For the contemporary worker, the cost technological advancement imposes on humans can be calculated more directly. According to a 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, automation could render seventy-three million currently staffed jobs irrelevant by 2030. Of course, as late night host, John Oliver, says in his Last Week Tonight segment, automating a task does not necessarily displace a worker. Bank tellers haven’t been replaced by ATMs. Speaking on Morning Joe, American Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, said millennials, like himself, “are likely to change careers more often than our parents changed jobs.” How will workforces all over the world economically, physically, and emotionally sustain workers who have nothing to do?
Swedish art duo, Goldin +Senneby, comprised of Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, has an answer for that question. For the duo’s 2019 performative, virtual project, Eternal Employment, one applicant will be selected for a lifetime appointment as an employee at the Korsvägen (Crossroads) train station in Gothenburg, Sweden. Every day, the employee will clock in and out by punching a time clock connected to a series of fluorescent lights called, Working Lights. The flashing Working Lights will alert co-workers when the employee clocks in and out. How the remaining hours of the work day are spent will be entirely at the employee’s discretion. The only stipulation is that he or she may not take another job while still employed by Korsvägen.
The employee may leave the job whenever he or she wishes, and another employee will be selected. Regardless of how the employee chooses to personalize it (or not), this is a paying job. An employee will receive 21,600 krona ($2,295.00) per month. He or she will be treated like a public sector employee, earning holiday pay and a pension. The employee will receive a minimum wage increase of 3.2% per year for a maximum of one hundred twenty years.
Goldin + Senneby’s proposal for Eternal Employment won a seven million krona ($750,000) prize from The Public Art Agency Sweden, working in conjunction with the Swedish Transport Administration. The potential one hundred twenty year employment period is calculated based on how long the prize money will last given the aforementioned payments to the employee. According to their artists’ bio on the Public Art Agency Sweden’s webpage, Goldin + Senneby, who have been working together since 2004, “explore juridical, financial, and spatial constructs” in their artwork, “which they address through the framework of the performative and the virtual.” This particular project unites two objectives. Once an industrial shipping center, Gothenburg is now an arts and entertainment district. This economic shift has marginalized the city’s working class. Goldin + Senneby want to emphasize and playfully reverse this dynamic by creating a job designed so that the worker has nearly absolute autonomy over, not just his or her work space, but the conditions of his or her continued employment. The second objective addresses an international socioeconomic trend.
The duo’s proposal for this project was inspired by French economist, Thomas Piketty’s, extensively researched argument in his 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. The short version of Piketty’s argument: During most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the majority of wealth was privately owned and concentrated amongst a small number of rich families at the top of a hierarchical, rigidly structured class system. In short, a few individuals’ personal wealth was greater than the national income. In the twentieth century, worldwide sociocultural and socioeconomic crises—America’s Great Depression, World War I, and World War II—created the following socioeconomic conditions internationally: high taxes, inflation, bankruptcies, and the expansion of welfare states.
Due to these events, national income exceeded personal wealth, but wealth disparity in modern economies is again approaching a level comparable to what it was before World War I. Because of the wealth disparity, Picketty argues, the only way to reliably make money is to let one’s wealth generate further wealth through making investments, earning interest, and avoiding taxation whenever possible. Karl Marx’s equation about how much capital the exploitation of a worker’s labor may generate is more complicated, because labor now generates less capital than preexisting capital does. In a cheeky nod to Picketty’s calculations, Goldin and Senneby are providing the preexisting capital, their prize money from The Public Art Agency Sweden, without requiring an employee’s labor. The money will last for one hundred twenty years. After that, given that there will be no preexisting capital left, a Korsvägen employee will presumably make more money by working than by not working.
Goldin and Senneby know that paying an employee to not work is a pointless exercise, and that is precisely their point. The requirement to find personal significance in performing meaningless, largely automated tasks is the grueling, disheartening destiny of the contemporary worker. In their project proposal, they wrote, “In the face of mass automation and artificial intelligence, the impending threat/promise is that we will all become productively superfluous. We will all be ’employed at Korsvägen,’ as it were.” Those who wish to be employed at Korsvägen actually as well as metaphorically may send in applications now. The hiring process will begin after the Korsvägen train station is completed in 2025.
2. VISUALIZATION: ANNA HEYMOWSKA
3. ANDRZEJ OTRĘBSKI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/CC-BY-4.0