The Work Problem

For most ordinary people, their job is not something that they enjoy much. However, without formal work they lose focus, become dependent on welfare, and become socially stigmatized. It seems that increasing numbers of people will never be able to have secure employment. What is a practical, long term national solution to “the work problem” for ordinary people?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


Note 1: I have already written an essay very close to this topic: "The Precariously Employed – that’s you, today or tomorrow – A Search for a New World Order". Thor's Unwise Ideas blog, online @

Note 2: There is also comment on the work problem in my 2014 essay: "Crime without Punishment – the journey from means to ends". online @  


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This is an initial starter list for discussing the "The Work Problem" topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome.




Topic notes from Thor (these notes, like the reading links, will be expanded over time).

What is "the problem of work"?


a) Introduction


1)     "Work" is a term with meanings and associations which differ amongst individuals, families, cultures, and over periods of history. Therefore any discussion about work can easily be at cross purposes, or fall into narrow topics which miss larger consequences.

2)     These notes will pay a good deal of attention to the big picture historical changes which have occurred in employment. One reason for this focus is that wrenching changes in the nature of employment are occurring once again world-wide, though most individuals have only a partial and local understanding of this process. A second reason is that big changes in the nature and availability of work strongly affect what happens with the daily experience of individuals in their workplaces, although again most will only understand that experience as being particular to their workplace.

3)     In urban societies as we know them, the mechanisms for allocating people to occupations, or allowing them to choose are very complex, and have evolved over the last two centuries.

a)     The broad patterns are strongly influenced by types of economic systems - various versions of capitalism, socialism, command economies (communism, dictatorships), and so on.

b)    Shifting patterns of global manufacture, services, trade and technology are other major factors.

c)     The presence or absence of organized labour unions, and associations for employer collusion, greatly affect the relationships between employed labour and employers.

d)    The role and effectiveness of legal frameworks within which employment occurs critically governs outcomes.

e)     The commitment and enthusiasm with which work itself is done partly depends upon all of the preceding factors, but also turns upon cultural habits and expectations. The general experience of workplaces is apt to be quite different in, say, Australia, Japan, Italy, Germany and Nigeria.


b) The Personal Present of Work Related Issues


8)     For most people "the work problem" is very personal (and this might be the preferred focus of meetup members..) .

a)     Many will be concerned with having "a career", and how to plan for this.

b)    They will be interested in the kind of training or education they need for a chosen career.

c)     They will want to know how difficult it is to obtain work in their field, and what processes are involved in this.

d)    Some will want to know how internationally mobile they can be over a working life with a certain kind of profession.

e)     Once they obtain a job, they will want to know the prospects for advancement.

f)     They will need to make a judgement about job security, the duration of their employment, and maybe plan for future changes.

g)    The in-company culture will be important to them - working hours, flexibility, hierarchy, gender relations, holiday & sick leave, dress codes etc, the rewards & discouragements for initiative.

h)     They will want to know if the employer has any interest in the work-life balance of employees, or approached the relationship in a purely predatory manner.


c) Unemployment, underemployment and insecure employment – some history


9)     A second issue of popular concern is the local unemployment rate, and government support programs for the unemployed. Most people react to these worries with little knowledge of or interest in the history of these issues. Their ideas about solutions therefore often have more to do with prejudice than effective reasoning. However unemployment can only be understood and managed through a long view of complex processes.

a)     After the trauma of the Great Depression from 1929 and through the 1930s a whole generation worldwide developed powerful beliefs about the importance of secure employment. This sentiment was reflected strongly in the economic priorities of most electable governments up until the mid-1970s. Australia successfully maintained low unemployment for much of the post World War 2 period. Safety net social security programs for those who were unemployed became much more robust.

b)    In the 1970s a problem arose in some economies where inflation was rising at the same time as unemployment (stagflation). This made fiscal control of an economy very difficult for governments since at that time they wanted neither inflation nor unemployment, yet the control of one made the other worse. A solution was found using one version of an economic model called “supply side economics” (Roberts 2014). However the technical solution later became corrupted for political purposes (Reagonomics, Thatcherism), with an ideology of cutting taxation to favour the rich, and using higher unemployment as a tool to keep wage demands low and workers passive. This political formula is still popular with some conservative governments (for example the current federal government in Australia, 2014).

