Labor has long been understood in a variety of ways—as the dominion of human effort over nature; as the source of economic value; as the basis of citizenship, mobility, and independence; as the opportunity for self-realization; or as grounds for solidarity in the struggle for universal freedom.
Today we are undergoing a seismic shift in the way we experience our work lives. Accepted generalizations about labor and work have been thrown into doubt by robots, networks, algorithms, and the rise of global finance. The Socialist Bloc, with its “workers’ states,” has collapsed. In advanced economies, the “working class” has lost a coherent identity and mission. The notion of lifelong stable work for a single employer or even in a single economic sector has all but vanished. Consumerism rather than labor generates our cultural and economic values and self-fulfillment. The relationship between work and leisure has undergone a major transformation. Education, training, and skills can hardly keep up with the ever-changing demands of fluid workplaces.
Communication technology has decoupled the workplace as a geographic or social unit from the realm of production and profit and accelerated our perception of time. As unprecedented as the new U.S. workforce is, however, much of the world still works in circumstances difficult to relate to our own, as industrial wage-laborers or in precarious informal economies.
Themester 2015 will explore the cultural, technological, and historical legacy, the contemporary significance, and future implications of these dramatic and ongoing changes in the worlds of work.