Post-Industrious Society

Imagining the cities of a post-work world

Existing cities formed for reasons primarily relating to production. Mill towns, railroad towns, port cities, industrial cities, trading outposts, mining towns, oil towns, college towns; the list goes on. Even today, in the so-called “post-industrial era"—where the mass production that once occurred in old, northern industrial cities has moved to the southern US states or overseas—cities nevertheless are largely determined by their primary immaterial export, whether it be finance, design, fashion, entertainment, or technology. In a world of increasing structural unemployment resulting from automation (machines doing formerly human tasks), this no longer makes sense. There is great anticipation of how automation will play out, with valid anxieties about how the replacement of human jobs by machines can be detrimental to those people if there are no infrastructures in place to ensure that the benefits of automation are distributed to those people whose employment is lost to automation. Approaching cities differently, so that they accommodate more than just  could be a hugely important part of securing a bright future for all people—regardless of employment status. Now is the time to consider how to design cities according to different criteria and parameters.

The replacement of human beings by machines is well underway already [1]. A recent article by Derek Thompson in The Nation reminds that in many places—like the "post-industrial" northern cities of the United States—the replacement of workers by machines has already left entire regions economically devastated. If factory workers were among the first to be replaced by machines, the retail salesperson, cashier, food/beverage server and office clerk professions—which constitute roughly 10% of the of the US workforce—are the most threatened from the latest wave of innovation. According to a 2013 Oxford University report, machines will likely be able to replace roughly 50% of existing jobs in the next twenty years. The process of systematic unemployment is not likely to be sudden, but perhaps will occur in fits ad starts, with economic downturns cutting loose workers who may never be rehired again. As Thompson explains,

"the United States [is not] remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society." [2]

There is little doubt that new jobs will be created—many of which may not exist yet—but while some robotically-replaced workers will be re-placed into these new positions, many will simply exit the employed demographic, and at that point, the existing designed world will no longer cater to them. At this point, both sites of production and sites of consumption—which together constitute a huge proportion of our cities, often replacing civic spaces (where Walmart stores stand in as community centers in many city centers)—will become unavailable to these former workers. Unless the built environment can be altered to accommodate this massive, graduated shift away from formal industriousness, the decreased centrality of work will mean the mass marginalization of huge portions of the lived experience of humanity. What is urgently needed, then, are models, visions, experiments, and even prototypes for what a post-work society could look like.

There are better and worse models of post-industrious urbanism. On the worse end of the spectrum are places like Youngstown, Ohio, a "steel town" where the 1977 closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube—one of the city’s largest employers—cast a depression upon the region that it never recovered from. Poverty, mental illness, crime and violence all skyrocketed in the once-stately city. Rather than bringing a fluorescence of life to the city, the absence of work eviscerated the town. The absence of work was did not bring a great freedom and flexibility to Youngstown, but instead a pervasive "idleness" became a curse that the region could not shake—perhaps for cultural as well as economic reasons. While the economic dimensions of mass unemployment are undeniably a difficult problem to surmount, the cultural centrality of work adds a certain intractability to the crisis of lost employment. As a recent Atlantic article describing these developments has explained, “Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?” [3] This is consistent with Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Work Ethic, where it is argued that work and toil are baked right into our cultural identities, and viewed as a virtue. According to Weber, this industriousness is also the cultural basis of capitalism, prompting both hard work and the delay of gratification, which is at the heart of investment (where wealth is reinvested instead of being spent in the present on pleasure or sustenance).

An important thing to consider is the deeply-engrained relationship of work to leisure in American culture. The Progressive era witnessed a wave of strategies being deployed by elites for shaping how working class people spent their free time. At that time, Governments and civil society organizations engaged in efforts to shape how people spent their free time. Particularly in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s, the full force of Victorian-Era morality was brought to bear on the social regulation of leisure, leading to regulative efforts like the Temperance Movement (which was responsible for the prohibition of alcohol), and affirmative efforts like the Rational Recreation Movement (which promoted health and fitness as idealized forms of leisure). Social behavior was regulated, controlled, shaped and guided in these decades, as part of the wider development of economic and political modernization, wherein leisure practices were treated instrumentally, as potentially optimizing, educating and moralizing forces, leading to a smoothly-operating society. Importantly, the end result was increasingly viewed in economic terms, and the main motivation of controlled leisure was to perpetuate a productive and profitable economic system of commerce. This did not mean that all recreation was meant to be commercial or consumptive (though this would occur in the middle of the twentieth century), but should be regenerative of the worker, his family, and society’s institutions; optimally "healthy"r (the historical definition of which is always in the process of being rewritten); free of wasted time, energy or resources (gambling, prostitution, alcohol and other "vice" were always being militated against by social reformers); and ideally should impress high (Christian) morality upon the mind, with all of these provisions ideally yielding optimal conditions for industrial-agricultural production.