c)     The permanent loss of jobs which has been occurring in countries like the United States and Australia stems directly from the corruption of political values which accelerated from the 1970s. This understanding is becoming fairly widespread amongst the educated public (though it is probably not grasped widely enough to sway elections). For example, I don’t happen to agree with all of the views of Paul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy during the Reagan presidency. However he describes the ongoing destruction of employment futures quite succinctly:

The George W. Bush tax cuts have nothing to do with supply-side economics. The Bush tax cuts were nothing but a greedy grab, but they are not a significant cause of today’s inequality. The main causes of the unacceptable inequality of income and wealth in the US today are financial deregulation and the dismantling of the ladders of upward mobility by the offshoring of manufacturing and tradable professional service jobs. The wages and salaries denied to Americans are transformed into corporate profits, mega-million dollar executive bonuses, and capital gains for shareholders. Financial deregulation unleashed massive debt leverage of bank depositors’ accounts, backed up with Federal Reserve bailouts of the banksters’ uncovered gambling bets. Neither tax increases nor reductions can compensate for these extraordinary mistakes. (Roberts 2014).


d) The role of managerialism in employment destruction


10)  The destruction described by Roberts has actually been overseen by a new managerial elite, and no major changes in the nature and security of work will be possible until this elite is brought under control.

a)     After World War II, the control of complex organizations was consciously transferred into the hands of a professional management class. This process drew originally on theories of the industrial psychologist, Elton Mayo (1880-1949), who believed that managerialism – managers manipulating people to fit the norms of an organization  - was superior to democracy (Wikipedia 2014). The idea was given political shape firstly in the United States through the activities and beliefs of James Burnham (Sempa 2000).

b)    Managerialism subsequently spread worldwide and is now the effective governing mechanism in the majority of countries (regardless of public ideology). Now that a managerial class rules the world, the objectives of upper managers have largely turned to personal enrichment. Managerialism has evolved to become a mechanism for manipulating people for the private benefit of a managerial elite rather than the benefit of the public, the benefit of employees, the long term success of the organization, or even the best interests of shareholders. The net outcome is overwhelmingly that employment security is lost for most employees and working conditions deteriorate. The net commercial outcome is usually that economic competition is diminished. (Managerialism in tertiary education institutions has been especially noxious, but that is a subject too extensive to explore here. See my doctoral dissertation, Language Tangle, on knowledge worker productivity : May 2010)

c)     A favourite tool for the personal enrichment of managers is asset stripping public utilities by privatization, and since the 1990s this has accelerated from Moscow to Beijing, from Washington to Sydney. An Australian example of the day is the privatization of Medibank Private whose CEO will get a huge income boost, and whose employees will inevitably diminish (Desloires 2104).


e) The role of globalization in employment destruction


11)  Globalization can be seen as a development in international trading relationships, or as a consequence of the search for economies of scale and resource optimization in manufacture, or as a natural outcome of accelerating developments in technology, computerization and communications, or in a variety of other ways. However, as with all economic processes, the agents of globalization are human agents, and the human agents with the specialized interests which drove globalization have been the new managerial elite.

a)     Some understanding of the history of industrialization is necessary at this point. It is useful to retrace the changing ideas of what “work” itself has meant before and after the industrial revolution beginning in the late 18th Century. Only then can we see the ways in which a managerial elite, post World War II drove globalization and set industry on a path of labour and capital arbitrage – a path which first popularized the notion of stable careers for large numbers of people, and then destroyed that prospect with a new paradigm of lifelong insecure employment, or even permanent unemployment, for a vast underclass which the sociologist, Guy Standing (2013) has termed the precariat, the precariously employed.  


f) Pre-Industrial Historical Background


8)     Our present idea of work had little meaning for most people before the Industrial Revolution (from the late 18th Century).

