In the United States, your job defines you. Work is at the center of life in America. Any job that generates income is seen as more valuable than other types of “work” we can perform—parenting, family care, volunteering or artistic pursuit. The goal that propels our work-centered culture is having an income-producing job. The problem we face, however, is that this emphasis on work causes serious problems in other parts of our society.

Changing What “Work” Means

While our society emphasizes traditional paying jobs, employment opportunities are dwindling and the future looks less and less promising for young job seekers. With nearly 65 million employment-age people unemployed, how do we keep these citizens engaged in our society to help keep the country moving forward? The answer is to transform and expand what we consider to be “work.” Then, we must implement policies that make “work” available and compensated for all who can perform it.

The U.S. must transition from a work society to what is known as a “postwork” society. In a postwork society, the idea of “work” is expanded beyond just labor-market jobs. In a postwork environment, income-producing jobs are not considered to be the highest calling and primary moral duty. Traditional paid work is not the center of social life. Income-producing work is not prioritized over all other pursuits.

In a postwork society, what we currently consider to be civic engagement would be compensated like traditional income-producing work. Any involvement in the arts, our communities, politics, family care, parenting, elderly care would be compensated. This civil labor would be recognized, valued and rewarded with “civic money,” which is a form of compensation for civic work that could take the form of cash, exchange or system of credit.

Ideally, people in a postwork society would engage in multiple activities where “income” was made up of traditional income-producing jobs and civic work. Since we currently do not have enough income-producing job opportunities, we should pursue a policy initiative that would establish a guaranteed employment program in the U.S. A guaranteed employment program could move those currently unemployed into civic positions. This type of program would need to be paired with a universal basic income policy that could be funded with money moved from programs like unemployment insurance, food assistance and cash assistance.

What You Need To Know

While our society promotes obtaining and holding a job as our single-most valuable pursuit, the number of long-term jobs available in America has been severely reduced and replaced by short-term positions. Lower-paying jobs in retail, customer service and food service are much more prevalent today than the higher-paying positions we used to have in manufacturing and construction. Too many of our workers hold precarious, temporary jobs or no job at all. Years after the Great Recession, 8.5 million former workers remain unemployed.

Today, there are not enough jobs in the United States to go around. Our current employment-age population is around 210 million. Only 145 million of these citizens are actually employed.

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Get Involved

A postwork society would go a long way in engaging citizens in America who are outside the current labor market. It would help overcome societal challenges like poor volunteer participation, failing infrastructure, difficult family care and supportive parenting. The next president of the United States must be encouraged to embrace the ideals of a postwork society and support its development.

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Elke Peterson

Believe this is currently under governmental review in the EU, i.e. Germany

Allen Chesney

Postwork Society sounds like the latest version of socialism, and some European nations now have similar programs. I can understand the appeal of a program like this that would benefit all of our citizens, not just wealthy people or those with good jobs. However, I live in the Bible Belt and there are tens of millions of people here who would be adamantly opposed to such a program. To them, "socialism" is evil. Even if Hillary Clinton is elected president, she will still face Republican majorities in the U.S. House and possibly the Senate who would strongly resist such a program. Another caveat is that government workers would be needed to decide which people get compensated, and how much, for their laudable civic and family efforts. The U.S. and state governments have a pretty poor record on their handling of welfare, public housing, food stamps, health care, veterans benefits etc. If we want Postwork Society to exist, we have to figure out how to make it work. Allen Chesney B.A. Penn 1974

Regina Schwabe

This subject struck a chord with me. Since retiring 2 years ago, I have found working as a volunteer for our community organizing events a very satisfying activity. The state park group in Virginia has logged 200,000 volunteer hours in the last year and stated that without the Friends groups, many programs would not be filled. The creative energy that is unleashed when able to work on a project that has your heart is wonderful. These kinds of activities were considered free time by my working job-oriented self. I now consider them an important part of my life. Perhaps we could have a happier, less stressed citizenry if work was redefined as anything useful to society and compensated by services, not necessarily a salary. It sounds utopian, but something needs to change. So many people are unhappy and overworked at their jobs, while others are underemployed or unemployed. Thank you for initiating this discussion.
About the author

Roberta Rehner Iversen, PhD, MSS

Dr. Roberta Iversen uses ethnographic research to better understand and improve welfare and workforce development policy and programs and to extend knowledge about economic mobility, especially in relation to families who are working but still poor. Dr. Iversen’s ethnographic accounts illuminate what low-income working parents need from secondary schools, job training organizations, businesses and firms, their children’s public schools, and public policy in order to earn enough to support their families through work. Housing policy in Milwaukee, WI, and workforce development programs and policy in New Orleans, LA, Seattle, WA, St. Louis, MO, and Philadelphia, PA, have been improved by findings from Dr. Iversen’s research. Dr. Iversen’s earlier book, Jobs Aren’t Enough: Toward a New Economic Mobility for Low-Income Families (2006; Temple University Press) presents new ways to increase the economic mobility of low-income families.