There are several answers to the question, “Why work at all?” The first one, inspired perhaps by Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “work is the curse of the drinking class”, focuses on the fact that some of us frankly don’t want to work to begin with. Why bother, if we don’t have to do it?
The second, more sober spin, relates to seeing work as a kind of fulfillment, a set of roles and responsibilities that very few of us would give up completely, even if we could. So, we don’t belong to the ‘drinking class’—at least not completely. Work partially defines us. It gives us a sense of purpose and functionality, a way of achieving goals in the world that initially elude us. Work, understood in that way, is a valued part of who and what we are. As such, we are going to have to figure out how we should do it in a way that gets us where we want to go while respecting others along the way.
Already, in an era when a large majority of us have been working outside our homes for many generations, we’ve had to give all of this some serious thought. With the current COVID-19 lockdown, the question of working at home and often alone has become a pressing one. It’s also likely to intensify as a discussion, as it is entirely likely that there will be future lockdowns in response to future pandemics. This may well be just the shape of things to come.
Consider too, that as automation progresses, more and more workers will be replaced by machines. The Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, shocked many in 2015 with his prediction that over half of all UK jobs could be automated within twenty short years—not even one generation. Whatever the figures may be, it’s entirely likely that the trend towards homebodies over office workers is going to grow over the next few decades. Because of this, we should take a very close look at how we see work and by extension, ourselves as workers. Doing so raises major ethical questions.
What’s the difference, aside from the obvious: zero commuting? The overall experience of working from home can be radically different. For one thing, it means that our self-discipline is put to the test: can we really focus on work the way we do at the office; productively isolate ourselves from friends, family members, and even pets making demands on us; limit our meal and pause breaks, to name just a few challenges? It tends to be tougher than some think. The home office is a dangerous place in which enjoyable and important distractions abound. Inefficiency by a thousand cuts.
So how do we keep on track, ethically and efficiently? Part of that is having a frank chat with those physically and emotionally close to us about how, in a sense, we should be considered only partially there. This is tough, because of our roles and responsibilities as relatives, intimates, and friends. We don’t want to offend them. But we also don’t want them to interrupt us frequently with small talk that we would normally enjoy, minor queries about unpaid bills, and loud music.
In a regular and well-managed office, those things would not be challenges, although there are enough challenges of different types to be had in any public office. Furthermore, the fact that we live with the ones we love (at least in principle!) makes setting boundaries all the more difficult, assuming that we do not live alone. Some might well be offended by a request like: “It’s usually a joy talking to you, but unless the house is burning down, pretend I’m downtown in my office for most of the day!” Also, privacy concerns are such that many home workers, such as psychotherapists and financial advisors, will have to underline their need for a carefully delimited domestic space. This raises a particular lens about privacy and data ethics: that of trusting intimates with confidential information. This can even come up with people to whom we are more casually connected. You may have been irritated by a friend or co-worker not being polite enough to look away when you type in a password. The home office situation extends that in several directions. Furthermore, we’re going to have to be extra careful about online data security.
What makes all of this difficult is in part the clash of roles. To be precise, our roles as workers vs. our roles as intimates. We have every reason to expect that the current lockdown will mean the end of numerous traditional modes of acting, as early adapter home office workers could have predicted. Such workers, for example, artists, have long been aware of the tensions attached to living and working with others in the same domestic space. They cannot escape their workspace easily, and they know what it means to live in a pressure cooker.
If, as some believe, we are only witnessing the tip of the pandemic iceberg, these domestic work challenges can only become recurrent, indeed, part of our culture of work. We may come to see home workers such as artists as having been ahead of their time all along. Our very experience of domesticity, close relationships, and work will thus be transformed. Robotics, machine learning (artificial intelligence) and other technologies mean that the number of people working at home will grow, possibly supported by more adaptation of universal basic income programs so as to avoid social collapse.
It’s not that most of the key ethical questions raised here are novel; it’s rather new bottles for old wine. In which case, the question “why work?” should be answered as always: because we want to produce things, contribute to society, and do more than amuse ourselves during the decades that we spend in this world. It’s just our way of working may have to change because of pandemics and technological unemployment. We will have to do this ethically and in a way that contains our stress and anxiety levels. Are we ready?
Elliot, Larry. “Robots Threaten 15m UK Job, Says Bank of England’s Chief Economist.” The Guardian, 12 November, 2015.
Hogan, Stephanie. “Working from home for the first time? Here’s how to make it a success.” CBC, 20 March, 2020.
Tirado, Bernado. “5 Tips for Working from Home Amid COVID-19” Psychology Today, 17 March, 2020.