9)     In earlier times there was a fairly small number of occupations.

a)     These earlier occupations were usually hereditary.

b)    Earlier occupations were tied to fixed social classes

c)     Attempts by an individual to change occupations/classes were usually prevented and punished (even by death). Social mobility was an affront to God, the king and the social order.

d)    The closest modern equivalent to traditional occupations/classes might be the caste system of India.

e)     Examples of early occupations were king, nobles, soldiers, farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, servants, slaves

f)     Women were not usually members of most early occupational classes, except as partners and assistants to men.

g)    Early occupational categories, being inherited, largely depended upon parents and elders for skilling new members.

h)     Pre-industrial traditional occupations were automatically for life. "unemployment" was not a meaningful concept, although underemployment was common.

g) The First Stage of Urban Economic Development, UED1


10)  The first waves of industrialization both caused and was caused by massive urbanization. Millions moved from the country to new cities (McElroy 2012). This first stage of urban economic development can be called UED1.

a)     The first stage of industrialization attempted to replace old occupational categories with new categories suitable for industry and commerce.

b)    The creation of new occupational categories was not at first duplicated by the creation of new, more fluid social categories. This caused stress, conflict, and eventually revolutions.

c)     Various ideologies emerged as attempts to justify new kinds of social ordering: raw capitalism, communism, socialism (a mix of features from the first two), political fascism, managerialism (since World War II) ... and so on. The clash of ideologies gave rise to over two centuries of violent wars.

d)    New industrial and commercial occupations inducted members on the basis of skills, aptitude, personal connections and purchase (bribery). All of these channels are still found, together with professionalized recruitment channels.

e)     The new occupations required non-traditional skills. They required literacy and numeracy. They often required years of non-workplace education.  Thus a huge need for mass education arose.

f)     Mass education imitated most of the organizational features of the factories and commercial enterprises they were serving. The psychological concepts of learning similarly had a mechanistic resemblance to factory production processes. Professional attempts to find more sophisticated ways to teach and to learn have continued to meet with resistance from the public, from industry and from governments.

g)    In the early industrial age, newly urbanized workers had no employment security, working conditions were often unsafe and brutal, and people died young. This led to a strong reaction, and by the mid 20th Century, the idea of a "career" with long periods of continuous employment was the norm in advanced economies.

h)     The owners of capital in the original industrial nations of UED1 had eventually been forced into a sort of social contract with workers. That is, industry and commerce, controlled by owners of capital, had needed skilled workers. They therefore had to invest in educating workers, and providing long term careers.

i)      UED1 was accompanied by colonialism, a system by which industrialized nations occupied and forced third world populations to supply raw materials to the home factories of the colonizing state (Britain was a leader in this process).


h) The Second Stage of Urban Economic Development, UED2


11)  The second stage of urban economic development (UED2) became important a little before the turn of the 21st Century.

a)     UED2 at first was called a "post industrial age". It wasn't really that. Industry "globalized". First manufacturing industries were moved to the cheapest world labour locations, then more and more service industries.

b) Compliant labour was also imported under the guise of temporary or permanent migration to avoid training costs and other social obligations. Labour migration is a huge and complex phenomenon involving both push and pull factors. For workers it has offered new opportunities but led to exploitation on many levels. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are currently around 232 million migrant workers around the world (ILO 2014 , Wikipedia 2014 “Migrant Worker”).

c)    As whole industries began to disappear from the original industrial nations of UED1, careers also began to disappear. So-called service jobs began to dominate employment opportunities which remained. The role of technology in employment has always been ambiguous, both creating and destroying jobs (see Wikipedia: Technological Unemployment) . The advent of the Internet, for example, has led to a great proliferation of new occupations, many involving small scale entrepreneurship, while other more traditional clerical occupations have vanished.

d)     Automation and robots increasingly replaced surviving low-skill jobs in the original industrial nations, and then began to replace even relatively skilled jobs (The Economist 2014: see table left). Around 2005 in the United States a threshold was crossed where the number of non-routine jobs passed 50% of the total, with routine jobs trending rapidly towards zero (Boyd 2014). It has sometimes been difficult to evaluate where job losses were linked to automation, or simply offshored to cheaper labour locations:

