Towards a post-work future: a necessary agenda to reconcile feminist & ecological concerns with work

Towards a post-work future: a necessary agenda to reconcile feminist & ecological concerns with work
Emilie Tricarico
Exploring Economics, 2018
Level: beginner
Perspectives: Feminist Economics, Ecological Economics
Topic: degrowth, gender, labour & care, resources, environment & climate
Format: Text

Towards a post-work future: a necessary agenda to reconcile feminist & ecological concerns with work

Author: Emilie Tricarico

Review: Maja Hoffmann

This is an essay of the writing workshop Socio-Ecological Economics, published on 5 October 2018


Recent discourse on the crisis of work has led to a renewed interest in theories and proposals from the field of post-work. Among the many issues related to work in modern capitalist societies, feminist and ecological concerns are of great importance. Feminist accounts of work have outlined the problematic gender division of labour and the distinction between paid and unpaid household and care work. Ecological prospects, on the other hand, focus on the issues of labour productivity growth within a finite planet and work-related pressures on the environment.

Many studies have highlighted the positive correlation between environmental pressures and working time across countries by using common ecological indicators, such as environmental footprint or the IPAT equation[1] (eg. Hayden and Shandra, 2009; Knight et al., 2013). However, in overlooking fundamental aspects of political economy, work seems to have largely been analysed as a fixed category external from capitalist mechanisms of production. Similarly, feminist accounts on work have proposed different solutions to resolve the gender division of work by heavily relying on the market, for which Marxist feminist economists among others have stressed the problematic effect of reinforcing the supremacy of capitalist institutions, which are themselves intrinsically gendered (Weeks, 2011).

As a result, this essay will outline the basis for embracing a post-work agenda, rooted in an emancipatory potential from the domination of waged work, which could help answer both feminist and ecological concerns with work. It would be beyond the remit of this paper to present a comprehensive account of ecological and feminist issues with work or to draw a complete picture of post-work. Rather, it will focus on reconciling a conception of work rooted in an understanding of capitalist dynamics with some key issues raised from feminist and ecological positions as a way to discuss the rationale and the means for achieving a post-work future.

Work under capitalism

Wage labour, viewed from a Marxist political economy lens, is a key pillar to the capitalist mode of production and the standpoint from which the apparatus of capitalism must be revealed (Weeks, 2011). Marx's labour value theory stresses that, given the capitalist monopoly over the means of production, workers are compelled to sell their labour power in exchange for a wage (Fine and Saad-Filho, 2010). This fundamental distinction between labour and labour power reveals both relations of production and exploitation within capitalism (Fine and Saad-Filho, 2010). Indeed, for capitalists to be able to make a profit, through the creation of surplus value, the socially necessary labour time to meet the workers' needs must be less than the labour power required for production (Spencer, 2009). Thus, for Marx the exploitation of workers' unpaid labour time such as through the extension of the working day is a central feature of capitalism (Spencer, 2009). In addition, Moore (2015) posits that this appropriation from unpaid work extends beyond that of the wageworker to women, nature, and colonies, which are together central for capital accumulation and its long-run global expansion.

In addition to waged work being key for the distribution of income under capitalism, it also plays a central function of sociality and allocation of status within our societies (Weeks, 2011). For this reason, work creates and channels dominant values, such as with the moralising work ethic, used as a political tool to shape public policies and reinforced by popular media (Weeks, 2011). As a result, some would argue that it is necessary to break from the ideology that work represents since the current solutions to the ill-health of work, such as the injunctions of work-life balance, bare the risk of reinforcing the centrality and dominant rule of work within our lives and the capitalist institutions it serves (Frayne, 2015; Gorz, 1999).


The problems with work

A feminist perspective

Common issues related to the gender pay gap, as well as the underrepresentation of women in certain jobs and functions, should be viewed as symptoms of a deeper problem. Indeed, from a feminist standpoint, work itself is to be conceived as a "site of gendering" (Weeks, 2011, p.9), which plays a central role in the production and reproduction of gender identities. This fundamental gendering of work is a result of both institutional structures and expectations of performance typically attributed to the female gender, which prompt a cultural gendered division at work (Curcio and Weeks, 2015).

