The future of work as a social value

The future of work as a social value

The distrust of mainstream parties, increasingly visible in the West, is also a symptom of the end of a world. It is at such borderline moments, when the world has not yet changed, but can no longer function as it did before, that it is easiest for us to see what political opponents have in common.

Under normal circumstances, the differences jump out at us: some want (re)unionisation of the economy, others want more laissez-faire capitalism, some want greater rights for employees, others greater freedom for employers, some want policies to combat inequality, others advocate economic development at any cost - and so on. Depending on these differences, each of us chooses the political party that represents us. And we don't see what these opponents have in common, what makes them all, regardless of ideology, representatives of a certain era.

But, as I said, it is at borderline moments that the common values of the old combatants stand out the most - because it is precisely these common values that are rejected in the name of a new world that is about to take shape.

Now, we all tend to believe that our moral intuitions express some kind of eternal moral truth, beyond time and space - so that the moral rules of the society in which we live are somehow immutable and universal. But this belief is demonstrably false: most of our moral intuitions are local; they express the "truths" of a specific culture and of a historical time. They never express universal truths.

There are times in history when members of a society begin to complain that "there are no morals anymore". Any historian of civilizations can identify countless such moments, from the time when the imperial Roman elite lamented the disappearance of the virtues of the early republican period to today, when conservatives increasingly speak of "moral relativism".

In reality, however, 'morality' is not disappearing. Only the moral intuitions on the basis of which members of a society come to live together change. The moral intuitions exhibited at the social level are important clues for the identification of a historical epoch. We recognise one epoch or another by, among other things, the common system of moral intuitions.

In times of transition, when the old moral intuitions no longer meet the consensus and the new moral intuitions have not yet succeeded in replacing the old ones, we have political crises. In fact, we have systemic crises. Today we are experiencing one such crisis, in which representatives of the old system of moral intuitions are being rejected en bloc by the advocates of the new intuitions that are about to become the norm.

One of the old moral intuitions that is currently being broken down is that work is a fundamental social value. I won't invoke here the tons of theoretical articles that dispute the value of work. Instead, I will turn to the social reality as it emerges from empirical research, because only the social reality can help us understand how much things have actually changed.

According to the World Values Survey (Wave 7, 2017-2022), to the question "If, in the future, work became less important in our lives, do you think this change would be a good thing, something you don’t mind, or a bad thing?" the answers come as follows (

Australia: a good thing, 37%; don’t mind, 40.2%; a bad thing, 19.6%

Austria: a good thing, 39.2; don’t mind, 15.6%; a bad thing, 42.7%

Canada: a good thing, 41%; don’t mind, 40.6%; a bad thing, 18.4%

Denmark: a good thing, 41.6%; don’t mind, 15.7%; a bad thing, 41.6%

Finland: a good thing, 34.8%; don’t mind, 11.5%; a bad thing, 50.6%

France: a good thing, 40.3%; don’t mind, 20.2%; a bad thing, 36%

Germany: a good thing, 44.8%; don’t mind, 13.1%; a bad thing, 38.8%

Greece: a good thing, 25.2%; don’t mind, 13.6%; a bad thing, 55.9%

Italy: a good thing, 26.9%; don’t mind, 16.6%; a bad thing, 51.2%

Iceland: a good thing, 58.5%; don’t mind, 11%; a bad thing, 34.9%

Netherlands: a good thing, 32.4%; don’t mind, 29.1%; a bad thing, 20%

New Zealand: a good thing, 38.6%; don’t mind, 39.2%; a bad thing, 16.6%

Norway: a good thing, 21.3%; don’t mind, 13.6%; a bad thing, 63.3%

Portugal: a good thing, 37.9%; don’t mind, 13%; a bad thing, 45.4%

Spain: a good thing, 45.2%; don’t mind, 9%; a bad thing, 42%

Sweden: a good thing, 40.1%; don’t mind, 16.4%; a bad thing, 40.4%

Switzerland: a good thing, 49.6%; don’t mind, 15.2%; a bad thing, 33.2%

Turkey: a good thing, 39.1%; don’t mind, 25.5%; a bad thing, 33.7%

United Kingdom: a good thing, 42.9%; don’t mind, 36.9%; a bad thing, 18.6%

United States of America: a good thing, 29.1%; don’t mind, 39.9%; a bad thing, 30.3%

In short, in the vast majority of Western countries included in Wave 7 of the WVS the idea of work as a fundamental value doesn’t meet anymore the approval of the majority of citizens, and is therefore no longer capable of generating moral consensus at the social level. Giving up the idea that work is a fundamental value is considered a bad thing by less than 50% of respondents, with the exception of Greece, Finland, Italy and Norway – and in Italy and Finland the pro-work majority is already extremely thin.

We now live in post-materialist societies, where the quality of life is considered far more important than the standard of living.

The transition is already visible in various Asian countries and territories too:

Hong Kong: a good thing, 26.9%; don’t mind, 43.5%; a bad thing, 28.9%

Indonesia: a good thing, 44.5%; don’t mind, 9%; a bad thing, 46.1%

Macau: a good thing, 44.1%; don’t mind, 37.4%; a bad thing, 18.1%

Malaysia: a good thing, 29.9%; don’t mind, 27.4%; a bad thing, 42.7%

Pakistan: a good thing, 35.8%; don’t mind, 16.9%; a bad thing, 45.9%

Singapore: a good thing, 29.2%; don’t mind, 42.5%; a bad thing, 27.8%

South Korea: a good thing, 27.5%; don’t mind, 35.9%; a bad thing, 36.6%

Thailand: a good thing, 20%; don’t mind, 28.2%; a bad thing, 44.6%

Societies are changing, and so are our moral intuitions.