] For some perspectives from the high-tech world, see Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age (2014); Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots (2015).

[5] See Daniel Susskind, A World Without Work (2020).

[6] See, e.g., David Autor, David A. Mindell & Elisabeth B. Reynolds, The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions, MIT Work of the Future Task Force (2019), available at; Laura Tyson & Michael Spence, Exploring the Effects of Technology on Income and Wealth Inequality, in After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality 170 (Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong & Marshall Steinbaum eds., 2017).

[7] Susskind, supra note 5, at 5.

[8] I do take on that task, relying on Susskind and others, in a book-in-progress (title TBD).

[9] See Philippe Van Parijs & Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, 100-32 (2017). See also Andy Stern & Lee Kravitz, Raising the Floor (2016); Albert Wenger, World After Capital (2019).

[10] See Mark Paul, et al., Ctr. on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Federal Job Guarantee—A Policy to Achieve Permanent Full Employment (2018),; L. Randall Wray, et al., Levy Econ. Inst. of Bard Coll., Public Service Employment: A Path to Full Employment (2018), available at

[11] See Matthew Dimick, Better Than Basic Income? Liberty, Equality, and the Regulation of Working Time, 50 Ind. L. Rev. 473 (2017); The Shorter Work Week: A Radical and Pragmatic Proposal (Will Stronge & Aidan Harper, eds.) (2019), The shorter hours idea might be regaining some traction in the US. See Jeff Stein, Thank God It’s Thursday: the Four-Day Workweek Some Want to Bring to the U.S., Wash. Post, (July 11, 2019),

[12] I discuss that debate in Cynthia Estlund, Three Big Ideas for a Future of Less Work and a Three-Dimensional Alternative, 82 Law & Contemp. Probl. 1 (2019). This paper borrows liberally from that one and foreshadows parts of my book-in-progress.

[13] See, e.g., André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (Michael Sonenscher trans., 1982); Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Inventing the Future (2015); Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work (2011). Among their nineteenth-century predecessors, see Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (New Am. Library 1960) (1888); Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy (1883), available at

[14] This section borrows from earlier work, Cynthia Estlund, Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy (2003).

[15] See Robert E. Lane, Work as “disutility” and money as “happiness”: Cultural origins of a basic market error, 21 J. Socio-Econ. 43, 48–51 (1992).

[16] I elaborate this positivist definition of “decent work,” which includes core international labor standards, in my book-to-be.

[17] “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will” was a slogan of the Eight-hour Day movement.

[18] The focus on “paid work,” as well as the inclusion of unpaid domestic work under the rubric of “leisure,” needs defending; I do not do that here but will return to the topic in my book.

[19] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Stephen Kalberg trans., Oxford Univ. Press 2010)(1920).

[20] See, e.g., Weeks, supra note 13; Srnicek & Williams, supra 13.

[21] See Russell Muirhead, Just Work (2004).

[22] See, e.g., Van Parijs & Vanderborght, supra note 9, at 100-32 (2017); Srnicek & Williams, supra note 13; Weeks, supra note 13, at 155–71.

[23] Two recent books engage with this voluminous literature from divergent perspectives, one that is skeptical of the value of work, see Weeks, supra note 13, and one that is more sympathetic. See Muirhead, supra note 21. For a more tendentious take-down of work as it is for most workers, see David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, A Theory (2018); David Graeber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant, STRIKE! Magazine (2013),

[24] On the role of work in developing human capabilities, see Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach 34 (2011); Brian Langille, What is Labour Law? Implications of the Capability Approach, in The Capability Approach to Labour Law 122 (Brian Langille, ed., 2019); Virginia Mantouvalou, Work, Human Rights, and Human Capabilities, in The Capability Approach, id., 137.

[25] See Muirhead, supra note 21.

[26] See Jennie E. Brand, The Far-Reaching Impact of Job Loss and Unemployment, 41 Ann. Rev. of Soc. 359 (2015); Frances McKee-Ryan et al., Psychological and Physical Well-Being During Unemployment: A Meta-Analytic Study, 90 J. App. Psychol. 53 (2005); Matthew Modini et al., The Mental Health Benefits of Employment: Results of a Systemic Meta-Review, 24 Australasian Psychiatry 331 (2016); Anthony Winefield & Marika Tiggemann, Employment Status and Psychological Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study, 75 J. App. Psychol. 455 (1990).

[27] Daiga Kamerade et al., A Shorter Working Week for Everyone: How Much Paid Work Is Needed for Mental Health and Well-Being?, 241 Soc. Sci. & Med. 1 (2019).

[28] See Anca Gheaus & Lisa Herzog, The Goods of Work (Other Than Money!), 47 J. Soc. Phil. 70 (2016).

[29] An extended version of the argument, featuring Tocqueville, Durkheim, and others, appears in Estlund, supra note 14, at 105-24.

[30] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).

[31] See, e.g., Jean L. Cohen & Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory ix (1992); John Ehrenberg, Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea 235 (1999); Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms 366-67 (1996).

[32] For further elaboration, see generally Estlund, supra note 14.