“…it is undeniable that something strange is happening in the U.S. labor market. Since the end of the Great Recession, job creation has not kept up with population growth. Corporate profits have doubled since 2000, yet median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped from $55,986 to $51,017. At the same time, after-tax corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product increased from around 5 to 11 percent, while compensation of employees as a share of GDP dropped from around 47 to 43 percent. Somehow businesses are making more profit with fewer workers”. (Scientific American, July 2014)

e)    The owners of capital in UED2 began to question the social contract which had led to their investment in education, training and long term employment for workers in UED1. That is, capital was deployed in a world market with many companies no longer committed to the people of one nation. Contributions of company taxation to national treasuries diminished drastically and continuously from the 1950s (Ritholtz 2011).

f)     The owners of capital in UED2 invested heavily in the political manipulation of governments through lobbying and financial inducements.

i)      It was particularly important to them to encourage international trade agreements to maximize the free cross-border flow of capital for maximum company profit (Dorling 2014, Garnaut 2014). The more easily such transfers could occur, the less they were dependent upon labour in any one country, and the more free they were to minimize taxation contributions to host societies.

ii)     A high proportion of the profits siphoned from host societies were warehoused in offshore tax havens. These warehoused funds were estimated to amount to up to $32 trillion dollars (British Parliamentary Tax Justice  Network: TJN 2013), dwarfing the size of most economies and ceasing to benefit populations anywhere, or even their “owners” in any useful way. Neither the companies, nor supportive politicians seemed ready to comprehend this process as a form of treason.


i) Future consequences of UED2 


12)  The employment landscape post-UED2 will be a very different one from that which our parents knew.

a)     On present indications (see the notes above) in the future only a minority of people will have secure, long term employment throughout their working lives.

b)    A majority will have rather insecure employment for varying lengths of time.

c)     Large numbers will have to retrain several times, many into totally different occupations.

d)    In the least able section of the population, which is more or less unskilled, huge numbers of individuals will spend years unemployed because the kind of work they can do will simply not exist in sufficient quantity.

13)  The consequences of the employment scenario outlined in 12) go to the core of our civilization.

a)     What will be the psychological consequences on people of lifelong employment insecurity or unemployment?

b)    How are the overall values of the society likely to change to fit this new reality? For example, will new forms of class discrimination emerge?

c)     What will be the long-term political consequences of majority long term employment insecurity?

d)    How will financial institutions adapt to a flaky credit situation where the majority of the population have a problem with long term debt like mortgages?

e)     Will employment insecurity have major implications for family planning and population growth?

f)     When structural unemployment affects a major part of the population, and even well educated people struggle to earn consistently over a lifetime, how will governments fund the huge and unavoidable social welfare & pension bills?

g)    When commerce and industry contribute an ever-diminishing proportion of taxation, why is the lobbying influence of this sector on government continuously increasing, and the influence of the electorate decreasing? What can be done about it?



j) A Brief reflection on human resilience and finding a meaning in work


14)  The universe of occupations and interests we swim in now would have been beyond the conception of anyone for most of the last 6000 years of recorded history, let alone the two million odd years since the recognizable emergence of our species.

a)    The human genius has been continual adaptation. Our adaptation to this point has been successful in the sense of species survival, and stupendous in the sense of technological innovation. Socially we have been less creative, though not without change.

b)    It may be that the disjunction between an explosive growth in technical capacity and still primitive social tendencies will cause our extinction.

c)    In the meantime, like a long tail of disbanded evolutionary DNA, ancient personal solutions continue to sustain some individuals and groups in ways that no one has yet reduced to a theory of economics or a mathematical model. Often these solutions have more to do with faith than reason.

d)    In matters of human health for example, traditional solutions may even invoke miracles (Elliot 2014), and yet (like so much in medical practice) they work for some regardless of not understanding “why”. After all, it is the body’s own immune system which promotes healing, and activating that in whatever way – by technology or chemistry or faith – is what preserves the organism.

e)    The lesson from our “irrational” ability to survive is that the sterilized exclusion by medicine of alternative solutions eventually excludes discovery and innovation. Similarly, the reduction of biodiversity strangles the scope for new discovery.

f)    Our continued existence depends upon keeping a balance that is also open to change. The reduction of social experiment by the straightjacket of a rigid ideology, or an uncritical economic model, or inflexible customs of work and consumption, or sheer laziness perpetuating all of the above,  will eventually strangle the capacity of humans to find new meanings for work and for living.