Central to feminist economics analysis is the concept of social reproduction also defined as social provisioning (Leonard and Fraser, 2016; Power, 2014). This refers to activities related to the birthing and raising of children and caring for the elderly on one side and the maintenance of relationships among friends, family, neighborhoods and community on the other, which are central to the functioning of all societies (Leonard and Fraser, 2016). Fraser (Leonard and Fraser, 2016) argues that "the gendered separation of social reproduction from economic production constitutes the principal institutional basis for women’s subordination in capitalist societies". Indeed, the reason for women's work to be placed outside the labour market was fundamental in capital accumulation, as it was the precondition for the wage male worker's labour productivity (Mies, 1986). For Federici (2014) the overall devaluation and appropriation of women's labour, situated in the late 15th Century, was made possible through the expulsion of women from their lands (lost to enclosures), crafts, and organised workplace, as well as the institution of the family being increasingly separated from the public sphere.

Ecological concerns

The idea of a "just transition", which calls upon the creation of green jobs in low-carbon sectors and industries gained recognition as a way to both mitigate against the effects of climate change while benefitting employment (Travieso et al., 2018). The rationale for a "just transition" was motivated by the realisation that climate change and other environmental pressures induced by human activities are strongly related to the unsustainability of the world of work (Travieso et al., 2018).

As mentioned above, the pursuit of labour productivity growth, measured by the ratio between output and worker's time spent in employed labour, is a central mechanism of capitalist economies (Jackson and Victor 2011). However, rising labour productivity fosters problematic labour-displacing effects through the creation of involuntary forms of unemployment, as it requires fewer workers to produce the same outputs from one year to the other (Jackson and Victor, 2011). In order to avoid this so-called productivity trap and maintain full employment, economic output must grow faster than the resulting productivity gains (Jackson and Victor, 2011). Until now these productivity gains, rather than being redistributed among the population in the form of free available time, have in fact served to increase the outputs of specific industries or economic sectors as a way to further boost production (Frayne, 2015; Jackson and Victor, 2011). This close relationship between GDP growth and employment has been studied under many accounts. However, much less attention has been paid to its implication for sustainability goals (Antal, 2014). According to ecological economists and de/post-growth authors, this paradox bears significant importance for the future of our societies, as the pursuit of unlimited economic growth is irreconcilable with planetary boundaries (Antal, 2014). In addition, the potential for decoupling GDP growth from environmental impacts has not proven successful given the strict correlation between these two factors (Jackson, 2017).


Framing a post-work agenda


The discussion around the refusal of work characteristic of the post-work perspective should not be understood as "a rejection of productive activity per se, but rather a refusal of central elements of the wage relation and those discourses that encourage our consent to the modes of work that it imposes" (Weeks, 2011, p. 124). As such, it is about refusing the moralising aspect of work forced upon our time and lives, which has granted work the status of moral duty (Weeks, 2011).

Moreover, Frayne (2016, p.199) argues that "post-work theories represent a somewhat unique intellectual contribution because they emphasise a struggle that has largely been abandoned by the Left: for workers to have the freedom to lead rich and interesting lives outside as well as inside work". Indeed, the most radical accounts behind such theories follow a Marxist emancipatory and Autonomist tradition, for which the central question was about how to make use of the gains in labour productivity to free people from the necessities of labour (Frayne, 2016). Economist John-Maynard Keynes was among the first to highlight the reduced imperative to work based upon the increasing rise in productivity (Frayne, 2016; Guizzo and Stronge, 2018). However, Keynes and traditional "end of work" authors had failed to foresee the role of ingrained cultural and structural aspects in preventing such a shift to take place, highlighted by some contemporary post-work authors (Frayne, 2016; Guizzo and Stronge, 2018).