[33] See Estlund, supra note 14, at 7–10, 61–69. Putnam recognizes the point. See Putnam, supra note 30, at 87.

[34] See Estlund, supra note 14, at 120-30.  On desegregation of workplaces after the passage of Title VII, see generally Kevin Stainback & Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act (Russell Sage Foundation, 2012).

[35] See Xavier de Souza Briggs, “Some of My Best Friends Are …”: Interracial Friendships, Class, and Segregation in America, 6 City & Commun. 263 (2007).

[36] See Sean Darling-Hammond, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, & Randy Lee, Interracial Contact at Work: Can Workplace Diversity Reduce Bias? (April 27, 2019), available at SSRN:

[37] See Estlund, supra note 14 at 74–76; see also Hammond et al., supra note 36. For meta-analyses, see Thomas Tropp & Lind Pettigrew, A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory 90 J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 751 (2006), and the more mixed assessment of Elizabeth Levy Paluck et al., The Contact Hypothesis Reevaluated, 3 Behav. Pub. Pol’y 29 (2018).

[38] Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) (2017). For my review, see Cynthia Estlund, Rethinking Autocracy at Work, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 795 (2018).

[39] See Cynthia Estlund, Wrongful Discharge Protections in an At-Will World, 74 Tex. L. Rev. 1655 (1996).

[40] Frank Dobbin, Inventing Equal Opportunity 133-160 (2009). For a favorable view of those programs, see Stacy L. Hawkins, The Long Arc of Diversity Bends Towards Equality: Deconstructing the Progressive Critique of Workplace Diversity Efforts, 17 U. Md. L.J. Race, Religion, Gender & Class 61 (2017). For more critical views, see Nancy Leong, Racial Capitalism, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 2151, 2165 (2013); Soohan Kim, Alexandra Kalev & Frank Dobbin, Progressive Corporations at Work: The Case of Diversity Programs, 36 Rev. of L. & Soc. Change 171 (2012); Astrid Kersen, Diversity Management, 13 J. of Org. Change Management 235 (2000).

[41] Putnam, supra note 30, at 92; Robert C. Post, Racist Speech, Democracy, and the First Amendment, 32 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 267, 289 (1991); Habermas, supra note 31, at 366-67.

[42] See infra text accompanying notes 47-48.

[43] See, e.g., Markus Jäntti, Gerald Jaynes & John E. Roemer, The Double Role of Ethnic Heterogeneity in Explaining Welfare-State Generosity (Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 1972, Dec. 2014); Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference (2004); Dora L. Costa & Matthew E. Kahn, Civic Engagement and Community Heterogeneity: An Economist’s Perspective, 1 Perspectives on Pol. 103 (2003); Alberto Alesina et al., Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State? (The National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 8524, Oct. 2001).

[44] See Alberto Alesina, Johann Harnoss, Hillel Rapoport, Immigration, Diversity, and Economic Prosperity, Vox CEPR Policy Portal (Aug. 2013),

[45] For an iconic statement of the libertarian free market position, see Richard A. Epstein, A Common Law for Labor Relations: A Critique of the New Deal Labor Legislation, 92 Yale L.J. 1357 (1983). A more recent account argues that robust alternatives to employment, as well as the sheer right to quit, are both necessary and sufficient to combat employer domination. See Robert S. Taylor, Exit Left: Markets and Mobility in Republican Thought (2017). 

[46] See Van Parijs & Vanderborght, supra note 9, at 100–32; Philippe Van Parijs, Why Surfers Should Be Fed: The Liberal Case for an Unconditional Basic Income, 20 Phil. & Publ. Affairs 101 (1991).

[47] See Jon Elster, Comment on Van der Veen and Van Parijs, 15 Theory and Soc’y 709 (1986).

[48] That might include addictions to drugs, video games, or pornography. See Dieter Henkel, Unemployment and Substance Use: A Review of the Literature (1990-2010), 4 Current Drug Abuse Rev. 4 (2011); Xavier Carbonell, et al., Trends in Scientific Literature on Addiction to the Internet, Video Games, and Cell Phones from 2006 to 2010, 7 Int’l J. Prev. Med. 63 (2016); Todd Love, et al., Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, 5 Behav Sci. (Basel) 388 (2015).

[49] There is an active debate over whether it is now feasible. See, e.g., Van Parijs & Vanderborght, supra note 9, at 133–69; Benjamin M. Friedman, Born to Be Free, The New York Review of Books, Oct. 12 2017, at 39, available at; Jordi Alcarons et al., Feasibility of Financing a Basic Income, 9 Basic Income Stud. 79 (2014).

[50] The most ambitious pilot program so far was recently concluded in Finland. The final report on the program found little discernible impact on work activity. See The basic income experiment 2017–2018 in Finland: Preliminary results (2019), available at But this was a temporary program, with grants well below subsistence-level, and was unlikely to have as much impact on employment as a permanent subsistence-level program.

[51] Compare Russell Muirhead’s argument that, in the case of work that is socially necessary but not fulfilling or a good “fit” for anybody, less of it should be required to make a living. See Muirhead, supra note 21, at 174-76.

[52] Kamerade, supra note 27.

[53] Id. at 8.