[more to come]




References & Reading List


Adonis, James (2013) “I’m bored witless – plight of the overqualified”. Brisbane Times, online @

Adonis, James (September 26, 2014) "Work is making you numb". Brisbane Times online @

Alia (September 3rd, 2013) "Is a college degree worthless in today’s China?" Offbeat China blog, online @

Associated Press (December 1, 2013) "London mayor Boris Johnson claims poor have low IQs and greed is good". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Boyd, Stowe (09/04/2014) "When Robots Take Over Most Jobs, What Will Be the Purpose of Humans?". Huffington Post online @

Chang, Ha-Joon (2014) "Economics: The User's Guide". Bloomsbury Press. Also available in eBook format at

Chomsky, Noam (5 August 2012) " Plutonomy and the Precariat". Huffington Post, online @

Courtenay, Adam (July 16, 2014a) "Getting a job after 50". Brisbane Times online @

Courtenay, Adam (October 1, 2014b) "Help for older women who need jobs". Brisbane Times online @

Desloires, Vanessa (October 3, 2014) "The 400 per cent pay rise: Medibank chief George Savvides to cash in on privatization”. Brisbane Times online @

Dorling, Philip (June 20, 2014) "Secret trade negotiations: is this the end of the big four?". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Dunn, Claire (July 7, 2014) "How to spot a fake job ad". Brisbane Times online @

Elliott, Tim (October 4, 2014) "John of God: Miracle worker or charlatan?". Brisbane Times online @

Featherstone, Tony ( April 10, 2014) "How many job ads are fake?". Brisbane Times online @

Garnaut, John (October 3, 2014) "Prime Minister Tony Abbott will drop free trade agreement with China unless Australia gets same concessions as New Zealand". Brisbane Times online @

Gigerenzer, Gerd (2014) Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions Hardcover. [highly recommended] pub. Viking Adult. Available online (including ebook format) @

Govan , Fiona (2013) “Three degrees, yet I clean a lavatory – the tale of Spain’s lost generation”. Sydney Morning Herald, online @

Guy Standing ( n.d. ) The Precariat Facebook page. Facebook, online @ [explanation: the sociologist, Guy Standing has defined what he calls a new social class, the Precariat. The rest of us call these people the insecurely employed. They now form a large part and increasing of the workforce in most countries, even amongst the highly educated. Standing has recognized that governments ignore this group of people, a socially perilous oversight. He has been giving lectures worldwide for several years on the subject]

Guy Standing (19 April 2013) "Defining the precariat". Eurozine, online @

Guy Standing (2011) “The Precariat and Basic Income”. online @ || also The Precariat – the new dangerous class. (book) Bloomsbury Academic, online @

Guy Standing (2012) "The precariat is you and me". The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Commission, online @

Guy Standing (24 May 2011) "The Precariat – The new dangerous class". Policy Network website, online @ +The+new+dangerous+class

Guy Standing (9 July, 2013) “Precariat And Peasant: Reframing Social Protection For The 21st Century”. SOAS University of London, inaugural address, online video @

He, Amy (2014-10-03) "US visas hinder talent search: expert". China Daily online @

ILO (2014) "Labour Migration". International Labour Organization, online @

Karol (9 October 2013) "Insecure work in NZ’s precariat". The Standard, online @

Lee Chang- gon (March 27, 2013) “Koreans’ unhappiness is related to instability”. The Hankyorehnewspaper, online @

Lee, Jane (September 30, 2014) "Christopher Pyne denies 12 per cent youth unemployment is a 'crisis'". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Maugham, Somerset (1924) The Ant and the Grasshopper". Things blog, online @

May, Thor (2003) “The Case for Favoritism”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (2008b) “The End of Capitalism is Announced”. Thor’s New China Diary, online @

May, Thor (2010) Language Tangle - Predicting and facilitating outcomes in language education - PhD dissertation from the University of Newcastle, NSW. online @

