When thinking about the future of society here in Wales and further afield, the role of work in our lives is another key topic, along with sustainability, energy, how we value naturedemocracy and well-being. The impact of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession – the deepest since the 1930s – on unemployment has been enormous. Yet as Prof. Alan Felstead (Social Sciences, Cardiff), one of our speakers at last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, pointed out, the situation has not changed in the way many suspected it might. Unemployment has increased, but not by as much as feared. The real impact, he suggested, is elsewhere, in the experience of work of those who survived the recession with a job intact.

We began last night’s session with Prof. Christopher Norris (Philosophy, Cardiff), who surveyed the significance attributed to work by key figures within the Western philosophical traditions, but also within literature. Indeed, he began with Thomas Gray’s Elegy and what some readers have seen as its evocation of a tragic dimension of work. Gray, Prof. Norris suggested, saw the labouring classes in 18th century British society unable to liberate their talents and use them for their own fulfilment and for society’s benefit. The poem sits alongside a growing neurosis, evident in literature more widely, about unemployment and the idle poor, and as the 19th century went on, a fear of the unemployed that is echoed in our own times.

100 Mark note, 1975 (front)
100 Mark note, 1975 (front) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since Aristotle had elevated the intellectual life above the practical, Western philosophy, Norris noted, had fuelled this neurosis by seeing work as something not entirely human, as an obstacle to the pursuit of what was best in life. This prejudice continues to be reflected in modern educational systems. Yet Aristotle’s view of happiness (the usual translation of his concept of eudaimonia) made room for recognising that a variety of human activities can contribute to human flourishing. Karl Marx developed this potential in Aristotle’s philosophy in his response to the growing immiseration of workers under the industrial system in 19th century Europe. In his scattered remarks about the future of human society under communism, he evoked the goal of autonomy – the capacity to direct one’s own activity in shaping both one’s own life and the world – as the root of human fulfilment. Marx recognised that intellectual activity is not necessarily the essence of human life; rather, purposive transformative activity (of which the intellectual life may be one example) is what defines humans. As a result, social conditions should be such as to make fulfilling work possible.

Before Marx, the ideal of creative autonomy had been developed by philosophers interested in art and aesthetics. Yet here, once more, a distinction was made between a higher and a lower form of autonomy – in the shape of the difference between art proper, and mere craft. Kant and Schiller, for example  both proposed that the essence of art was the ability to create beautiful forms without a predefined purpose – whereas the craftworker creates with a particular function in mind. Where the products of craft are primarily of instrumental value, art has the capacity to surprise both those who are engaged in creating it as well as those who appreciate it.

In both Marx’s thought and the aesthetic thought of his time, there remains a distinction between freedom and necessity – leading to the idea that truly human work must maximise creative autonomy and avoid being constrained by outside necessity. If a person uses their creative powers because they have to – and here the factory worker contributing one part of a long productive process, and craftworker  creating for a pre-given purpose are treated as essentially subject to the same pressures – then they are engaged in alienated activity. Yet this repeats the same kind of elitism found in Aristotle, by recreating a distinction between intrinsically lower and higher forms of work. Must we have such a degree of identification with our work that we are utterly absorbed within it in order to be autonomous, or can we find satisfaction in forms of work that are subject to necessity?

If the concept of autonomy, in some sense, is central to how philosophers have thought about work, Alan Felstead demonstrated, drawing on over 25 years of work survey research, that the changing experience of insecurity among employees in the UK bears witness to an erosion of autonomy – in the sense of having a say over one’s future and what activities one engages in.

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In a series of six surveys, from 1986 to 2012, randomly sampled respondents were asked an extensive series of questions about their experience of work and the pressures it brings (reports on the latest of these surveys can be found on the Cardiff University Social Sciences website). Two themes are evident from the latest research, Alan argued.

On the one hand, workplaces are increasingly characterised by fear – but not only fear of unemployment, which is a factor that distinguishes the present from the 1980s when the work surveys started. Fear of unfair treatment at work, including victimisation, and also of a loss of job status (in terms of pay, re-structuring, and/or loss of control over one’s activities – of autonomy) have all increased, particularly within the public sector. Yet fear of losing one’s job has also increased substantially, even though unemployment was much higher in 1986.