In spite of the heterogeneous nature of post-work thinking and theories, one central aspect to note is the current revival of the critique of work in recent years influenced by an "end of work" prospect due to the increasing rise of automation (Spencer, 2018). In this vein, Spencer (2018) gives a comprehensive account of the fallacy of this discourse, characterised by a technological and "end of work" optimism (Spencer, 2018). He stresses that these predictions tend to overlook the ways in which technology under capitalism has so far most often led to the creation of more work and consumption overall, rather than reducing it (Spencer, 2018). Additionally, it could be argued that such contributions have equally dismissed the ecological impacts behind automation. On the other hand, the work of Ivan Illich with his vision of "tools for conviviality" paints a different picture of technology which could help achieve de/post-growth ideals depending on how it is harnessed (Likavcan and Scholz-Wäckerle, 2017). As a result, the answer to whether automation could support a vision of post-work oriented towards true emancipatory goals will rest upon the capacity to reclaim its ownership from capitalist interests and orient it towards non-productivist objectives (Spencer, 2018; Likavcan and Scholz-Wäckerle, 2017.

Feminist & ecological implications

In striving for women's access to wage labour, feminism undoubtedly contributed to the supremacy and moralisation of work (Weeks, 2011). Therefore, Weeks (2011) argues that it is necessary that feminists not only focus on a revaluation of unwaged forms of reproductive work, from household to care work, based upon an equal share of responsibility between genders, but also demand less work. Failing to do so would only serve to reinforce the ideological and moralising discourse of work (Weeks, 2011).

Similarly, the calls for green jobs and sustainable work tend to overlook the issue of rising labour productivity and ecological limits to growth, while strengthening the institution of work. André Gorz (2012, 1999), a central figure in degrowth thinking, had indeed grasped the importance of waged work as a central mechanism of our capitalist institutions, and the inherent need to reclaim its potential to move towards post-productivist societies. As such, de/post-growth thinkers have highlighted the need to value unpaid forms of work, such as voluntary and care work, given their capacity to allow human flourishing and create new modes of social organisation without inducing materially-based gains (eg. Nierling, 2012).

Post-work policies

The following section will outline two policies central to the project of post-work, work-time reduction and unconditional basic income, for their capacity to integrate both feminist and ecological issues related to work. A strict analysis of environmental impacts and gender aspects from different policy designs, such as those carried out for the ecological benefits of work-time reduction (eg. Schor, 2005; Buhl and Acosta, 2016; Pullinger, 2014), would not only risk being co-opted by capitalist logic but also obscures the complex realities of work. As such, this contribution will attempt to place people at the centre of the analysis, such as done by Gorz (1982, 1999, 2012) and other post-work authors mainly concerned with emancipatory ideals.

Work-time reduction

Overall, post-work theory is inevitably about a reduction of necessary waged-based working time to pursue activities outside the realm of capitalist production (Frayne, 2016). While Gorz (1982) stresses the impossibility for autonomous work to fully subsume activities performed out of necessity given natural needs related to material production, he argues that freedom will only be attained through the reduction of necessary working time.

With ecological concerns of limits to growth in mind, the emancipatory potential of working less conceived to encourage human flourishing, seems increasingly promising in its capacity for reducing society’s environmental footprint driven by consumerist lifestyles (Frayne, 2015; Jackson, 2017). Reducing paid work may thus reverse the commodification of historically non-marketed activities—such as caring for children and the elderly, cleaning services, and cooked meals deliveries—due to the domination of modern work depriving people from their autonomous capacity for self-sufficiency (Frayne, 2016). Furthermore, a strategy of work-time reduction could overcome the productivity trap by allowing work to be shared more equally among the population without relying on further economic growth (Jacskon and Victor, 2011).

The feminist rationale for reducing working hours has often been deemed problematic for its apparent nostalgic account of the family ideal and its portrayal of care work as the labour of love (Weeks, 2011). However, Weeks (2011) brings forth two central proposals from the US, the Post-Work Manifesto by Aronowitz et al. and Queer Family Values by Lehr, which broke free from such traditional visions of reproductive work and the normative institution of the family, by laying out a provocative and persuasive demand for reducing working time (Weeks, 2011). Similar to the rationale for reducing work-time from an emancipatory perspective discussed above, this requested freedom from work is for an intentionally autonomous purpose rather than used as a justification for more time spent within the family nexus (Weeks, 2011). Moreover, the demand for less work from such an account would avoid reinforcing the traditional work ethic and challenge the sanctity of work within our societies (Weeks, 2011).