A major shift occurred in the wake of the Great Depression, when a crisis of under-consumption brought production to a grinding halt. It was in mitigating the fallout of that crisis that the concept of the economy as a total, ecological whole involving both production and consumption (both of which ought to be regulated and optimized for) became an operative concept in the strategy of governance. It was no longer good enough to optimize the population (through leisure and otherwise) to be productive; there would now need to be giant efforts to shape, plan and inflate consumption as well. Much of the New Deal (the landmark legislation passed under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rectify the economy) concerned the shaping of mass consumption in America as a means of stimulating the economy. From the Federal employment programs designed to put people back to work through the construction of infrastructure to the mass suburbanization of the middle class through the Federal Housing Administration’s guaranteeing of mortgages, massive efforts were underway to put more wealth in the hands of the populace, and to get them spending that wealth in a consumer market of houses, cars, appliances, furnishings and amenities. In the following decades, consumerism would increasingly come to characterize leisure in America. As Chris Rojek—a leisure theorist—explains, the prevailing attitude toward leisure in the United States—particularly since the Great Depression—has its basis in Fordism (the production and management strategy hatched by Henry Ford), which “is the principal organizational exponent of productivism," which itself is “the philosophy par excellence of industrial society.” According to Rojek, “Fordism follows the productivist logic of deriving the category of leisure from the category of work. In every essential respect, work is treated as prior and determining.” In Ford’s model, all human activity is part of the “integrated circuit of economic and moral regulation," with full employment and mass consumption constituting integral parts of the system’s reproduction. Without full employment or a cultural affinity for consumerism, the model of efficient production collapses, because supply would steadily outstrip demand. There is no sense in efficiently producing cars if nobody buys them. “The heavy emphasis on economic return," Rojek explains, “translates into a strong consumerist orientation in leisure. Fully developed Fordism presents the category of leisure as little more than organized consumption activity. The wages generated on the shop floor are devoted to consuming the commodities of mass society. These commodities are portrayed as being open to anyone who is prepared to work. Thus, freedom in leisure is redefined in terms of the ability to realize consumer choice” [4]. More and more, “[l]eisure is buying, purchasing, renting, or otherwise acquiring marketed resources and opportunities” [5]. With such a heavy emphasis on buying, purchasing and renting, the Fordist approach to structuring leisure fails to make space for the unwaged. In this sense, like so many other systems, Fordism did not provide insight on how to mitigate its own failure. Full, waged employment has never been sustainably achieved anywhere, and because both the sphere of work and leisure are built around assumptions of positive employment status, the majority of the world is, by design, almost entirely exclusive of those who are not employed (with the exception of the wealthy, whose income is not contingent on employment, and whose activities could be the centerpiece of an entirely separate study). Physically speaking, the centers of cultural attraction in the United States (and in most other places inhabited by humanity) are primarily devoted to commercial activity, and this excludes those without financial resources.

Much of the built environment is constructed around work, consumption and fitness, with very little being left over for free or non-instrumentalized activity. It is within this context that one should consider the construction and relevance of "idleness;" not as an inherently destructive force, but perhaps as an expression of exclusion. Our metropolises were not designed for the unemployed, who, by losing their role in production, simultaneously lose their role in consumption as well, which leaves very little left in terms of viable activity available to them. In the absence of alternatives, a massive crowd of bored and desperate "idles" fill their time with what’s available to them, and the results are mixed. According to a January, 2015 New York Times study based on the American Time Use Survey, the time spent sleeping (roughly 1 hour per day more than the average employed person) and caring for others (especially among women) is significantly higher among unemployed Americans. This demographic also does much more housework and watches a great deal of television [6]. One interpretation of this data is that unemployed Americans generally spend a great deal of time at home, where the expenses associated with their activities are cheap, and the degree of comfort is high. This makes sense if one considers the position that one is forced into when they are out of work: the absence of income paired with a release from obligatory activity is not necessarily a recipe for freedom, since spending time "out and about" costs money. Without income or obligation, the home (assuming one possesses one) becomes the default environment.

