Leisure and unemployment: What happens when the work disappears

by John MacBeath Watkins

When I was in grad school, there was a professor in the Political Science department whose work was about the leisure she assumed would be produced as society adopted ever more labor-saving devices.

Cynic that I am, I presumed that this leisure would be consumed as unemployment. And it is, for certain people.

The above chart comes from a blog called Race Against the Machine. It seems to me that it illustrates that this is exactly what has been happening.

I'm thinking I'll follow this site, because these fellows have gone to the trouble to write a whole book on the topic.

From  the post where McAfee used the chart above:
So current labor force woes are not because the economy isn’t growing, and they’re not because companies aren’t making money or spending money on equipment. They’re because these trends have become increasingly decoupled from hiring — from needing more human workers.
 What does a society look like, where many workers are displaced from their former employment and the wealth is concentrated in a few hands? Perhaps a bit like the world that produced England's stately homes. That's the world in which my namesake, John MacBeath, left a fishing and crofting village that no longer appears on most maps (Cuaig, about 10 miles north of Applecross) to operate a small boat as a ferry at Inverness.  In that world, my great grandmother, Jean Ann MacBeath, went into service as a maid of all work at a house in Woolford Green, and married the gardener, Edmund Watkins. My father wrote a bit about it here.

Fishing and crofting was not a great life. I sail small, open wooden boats because I like to. John MacBeath sailed them because he had to. Yes, those traditional Scottish yoles were great boats, but there was tremendous loss of life in every fishing community I know of, on every body of water. You get a feel for it when you're reading about the great fishing schooners of the grand banks. No doubt the move to Inverness gave more opportunity for John MacBeath's daughter to be educated; my MacBeath relatives spell the name three different ways, no doubt because much of the family only became literate in the late 19th century.

People were one of Scotland's greatest exports for a very long time. Becoming a maid of all work may not have seemed a step up for his daughter, but it allowed her to marry a gardener who had some education -- Edmund was said to be very proud of his library, and would no doubt be proud to know that his great grandson is a bookseller.

Let's face it, fishing is the last remnant of the hunter-gatherer way of life that all humanity used to engage in. And moving from farming and fishing into service in a rich household allowed my Gammie to live to be 96 years old, with such a forceful personality that her grandson was named after her father.

But her labor as a farming and fishing wife was not required. I doubt staying in that situation was an option. But Edmund Watkins and Jean (MacBeath) Watkins came to America as part of a servant class, to work for a family I believe was named Linklater in a capacity that in modern America would be taken by immigrants from Mexico or some other place that is in fact wealthier than 19th century Scotland.

Now let's look at how we are doing at present. Are the fishers and crofters of today (perhaps factory workers) as employable as ever?

Here's a chart Matthew Yglesias provides us:

The headline for the accompanying post is "Male Employment Never Recovers From Recessions." And he's right.

How are males enjoying their leisure?

A lot of them are cooling their heels in prison.

Others are simply unemployed, perhaps unemployable. And those who are in prison? Perhaps, being otherwise unemployable, they sought some way to get a little cash. They knew it wasn't right, but they lacked options.

I remember a hard man with a scarred face trying to sell me books that I wouldn't buy, because I figured they were stolen. They didn't fit with who he was, and they looked new.

"I'm just trying to do something where I don't hurt anybody," he said.

I said what can I do, I got a business to run, I can't be buying this stuff. He went away, and I don't know what he did then. 

He had a strong back, and he didn't want to go back to prison. He didn't want to hurt anyone anymore, that seemed important to him. There was a time when he could have worked in a factory, or worked in the woods the way my grandpa Brunson did, or my dad and my uncles did as young men.

I've worked in factories, in fact, I've worked with men a lot like him, men who missed work not because they were sick but because they were in jail for a few days. I don't miss factories, I can tell you that, but I'll bet that guy would have preferred one to the kind of options available to him.

So how do we work this? Leisure should be a good thing, but for too many, there's no money to go with that leisure. So here's a song to go out on.