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When the robots take our jobs, America will need to learn to respect the unemployed

Pete is a 30-something software engineer who has been unemployed for years. He keeps himself busy writing a blog where he tells people how he scrapes by on basically no money: biking everywhere, never buying coffee, never eating out, making his own home repairs. He ekes out a bit of extra income making furniture for friends, but it's nothing near a viable business. Poor guy.

Mr. Money Mustache is a 30-something software engineer who has been retired for years. He writes a wildly popular blog where he tells people how to retire early and live on basically no money: bike everywhere, make your own coffee, stop eating out, figure out how to fix a toilet. He has elevated frugality into a status competition — and he is winning it. His followers call themselves Mustachians. He has been interviewed by every media outlet you can think of (including Vox). ABC News says he is "living the dream." His motto? "Financial freedom through badassery." Helluva guy.

As you've probably already guessed, Pete is Mr. Money Mustache. But the difference between the two ways of looking at his life isn't just a trick. There's economic research showing that when the long-term unemployed retire, they become happier — even though nothing about their situation has changed.

I found myself thinking a lot about Mr. Money Mustache and the unemployment/retirement difference after reading Derek Thompson's exploration of a post-work world.

Thompson is trying to imagine a world in which automation and outsourcing have replaced tens of millions of jobs — and no new jobs have risen in their place. He is trying to imagine a world in which there is plenty of prosperity, but not much work. He considers all the usual alternatives — hobbies, a guaranteed basic income, the wonderful promise of leisure — but finds them wanting:

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people.

He notes that for all the complaints people make of their work, unemployment is typically experienced as a psychic and social trauma:

Time-use surveys show that jobless prime-age people dedicate some of the time once spent working to cleaning and childcare. But men in particular devote most of their free time to leisure, the lion’s share of which is spent watching television, browsing the Internet, and sleeping. Retired seniors watch about 50 hours of television a week, according to Nielsen. That means they spend a majority of their lives either sleeping or sitting on the sofa looking at a flatscreen. The unemployed theoretically have the most time to socialize, and yet studies have shown that they feel the most social isolation; it is surprisingly hard to replace the camaraderie of the water cooler.

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. "There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both," says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury.

Which brings me back to Mr. Money Mustache. How much of the trauma of unemployment comes from the weight of society's disapproval, the shame that comes when a friend of a friend asks, "And what do you do?"

One of the hardest things about imagining a post-work world is imagining the social value put on non-work. But you can see hints of how transformative it is even now. In Timothy Ferriss's runaway bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, he frames his advice as a manual for joining the New Rich. What separates the New Rich from the Old Rich? Mainly that the new rich barely do any work, and they don't much care about money. "Gold is getting old," Ferriss writes. "The New Rich (NR) are those who abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility."

In other words, rather than working hard now to enjoy a lavish retirement in the future, the New Rich figure out how to retire now and work hard never.

If all this seems a bit soaked in economic privilege, well, of course it is. The New Rich, in Ferriss's book, outsource much of their work to call centers in India. The extreme early retirement movement that Mr. Money Mustache leads works best for people who have a high-paying job in their 20s and so can sock away hefty savings quickly and then live off the interest.

But that's actually not the most interesting kind of privilege being employed here. What these efforts suggest is that people who begin with social status can figure out ways to carry that social status into a post-work lifestyle. Saying "I'm unemployed" is very different than saying "I retired at 32, and it's amazing." The question is, can someone who doesn't start with much social status — Ferriss is a Princeton graduate, Mr. Money Mustache an ex-software engineer — manage the same trick?

This is one of the questions that will decide whether a post-work world becomes a dystopia. Does whatever replaces work get branded more like unemployment or more like extreme retirement? What happens when you tell someone you just met on Tinder that you don't have a full-time job, but you really love hiking?

I am not worried that a post-work world can't be a good world. I am just worried that it won't be — that guilt-free early retirement will be a luxury reserved for people who can get good jobs, and denied to people who can't. But there is, in this, some optimism to be found looking backward. As Thompson writes:

As late as the mid-19th century, though, the modern concept of "unemployment" didn’t exist in the United States. Most people lived on farms, and while paid work came and went, home industry—canning, sewing, carpentry—was a constant. Even in the worst economic panics, people typically found productive things to do. The despondency and helplessness of unemployment were discovered, to the bafflement and dismay of cultural critics, only after factory work became dominant and cities swelled.