For those who refuse to be constrained to this environment, or perhaps do not possess a home, the options for being "out and about" are often high-risk. To participate formally in the city and all of its offerings, one must find a means of income (crime is an easy but risky way to do this). To participate informally in the city means to be harassed constantly, and perhaps even fined and even arrested (as is the case with the homeless, and "street people"). An old adage says that “the devil finds mischief for idle hands," and there is, apparently, some truth to the claim that crime and unemployment are correlated. As a 2015 Georgia Tech study finds, “there is a positive correlation between both violent and property crime, not only with unemployment rate, but also with GDP per capita, high school graduation rates, police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, and poverty rate” [7]. At least empirically, the case for such a correlation has been made for a long time in journalism. Examples abound of published writings reinforcing the apparent truism that crime and idleness are inherently linked, and the narratives becomes more prevalent in moments of economic downturn. A 2009 New York Times article, for example asked the question: “Does Higher Unemployment Lead to More Drug Use?” (8). “More Crime Forecast as Idleness Rises," proclaimed the title of a May, 1975 New York Times article, which argued, with a tone of inevitability that “[t]he nation will face a higher and growing crime rate as long as unemployment is permitted to grow” [9]. “The mind that is not occupied with useful employment will go to the bad, just as a garden not cultivated will grow up in weeds," states a 1903 issue of The Milwaukee Journal. According to the article, prisons were filling up with people who did not possess a trade or salable skill [10]. Concerns over the "vice" that would bloom in the face of unemployment go a long way back, with middle- and upper-class anxiety over the issue making itself palpable in articles of the kind cited above, which seem to pop up every time the economy dips, and releases workers from their positions, setting them loose into an environment not meant for them.

One category of "idleness" that has perhaps been an historical constant is that of youth. Young people, often lacking a vocation or financial resources, often pose a problem for municipal governments when their boredom spills over into vandalism, drug use, violence and social unrest. They are a good window onto the problem of industrious urbanism, since they represent a relatively well-distributed population of people who nevertheless are not accommodated by industrious society and its narrowly-catering spaces.

From the initial instrumentalization and social control of free time to its direct channeling into commerce, the meaning and value human behavior has been socially constructed. As these meanings and values have crystallized, an urban environment planned around provisioning for these meanings and values has followed (at which point they become physically and spatially constructed). Considering what a common occurrence unemployment is in our society, it’s strange that we have not stepped back to reconsider how to make space for the "unemployed" and "under-employed" (terms which themselves highlight the work-centrism of our culture, as if all human activity is to stand in direct relationship to waged labor). Standard operating procedure attempts to "tackle" unemployment, while fretting about the consequences of "idleness," as if employment were the only plausible way to fill the lives of human beings, but it is one of many ways of making meaning and attributing value to human activity.

The same Progressive era reformers who expressed uneasiness at growing unemployment were also the ones behind hatching rational recreation and similar programs for socializing the working classes and making space for health and high culture. The ability to literally shape culture is something that should be remembered in an age of generalizing unemployment, when interventions of some kind are desperately needed again. Is it possible to envision a "New Progressive era" in which today’s version social reformers—perhaps non-profits, NGOs, entrepreneurs and other organizations—reconfigure society’s relationship with time and space?

To even begin to imagine how to re-orient and reconfigure society’s relationship to time and space, it would be worthwhile to consider past attempts to imagine what other worlds could be like. There have been many utopian visions of post-work society, but one of them stands out in particular. Well before Youngstown Sheet and Tube shuttered its factory and left its hometown to shrivel, an avant-garde art group called the Situationists posited a much better version of post-industrial urbanism. In the mid 1950s, witnessing the increasing mechanization of industrial production and speculating about the potential amount of wealth that this development would make possible, the group began to dream about an automation-enabled post-work urban scenario in which play became the primary activity of most people. They dreamed of cities entirely devoted to adventure, discovery, emotional experiences and "ambiance." The Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys designed a vision for a post-work city that he called New Babylon—a sprawling, multi-level city where the inhabitants would drift from place to place, experiencing intense emotions and engaging with the “ambiances” of the urban landscape, actually playing a part in creating their surroundings. Working with the notion of "psychogeography"—the idea that space and psychology are related and even inextricable—the ambition of the Situationists was to produce an ever-evolving and diversifying set of subjectivities through the unpredictable and strange interaction between actors and their environment. A critical part of this was that the evolving subjects would actually shape the city themselves, in a dialectic of affecting and being affected by the city and its architecture. Compellingly, their visions for a changed urban society were not completely contingent upon some miraculous windfall of power to grant their utopian ideas into reality; They were also interested in working with and adapting existing cities. "Our form of urbanism," they explained, “is not ideally separated from the current terrain of cities. [it] is developed out of the experience of this terrain and based on existing constructions. As a result, it is just as important that we exploit the existing decors—through the affirmation of a playful urban space such as is revealed by the derive—as it is that we construct completely unknown ones. This interpenetration (employment of the present city and construction of the future city) entails the deployment of architectutal [appropriation, adaptation, and recasting of meaning]” [11]. Their insistence on learning from and adapting existing cities is compelling, because in virtually no scenario will civilization be issued a tabula rasa upon which to construct—from the ground up—entirely new configurations of urban life. There are/will certainly be exceptions, but for the majority of cities, adaptation, not inception will be necessary.

