In human society, the idle rich arrived soon after some folks figured out how to take charge and take advantage of social and resource hierarchies. But for most of us throughout history, if we wanted to live, we had to work.
Work wasn’t about finding your passion. You ran the farm, continued the family trade, complied with the church’s directives, or, on occasion, pursued something you were spectacularly good at (if you had a chance to find out what that was).
If, for some reason, you had to stop working…well, you’d better hope your family, neighbours and/or the church were there to take care of you.
I have a friend who’s been doing work she loves for more than a decade. Unfortunately, her chosen profession is about the worst possible one for someone with her particular medical issues. She’s been told she’s going to have to do something else before too long.
Hmm. I sit and poke at a computer all day, which has largely been the basis of my career from the beginning.
If I woke up tomorrow unable to see, or type, there are assistive technologies to help. But what if it was worse than that? I’ve had assorted jobs and changed career trajectories a few times, but there have always been options, you know? But in this case… then what?
My obsession over the global future of work and humanity has also been fueled by a glut of recent media coverage, like these pieces in The Atlantic, The New York Times and Wired. We’ll come back to that.
Clever folks have been tinkering and inventing for millennia, endlessly replacing yesterday’s tools and systems with better ones. From our modern perspective we would have considered the pace of this change glacial, however.
The Industrial Revolution was when modern progress really started to gather steam (pun fully intended). The mid-1700s was also the first time we stopped needing large numbers of people to do their traditional work. (Well, aside from when the Black Death swept through…)
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, work shifted from farms and small cottage industries to mines and factories that used raw materials and produced goods at an unprecedented scale.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and we may well be looking at my friend’s career dilemma and Industrial Revolution-esque change on a vastly bigger and faster scale.
The next big evolution of work may well be that everyone stops doing any.
There’s been a lot of coverage about automation and the death of North American manufacturing. Or how lower pay and the stigma of “women’s work” are turning off unemployed men from growing industries like healthcare.
Or, after automation transforms retail and transportation, artificial intelligence will take over professional jobs in industries like insurance and accounting.
Beyond that, who knows? Can code write and test itself? Can systems detect customers’ issues before they know they have them, making support calls obsolete? Will high-tech tests and healthcare robots handle everything between conception and cremation?
Thinking this way, it really isn’t a difficult mental leap to envision a world where no one’s working. Well, aside from hipsters doing artisanal things, presumably…
In that world, why would we have any need for colleges and universities? At most, education would be a leisure pursuit for its own sake.
Which all brings us back to my personal bugbear: then what?
Chalk it up to Mennonite work ethic, but how can anyone spend a lifetime not doing anything useful? Maybe being trained in it from birth helps?
It just seems like such a waste. Sure, some people would pursue learning, or art, or organic farming. But, as Susan Ertz once said, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” If humanity had a report card it would include “lacks self-direction.”
In that former blue-collar class, we’re already seeing what happens when a large group is told their skills are no longer useful, their work no longer needed and the dream they bought into no longer exists. It’s not pretty.
Sure, some would feel bone-deep relief to be relieved of low-paying, soul-sucking toil… for a while. Many would be safer, both physically and mentally, if they were no longer members of the military or law enforcement. But then what?
For a lot of us, work is so much more than just something to do from 9 to 5 to pay the bills. It enables people to provide, and in turn provides purpose, identity, social status and community.
When drive is there but opportunity isn’t, drive gets redirected and can become corrosive. Much has been written that this lack of education, work, and contribution is one of the greatest dangers for young men becoming radicalized within displaced populations.
Now, realistically, compared to computers and robots, people are slow, expensive, and make a lot of mistakes. Really, how long does it make business sense to employ this financial drain and liability? (Says cold-blooded capitalism.)
On the flip side, warm-blooded socialism has discussions about taxing those job-stealing robots and implementing universal basic income pilot projects. Because even without work we’ll still need to buy stuff to live.
Now, once the Industrial Revolution got rolling, things sucked pretty hard for a lot of people. But eventually companies were forced to recognize workers’ rights and such. The middle class grew up and we discovered the joys of things like leisure time and disposable income.
But now, we have years to figure this stuff out, not decades or centuries. And it’s going to affect a lot more people. Plus, let’s face it, humans’ strong suit is reactivity, not proactivity. We’ll either make something happen or we’ll let something happen.
Then what? I guess we’re gonna find out.