Dreaming of a better future

There’s an interesting flaw at the heart of Olivia Wilde’s new movie, Don’t Worry, Darling, which reveals everything wrong with the ongoing culture wars.

The premise of the film is simple. A 1950s housewife is living with her husband in a utopian community. Frank, the leader of the community, is loosely based off of Jordan Peterson, the famous psychologist who has become a celebrity figurehead of the alt right. Like Peterson, Frank lectures young men about traditional family values, domesticity and accepting what you have as ‘good enough.’ It’s a philosophy of fatalism. An inward looking, individualistic ideology, where people need to clean their rooms, rather than save the planet.

In the film, the protagonist, Alice, lives with her husband Jack, in a community that re-establishes 1950s gender roles. Women stay home, cook and clean. Men go to work. This creates domestic bliss, of a kind. But there are tensions boiling beneath the surface. The community is not all it seems.

Spoilers ahead.

Alice begins to suspect that the women are trapped in the community against their will. When she tells Jack of her suspicions however, he begins to gaslight her, denying it. Eventually, however, he admits it. He has trapped her there against her will. The community is not even real: it’s a virtual program. Alice’s body remains in the real world – “plugged in.”

He plugged her into the virtual world for her own good, he tells her. To make them a “happy family.” In their old life, Alice worked long hours at a hospital. She returned home exhausted, refusing to cook, clean or have sex. Thus, failing to live up to her traditional gender role in the household. Jack, recently unemployed, discovered Frank’s community online, and felt it was a way out of their marriage woes. The promise that someone like him – essentially an unemployed, directionless, failure – could live like a king in a traditional marriage, with a wife doting on him.

This is where the film enters the culture wars.

For a long time, the alt right have hinted that we should return to a 1950s lifestyle, with women at home, and men at work. Jordan Peterson dodges the question when asked, but he usually waffles about how we don’t know what it means for women to be in the workforce, it’s such a new phenomenon. Or, we don’t know what it means for women to have access to the pill.

This pretense at ignorance, at not knowing, is meant to reinforce the idea that we should go back to a time we did know. A time when things were simpler. The 1950s.

The left, by contrast, argues for a new utopia of diversity. Everyone should have access to the exact same working conditions as the 1950s. No one should be left out.

What’s wrong with the culture wars?

Both left and right are suffering from a failure of the imagination, of what our collective future could look like. And ironically, we only need to look back at the 1950s to see why. Specifically, we need to look back at science fiction of the 1950s. Also known as the “Golden Age” of science fiction.

Golden Age science fiction predicted a future vastly different to the one we live in today. It didn’t imagine a continuation of a 1950s domestic life at all, as depicted in Don’t Worry Darling. Nor did it depict diversity in the workforce as the main end goal (although it did often hint at a post-racial or post-gender society).

Golden Age science fiction predicted the end of work altogether.

Sci fi writers of the 1950s predicted that technology today would make our lives easier. Instead of women doing house chores all day, house chores would be completely automated, so that robots would do them. Instead of all of us working long hours, automation would free us from work altogether.

The future imagined in the 1950s was a time of leisure and relaxation. Far from the hustle culture of today, Sci fi writers predicted all our needs would be fulfilled by technology, one chore at a time.

The 15-hour work week

Economists made the same predictions. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the 2030s, we would all only be working 15 hours a week. Technology would boost productivity so much that there would be no need to work long hours anymore.

Keynes was right about one thing. Productivity did increase dramatically. The 1980s saw the introduction of personal computing (PCs), the single biggest technological breakthrough since the industrial revolution. Personal computing boosted productivity by over 84 percent in office-based sectors, according to a study from Cambridge.

If twice as much work was being done, then it followed that people would be able to go home by lunch time.

But Keyne’s prediction did not come to pass. The 1970s saw the rise of Raeganism and Thatcherism, and the economic principles of neoliberalism. Instead of passing the gains of productivity onto workers, in the form of lower working hours and/or increased wages, all of the gains of technology went to CEOs and shareholders. Company profits skyrocketed after the introduction of PCs, but wages remained static, as did average working hours.

Despite huge changes to technology, working life remained remarkably the same as before. The majority of workers in developed countries still work 40 hours or more a week, the baseline working hours first established in the 1920s. In other words, nothing has changed in a hundred years.

Even worse – hustle culture is producing a burnt out generation. Instead of cutting working hours, in many industries, hours are becoming longer and unregulated. Casualized workforces are forced to answer emails and requests late into the evening, and the separation between home and work life has become increasingly blurred.

The “work from home” revolution that happened during COVID-19, hailed as a great advancement of technology, only increased working hours and further blurred the distinction between work and home.

When we look at the world today, we see young people stressed out, tired and burnt out. And it figures. High productivity can be compared to driving faster in a car. Compare the feeling of a slow country drive on a Sunday afternoon, to driving for hours on a major highway. Young people today are all expected to drive on the highway, metaphorically speaking, for their entire work week. This expectation comes without any reward, and as a result, leaves us tired and all.

Calls for change are met with cries of entitlement. The older generation increasingly gaslight the young into believing that they are entitled and narcissistic. This generation is the first since World War 2 to have less wealth than their parents, but looking at the news, you wouldn’t know it.

Louis CK, the now disgraced comedian, once said millenials should shut up, because we have wifi on airplanes and we should be grateful for our access to magical technology. Technology he did not have as a kid. Meanwhile, his parents probably dreamed of work and house chores being completely automated. How far expectations have fallen. From full automation to WiFi access.

Expectations management has become a major force solidifying the status quo. Despite decades of technological progress, we have been told that nothing can, or should, ever change in regards to our working lives.

Instead of imagining a world with no work, we now imagine a world where robots drive us to work. Instead of imagining a world where AI do our jobs, we imagine a world where AI “enhances” our jobs – with the exact same working hours.

Artificial intelligence was meant to take over our jobs and make us free, now we get told that AI is scary, and that we should protect our jobs from automation. The 1950s Sci fi writers would weep.

Don’t Worry, shows us the end result of our failed imaginations: the anger of young men who were promised more, and our current world: with long working hours, sad relationships, and couples blaming each other for the problems caused by their companies. It’s a classic case of divide and rule. We are taught to fight each other, rather than the people who are controlling our lives.

In the old system, men went to work and women did the housework. In the new system, both do work, and both are expected to do the housework after a long day in the office. Modern feminists blame men for not pulling their weight at home. But now both men and women are expected to fulfill every role at once: work, chores and raising children, all in the same day. Our expectations have not just been managed, they have shifted entirely. Instead of gaining more leisure, we have exponentially gained more work.

Meanwhile, we grow sick and bitter. Angry at the world and each other. We cling onto visions of the past, rather than creating a new, automated future. We long for leisure, rest and relaxation, but get told to be more productive, yet again, even though we get no benefit from increased productivity. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if technology worked for us, rather than us working for technology.


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