From the little I understand about the Luddites in early 19th century England, they would have considered me a kindred spirit. The Luddites were not a lazy bunch, yet the value they placed on their autonomy and their relaxed work schedule — usually no more than three days a week — could easily have given that impression. They had little toleration for the regimentation of factory work.
We can consider them at the vanguard of the remote work movement — and the year was 1811. They made a good living running their own businesses, making fabric from raw cotton or as “croppers” smoothing cloth. Working from home — not with a laptop — but with a lap full of cloth. And they drank so much over the weekend, they would take “St. Monday” off. What’s not to admire?
Fast forward 200-plus years and we find that working from home is making a vibrant renaissance with some panic-induced assistance from a virus. 4.7 million of us, according to the Economic Policy Institute, have the privilege of earning a paycheck by pecking at symbols atop a layer cake of integrated circuits; all while donning a bathrobe. (I happen to have one on at the moment).
Marc Andreessen, a billionaire who co-founded Netscape during the internet’s early years, seems convinced that remote work arrangements are not only here to stay, but they presage a “permanent civilization shift.” And that this new way of life will usher in an age of “shared prosperity.”
While I concede that civilization rides along shifting sands, are we really headed in the general direction of equal standards of living? For whom? The roughly 5 percent of workers who are high-flying Gen-Z or Millennial bitcoin trading technocrats?
Andreesen may garner media attention as a soothsayer; after all, he just paid $177 million for a Malibu estate, yet his field of view is through a tiny keyhole of society. If you were to open the door wide open, as the Luddites did, what you observe is that the vast profits from technological gains go to a slim minority.
We know it wasn’t the factory machinery that the Luddites resented, although it signaled the end of their 3-day work week, but rather it was the reduced wages and the absence of “shared prosperity.” (To be fair, there were some enlightened capitalists at the time who did have worker interests in mind).
If we focus our attention on the widening band of remote workers, there are noticeable shifts in attitudes, a wedge of cultural change opening up.
The cohort of employees we deem privileged is on course to grow to a third of all workers by 2030. Google employees are free to choose to work remotely for example; the option though is considered a benefit that comes with a pay cut.
Amazon’s policy for their high-salaried employees is that work location decisions be made by individual teams. In that sense, Amazon’s workforce is society in microcosm: the majority of their employees are confined to warehouses and they have no such options. The point is though, that when solutions require a degree of technical know-how, the trend is towards “geo-agnosticism” — in other words, the organization could care less where they are physically located.
And our point of departure from the Luddite begins with this new-found mobility. While urban enclaves were the meccas for this class of worker, their living spaces are relatively cramped and expensive.
Why not seize this opportunity and make a move for the scent of freshly mowed grass and more elbow room, bike paths, and fresh garlic compliments of the local farmer’s market?
Almost sounding like an advertisement for Moscow, Idaho; and for good reason: I can’t think of a better place to park my Luddite-self and work from home.
After years of globetrotting, Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Renew News: www.usrenewnews.org.