On the other hand, work intensification has also changed. Hours worked may be less overall across the workforce than in 1986. But the intensity of work within each hour worked has increased. Recessions may affect intensification in two ways. Either employers may ‘hoard labour’ (avoiding adjusting workloads in response to changes in demand for their products) or, alternatively, require workers to work faster and harder while they are at work. It seems that the latter has occurred – once again, particularly in the public sector. Causes of this intensification may be the introduction of new technology, and particularly of information and communications technologies. Lower staffing does not appear to be correlated with the new intensity of work, which suggests that new technologies, rather than being inherently liberating as many philosophers and economists have supposed them to be, are much more likely to lead to higher pressure at work. This pressure can have enormous costs for employers as well as employees, such as stress and more sick days, as well as accidents at work. Both Felstead and Norris pointed out that work now, in both the public and private sector, is subject to much more extensive and intensive processes of surveillance, performance checking and auditing. The spread of new technology has no doubt reinforced this tendency.

In discussion, several members of the audience brought up the theme of unionization and collective action more generally. Autonomy for the individual at work may be dependent both on the existence of support in the shape of collective representation, but also on the feeling of solidarity and collective identification that union membership brings. Does the philosophical tradition miss out on the necessary connection between collective identity and individual autonomy in this sense, whether the source of identity is a guild, a union or something else? Felstead suggested that there is a strong correlation between unionisation and a reduction in fear and anxiety at work, suggesting that control over one’s work environment is shaped by collective power and agency.

Others brought up self-employment and the role played by small companies and start-ups in changing the employment landscape. Does true autonomy lie in being a ‘capitalist’ rather than a worker? It was pointed out that the autonomy brought by self-employment is paid for by the cost of being exposed to other varieties of uncertainty and insecurity. Several audience members shared their experiences of anxiety and fear at work, in response particularly to the threat of loss of jobs status and/or autonomy. They argued that fear is sometimes seen by employers as beneficial to the running of an organisation, but that it is deeply counterproductive in the short- and long-term.

Others pointed out that the emphasis in recent years of the value of ‘transferable’ or ‘soft’ skills reinforces the insecurity many who have jobs feel about their prospects. A key theme here in recent sociology of work is that of the ‘entrepreneurial self’, the idea that in work, education, and even healthcare, people are being encouraged to see themselves as their own ‘human capital’, and that it is their responsibility to nurture and ‘invest’ this capital wisely. People should ensure they are constantly updating their skills or learning new ones, doing extra voluntary work to buff up their CVs, maximising their ‘wellness’ through exercise and diet, and so on. This connects with the broader theme of ‘flexibility’. As well as phenomena like zero-hours contracts, Felstead noted that the spatial and temporal boundaries of the workplace are being eroded – whether through being required to work on different sites or to bring work home to be done in the evening.

Another potential development to be considered, it was pointed out, is the effect of new technologies on unemployment as well as on intensification of work. Will new technologies continue to put people out of work as their jobs become obsolescent? This connects to other themes discussed in previous Future for Wales cafes, such as the possibility that the future will see a situation in which, increasingly, there is not enough work to go around and the sharing of work needs to become more prevalent in response.

Overall, the concept of autonomy was felt to be an important one for understanding what makes work worth doing – but that it is under threat from a variety of pressures over which it will be essential to regain some sort of control. In relation to work, autonomy may be what we want or wish for, but perhaps ‘flexibility’ is what we are increasingly getting.

  • Since 2008, have you experienced increasing fear of the loss of your job, of unfair treatment at work, or of the loss of job status? Take our survey below by clicking on the link (see pp. 2-3 of this report for definitions of ‘unfair treatment’ and ‘job status’)
  • We’re also very interested in how you think the character of work can be changed, to secure and sustain increased autonomy for workers (or indeed in whether or not you think this is indeed a problem)Add comments below the survey link to register your views!



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