While there were plenty of problems with the visions posited by the Situationists, their post-productivist visions for the city are nevertheless worthy of our attention today, for their earnest attempt to conceptualize a new kind of urbanism. As Simon Sadler—an historian of the movement—has asserted, despite its flaws, the Situationist vision “nevertheless maintained an indefatigable belief in the possibility of a better organization of everyday life” [12]. Everyday life is precisely what is at issue here: its reconsideration and redefinition. How should people spend their time? What institutions and spaces can maximally benefit the population, and facilitate thriving, active, healthy, dignified and interesting lives?

Interestingly, these were some of the questions asked by Progressive era reformers—the ones who largely set in place the urban paradigms we are currently living under—but their answers were informed by Calvinist religious doctrine, motivated by industrial interests in procuring dividends from industrial progress, and tempered by an historical condition of scarcity. The results were an instrumental version of rationality that, as we have already seen, came to narrowly define what civilized life would be like in the United States. In contrast, the Situationists, operating from a more atheistic and radical political perspective, for better or worse felt no compulsion to generate "order" in human behavior, but instead sought an autonomous and empowered version of urban life built atop of a highly rational and ordered system of automated production and engineering [13]. Whereas the reformers who shaped existing cities were advocates of "rational recreation," the Situationists were perhaps the purveyors of an "irrational recreation." In their 1959 unattributed article in International Situationniste #3, they called for the creation of what they called "Unitary Urbanism"—a form of urban life/design/experience that would reach “beyond the immediately useful” [14]. This post-utilitarian stance on urbanism can perhaps inspire us as we begin the process or reconsidering what we need today: an engagement with the city, and a rethinking of the relationship between everyday life and urban design, displacing the centrality of work, and replacing it with other activities.

Today, the prospects for designing new urban configurations that accommodate a post-work society are both more feasible technologically and more challenged politically. The 1950s and 60s were a period of tremendous affluence for places like the United States and France, and this allowed for the momentary creation of the welfare state, under which governments allocated resources to public programs, facilities and institutions, and shaped massive infrastructure and urbanization projects. In the U.S., projects like the Tennessee Valley system of dams, the Interstate Highway System, the inception of the modern home mortgage system through the Federal Housing Administration, and the resulting prolific expansion of suburbia, etc. were all examples of giant efforts geared toward transforming the human environment, and they were all made possible by the economic ascendency of the United States, and the welfare statist politics of the time. Politically and historically-speaking, we are in drastically different times today, with the U.S. economy in relative decline, and political neoliberalism having replaced New Deal progressivism [15]. While the future economic returns that motivated this "big-push"-style development of the mid-century may no longer be guaranteed, a new set of human (rather than economic) recovery-oriented development goals could serve as the new basis for reimagining urban environments and infrastructures.

A crucial element of the Situationist vision for the city was that everyone’s basic needs would simply be provided for, so work (which was essentially limited to making contributions to improving and updating the urban apparatus itself) would be optional. In effect, everyone in the Situationist utopia would collect a universal basic income (U.B.I.), paid for by the industrial output of machines. Compellingly, there has been a renewed interest in U.B.I. as a realistic political goal, and it is on the minds of many—especially in Silicon Valley, where the potential implications of mass automation have become an urgent topic of discussion.