May, Thor (2012) “ Hidden Boundaries: – A Joint-Venture Education Program in China ” . website, online @

May, Thor (2013a) “The Contest for Competence”. online @

May, Thor (2013b) "The Precariously Employed – that’s you, today or tomorrow – A Search for a New World Order". Thor's Unwise Ideas blog, online @

May, Thor (201 4 ) "Crime without Punishment – the journey from means to ends". online @

Milman, Oliver (18 September 2014) "'Budget emergency' denied by 63 leading Australian economists". The Guardian online @

Piketty, Thomas (2014) "Capital in the Twenty-First Century". eBook edition available online @

Roberts, Paul Craig (February 3, 2014) "What Is Supply-Side Economics?". Paul Craid Roberts Institute for Political Economy, online @

Ronson, Jon (6/14/2011) "Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs". Forbes Magazine online @

Rozen, Jonathan (24 September 2014) "Mongolian poor turn garbage into gold". Asia Times online @

Schnurer, Eric (Aug 15 2013) "Everything You Think You Know About Government Fraud Is Wrong. Government programs, from food stamps to Medicare, don't have unusually high fraud rates -- and the culprits are usually managers and executives, not 'welfare queens'". Disqus Website, online @

Scientific American (Jul 15, 2014) "Will Automation Take Our Jobs? Are computers taking our jobs? It is surprisingly hard to say, largely because of a lack of good data". Scientific American online @

Sempa, Francis P. (2000, Fall) “The First Cold Warrior: James Burnham (1905-1987)”. American Diplomacy, 5:4. online @

Sheehan, Matt (09/26/2014) "China's Funemployed Grads 'Gnaw On the Old'". Huffington Post online @

Smith, Warwick (27 August 2014) "Part 1: Why politicians must lie – and how selling ice-creams is like an election campaign". The Guardian online @

Smith, Warwick (11 Septembe 2014) "Part 2: Political donations corrupt democracy in ways you might not realise". The Guardian online @

Smith, Warwick (18 September 2014) "Part 3: If democracy is broken, why should we vote?". The Guardian online @

Strachan, Maxwell (22 October 2013) "Here Are 5 Million People That The U.S. Economy Has Abandoned". Huffington Post, online @

The Economist (Jan 18th 2014) "The future of jobs - The onrushing wave - Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change". The Economist online @

TJN (2013) "Estimating the Price of Offshore - Headline report" [TM comment: Ideology may often be a pantomime for the masses. The real deal: the amount of US$ in circulation is rouglhy US$1.2 trillion. The offshore wealth (mostly secretly) held by individuals and companies is estimated at US$21-32 trillion. For every $1 of aid sent to Africa, 80 cents recirculates back offshore. From the $1 billion or so that Google sucked out of Australia last year, $74,000 tax was paid .. and so on. Most world leaders are in on this scam]. Tax Justice Network, online @

Weale, Sally (27 September 2014) "The school with no rules that teaches the unteachable - Documentary goes beyond the school gates at Ian Mikardo high school, where boys deemed unteachable are making a fresh start". The Guardian online @

Weissmann , Jordan (February 20, 2013) "The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts". The Atlantic, online @

Weissmann , Jordan (Oct (9 2013) "1 in 5 U.S. Workers: I'm Too Educated for My Job - Actually, that's not so bad, by international standards". The Atlantic, online @

West, Michael (September 29, 2014) "ATO needs to 'man up' on tax dodges". Brisbane Times online @

West, Michael (September 21, 2013) "Corporates can't lose in the welfare state". Brisbane Times online @

Wikipedia (2013) “ Brazil’s Bolsa Familia” [an income transfer program to the poor]. online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Managerialism". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) “Migrant Worker”. Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Technological unemployment".Wikipedia online @

Williams, Zoe (29 May 2014) "Economics: The User's Guide by Ha-Joon Chang – review - Are you perfectly selfish? This page-turning exploration of why economics is always politics is a radical explanation of … everything". The Guardian Online @




Fake It ‘Till You Make It – A viable way to succeed? (c) Thor May 2014


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