Society / Technology

The End of Work: Good or Bad?

courtesy flickr/rodrigo_suriani

Automated systems grow more sophisticated every day.  They’re now poised to take on many tasks that we would’ve considered “human-only” just a few years ago.  We’ve discussed that trend here several times, from robot nurses and lawyers to robots that drive your car.

While these developments are fascinating on their own, today I want to step back and ask the larger question: what happens if we carry this trend to its logical extreme?

The Future of Work

Three quick assumptions (as usual, quibble away if you wish).  First, suppose robots become cheap enough to dominate manual labor tasks.  Second, suppose Watson-type computers become advanced enough to take over the information sectors of the economy.  Finally, assume the forces of globalization allow these trends to take hold everywhere.  This means the vast majority of both blue- and white-collar jobs will be automated.  Construction, manufacturing, and mining; sales, customer service, technical support and research.

(Notice I didn’t include any creative jobs on the list.  The morning that I wake up to find a machine working on my novel draft is the morning I throw down my gauntlet and the Robot War begins in earnest.  I embrace the future with open arms, but even I have my limits.)

Meanwhile, the world population will have nearly doubled.  Where are all those people going to find work?  I see two possible scenarios.

courtesy flickr/egroj

This Is Going to Be Great!

In the optimistic scenario, the development is a great thing for humanity.  With all of our unpleasant, but necessary, work being done by robots, we’ll be free to pursue whatever we enjoy.  Music, writing, painting and other arts would flourish.  So would engineering, design, and technical innovation.  In the extreme case, this scenario results in a post-scarcity world: we can collectively maintain our lives and our lifestyles without work, so employment becomes purely optional.

Before you dismiss this as silly fantasy, consider this: the fact that I have time to write this post, instead of spending my entire day foraging berries and hunting gazelles, is evidence that it’s possible in principle.  At a mere 40 hours of labor per week, I’m already 3/4 of the way to a work-free existence (though I admit not everyone is so lucky).

Wait, This Is Going to Be Horrible!

The second possibility is downright dystopian, and springs from the fact that our society is ownership-based.  Even if the world has sufficient resources and robots to provide for everyone, someone is still going to own those things.  And those someones will be looking out for themselves.  In a nutshell, it’s Karl Marx’s worst nightmare.  Not only would the capitalists control the means of production, but they’d own the (robotic) labor force, too – every piece of the economic ecosystem would belong to someone, leaving non-owners with few options beyond subsistence farming.  Still a technological utopia, but only for the privileged few.  Maybe I could get a capitalist overlord to be my patron, commissioning a blog post every week in exchange for food.

Which Is Going to Come True?

Hell if I know.  You tell me: is the human race headed for a permanent sunny retirement, complete with hobbies and family time?  Or are we concentrating global power in the hands of a tiny oligarchy bent on squeezing and discarding us like old toothpaste tubes?  One thing’s for sure, love ’em or hate ’em, the robots are here to stay.

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5 thoughts on “The End of Work: Good or Bad?

  1. Even in the utopian version (the post-scarcity world you mention), it would require a massive shift in our existential framework.

    Right now, many people find the meanings of their lives (or at least a big chunk of their self-identity) in their work. Without that structure, our whole civilization would need an overhaul while individuals figure out how to remain productive and engaged with the world.

    Not everyone wants to be an artist or an innovator. What would the day-to-day look like for everyone else?

  2. I think of an analogous question: Work gives our lives purpose–good or bad? Also, I am not an anthropologist, but I believe it is the case that hunter-gatherer societies needed to spend a relatively small part of each day actually hunting and gathering. The natural world around them, in so many places, was simply so abundant. They had much more time to spend “at rest” than we in the modern world do. Lastly, I remember well the predictions of a “4-day work week for everyone” made back in the 60s! Whatever happened to that??

  3. John,
    That’s an interesting point about hunter-gatherers. If true, it means that we could sustain ourselves with a lot less work than we’re doing now, in theory. On the other hand, since this is not the case, there must be other socioeconomic forces at work, and I wonder if we can overcome them. Perhaps our constantly growing desire for “more” is outpacing our technological innovations.

    John and Rebecca,
    You both brought up a great question. Would a jobless life still have purpose? Could people still engage with the world in a meaningful way? It might take a generation or more before this becomes clear, but I think the answer to both questions is ultimately “yes.” I see this development (if it happens) not as an end to jobs per se, but rather a shift in our relationship with jobs. For example, if you truly enjoy your work, I see no harm in continuing to do it. You just wouldn’t depend on it for a paycheck anymore.

    Many would choose other activities, as I noted, and some would no doubt choose to stay inside playing video games all day. But really, that’s not so different from today. It just allows each individual to make decisions without the pressure of a paycheck. At least, that’s how I see it.

    Thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts!

  4. This question really stimulated my thinking about what is “work” and what meanings we attach to the word, both positive and negative. I found this definition of work: “an activity that depends on the consciously planned and directed involvement of the person.”

    I then understood “work” as “effort seeking to accomplish or create something.” Could be anything. All that is involved is the intent, the active engagement.

    When I detach “work” from “job” or any activity that is based on compensation as the primary motivation, I recognize how precious and valuable true “work” actually is. And how “work” when understood in this frame can be seen as the way to fulfill our dreams.

    Thanks–this was a fun form of “work”!

    • I like that, it’s a joyful definition of work. It’s the sort of work whose motivations are purely internal, with no external contingencies attached. Valuable indeed!

      Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks so much for the comment.

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