One massive problem facing a project for reorienting urban life away from formal, human employment in production is how to maintain the distribution of life's essentials (and inessentials) in the absence of wage-backed buying power. The costs of doing so are lower than they ever have been, since the amount of human labor required for the production of many of the world’s goods is quite low. Technologically-speaking, we are, of course, far more advanced than we were in the 1950s, when the Situationists envisioned their version of post-industrious society. While the Situationists radically imagined a world in which nobody possessed a home, but existed in a city that simply provided for them everywhere they went, the technical specifics of this vision remained vague. Today, however, it could certainly be managed technically, with personal devices serving as controllers, locators, guides and sensors. With today’s advances in robotics, miniaturization and cheapening of computers, and the immense proliferation of mobile devices and electronics of every stripe, one could feasibly plan cities in which physical needs could be met on an on-demand basis, with food, comfort and shelter being delivered and/or supplied to/at one’s current location by drone or robot. Already, ride-sharing applications make automobile ownership unnecessary for those privileged enough to live in inner cities (while a precariously-employed class of car-owning, and largely suburban residents provide the machinery and labor for this transportation infrastructure)—a service that is scheduled to be automated in the coming decade or so. Meanwhile, Amazon is promising drone delivery of goods and services, and already offers two-hour delivery (again, for those privileged enough to live in select cities). A "layer" of robotic transportation and distribution solutions is being developed on a wide scale.  A digitally-interfacing, on-demand robotic production and distribution system is just around the corner, and it should both inspire new visions for urban life, and call into question old ones—especially ones that place production at the heart of the urban experience. Could these services be reimagined as a public utility, similar to the way that phone lines, electricity, gas, etc. at times have been managed? As such, they could sit between citizens and the more banal, automated production processes, delivering what is needed when it is needed.

Addressing the urban dimensions of this problem does not require starting from scratch, or building entirely new cities (though perhaps entirely new cities could function as laboratories for all kinds of urban-sociological/economic/technological experimentation). While it may be true that cities are primarily planned and designed around production, to characterize any city as being only about production would be completely incorrect. Every city has many subtexts, and a wide array of leisure and other activities may be found thriving in every metropolis (despite not being designed for). All manner of activities take place beneath the tidy surface of the city’s plan. Not being formally recognized, or counted for, they are not easily visible, or particularly effectively accommodated, but the city teems with co-ops, arts organizations, pranksters, subcultures, black markets, prohibited behaviors, creative adaptations, renegade events, gifting, mutual aid networks, occupations, squats and other "informal" human behaviors. A post-industrious city would need to explore how to make these informal activities central to the urban design and corresponding infrastructures and services. It may seem like a truism, but cities should have spaces and resources available for people. There should be accommodations for the many, varied human needs and evolving human desires. 


(1) The fact of the matter is that current reports on unemployment—which officially place the figure close to 5% are quite conservative in their definition of unemployment. Some researchers—looking beyond the standard "u-3" figure—place the figure closer to 10%.

(2) Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work," The Atlantic, July/August 2015. <>, accessed July 1, 2016.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Chris Rojek, “Deviant Leisure: the Dark Side of Free-Time Activity," in Leisure Studies: Prospects for the Twenty-First Century, Edgar L. Jackson, Thomas L. Burton, eds., (State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1999), pg. 83-4

(5) John R. Kelly, “Leisure and Society: A Dialectical Analysis," in Leisure Studies: Prospects for the Twenty-First Century, Edgar L. Jackson, Thomas L. Burton, eds., (State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1999), pg. 65

(6) Josh Katz, “How Nonemployed Americans Spend Their Weekdays: Men vs. Women," The New York Times (, Jan. 6, 2015. <>. accessed July 18, 2016.

(7) Sandra Ajimotokin, Alexandra Haskins, Zach Wade, “The Effects of Unemployment on Crime Rates in the U.S.," Georgia Tech, April 1, 2015, <>. accessed July 18, 2016.

(8) Catherine Rampell, “Does Higher Unemployment Lead to More Drug Use?," New York Times (, Aug 12, 2009. <>. accessed July 18, 2016

(9) Ernest Holsendolph, “More Crime Forecast as Idleness Rises," New York Times, May 21, 1975. <>, accessed July 1, 2016

(10) “Idleness and Crime," The Milwaukee Journal, December 4, 1903. <,3186259&hl=en>, accessed July 1, 2016

(11) “Unitary Urbanism at the end of the 1950s," International Situationniste, vol. #3, December 1959. <>, accessed July 2, 2016.

(12) Simon Sadler, The Situationist City, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 163-64.

(13) The architect and social theorist Rem Koolhaas makes this point more straightforwardly, when he argues that the whole point of producing rational urban and technological innovations is to further empower irrational and fantastic human desires.

(14) “Unitary Urbanism at the end of the 1950s," International Situationniste, vol. #3, December 1959. <>, accessed July 2, 2016.

(15) The period spanning from the Great Depression to the the second World War to the postwar economic hegemony of the United States was an incredibly unique period of history. New Deal state institutions such as the Federal Housing Administration, developed as mechanisms for recovery from the Depression, became massively successful drivers of economic development in the postwar years, shaping suburban development and mass lending for home mortgages. The inception of recovery-oriented institutions, which would later become development-oriented institutions is a hallmark of this unique historical era.