Unconditional basic income

In order to release people from society's wage-based constraints and reduce necessary labour to a minimum, an unconditional guaranteed income is presented as a useful means for such transition to take place (Frayne, 2015; Gorz, 1999; Weeks, 2011). Indeed, Gorz (1999, p.80) argues that the security of an income is the precondition to move to a "society based on multi-activity" whereby new social realities could be shaped outside the strict realm of market-based rationalities. In discussing this policy proposal, Gorz (1999, p.78) was equally aware of the importance for such guaranteed income to be established at a level higher than subsistence in order to aim beyond the current forms of welfare-based instruments, which only maintain people in a perpetual quest for work and do not help free them from the material and mental constraints of waged-work. Importantly so, Frayne (2015, p.217) points out to the impacts a different policy design could have and that it should in no way be conceived as the panacea for all issues related to work but rather adopted as an avenue to foster what Gorz called, a "politics of time".

Similar to her rationale for the reduction of necessary work-time, Weeks (2011) analyses the demand for a basic income through the radical potential and the provocative nature it offers. For this purpose, she refers to the controversial proposal of "wages for household work" demanded by feminists in the 1970's, suggesting its ability to radically reconsider the common distinction between free reproductive labour and all other paid forms of work (Weeks, 2011). As such, Week's (2011) analysis does not propose to endorse the commodification of all forms of work remunerated by a market-based wage, but instead argues that a basic income could serve as the remuneration basis behind the demand for household wages (Weeks, 2011). Indeed, through its unconditional nature, a basic income avoids the distinctive categorisation of work, which historically contributed to the gender division of labour (Weeks, 2011).

As a result, if the project of post-work is principally constitutive of a shift to reduce the domination of work in our societies and the colonisation of our imaginaries (Weeks, 2011), its proposals are essentially centred on a resistance to society's waged-based imperative. For its effect to take place, the implementation of work-time reduction and an unconditional basic income are conceived as necessary means to reach a post-work future, oriented towards a truly emancipatory potential.

Challenges and opportunities

While the project of post-work proposes a sound and necessary visionary account of a society freed from the constraints of waged-work, it is still limited on several ground—not least by the fact that its conception of work is driven by a post-productivist (and indeed post-capitalist) conception of our societies. There is indeed a striking opposition between the utopian vision of a post-work future and the current realities of work, characteristic of modern societies. However, Weeks (2011) argues that the utopia present within post-work theories is central to overcome the constraining view of work within capitalist institutions. A similar opposition could be noted between the struggles to achieve better working conditions and the need to break from the moralising dominance of work (Weeks, 2011; Frayne, 2015). However, while post-work authors contend that the reduction of necessary waged-work should not come at the expense of securing decent working conditions, they also maintain the difficulty to find freedom and self-realisation in most present forms of waged work (Frayne, 2015; Gorz, 2012).


Feminist and ecological aspects are central to the institution of work and the capitalist interests it serves. While work has been most commonly studied in fragmented ways, it seems necessary to adopt a comprehensive approach set within an understanding of capitalist dynamics, if it is ever to be reclaimed from its exploitative and destructive nature. A post-work future based upon work-time reduction and unconditional basic income, two of the many reforms needed to achieve such transition, offers a radically different vision of work opening up the potential for a society liberated from the imposed constraints of wage labour. It should indeed be noted that fundamental changes to the organisation of our societies—the educational system and our work ethic, to list two—would be additionally necessary to advance such project. It is certainly difficult to conceive a post-work transition in line with today's dominance of work. However, it would be a loss not to consider the idea of a post-work future seriously, as it is so far the most promising and comprehensive answer to the problems with work such as those highlighted from a feminist and ecological perspective.


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[1] I = PAT is the mathematical notation of a formula to describe the impact of human activity on the environment. “I” stands for the environmental impact, “P” for the population of a certain area, “A” for affluence and “T” for technology.


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