The Meaning of Life in a World Without Work

Friday, February 16, 2018
Fatou Darboe

Image credit: The Guardian

Experts and historians like Yuval Noah Harari have long been predicting that machines would make workers redundant. That moment may already be here. But could that be a bad thing?

The world of work is in a state of anxiety, and for good reason. There is a great schism in the labor market between high and low skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment (particularly among young people), and income inequality.

Migration has added fuel to the anxiety in many first world economies. Think Brexit, as the most recent example.

In particular, there has been great debate about whether there will be enough jobs to employ everyone. The infiltration of automation in the workplace has been at the center of those debates.

Automation promises higher productivity, convenience and economic growth but it also raises some testing questions about the broader implications of automation on jobs, skills, wages and the actual nature of work.

Harari goes deep into the topic in his recently published book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The book examines the potential impact of biotechnological and artificial intelligence innovation on humans and explores the beginning of a new robotic or semi-computerised form of human.

It specifically delves deep into issues of individuality, consciousness and intelligence and the questions, dilemmas and choices that a fully automated world will present us with.

Let’s look at some of the major themes that are covered in Harari’s book, specifically, the impact of automation on the job market and explore what life in a world without work would look like.

Impact of Automation on Work

The United States is still recovering from the Great Recession of 2008. But some economists and technologists warn that the economy is about to trip again. They reached this conclusion after looking at labor-market data and see troubling signs which are camouflaged by a cyclical recovery.

They see automation everywhere: from Amazon drones clouding the sky, self-driving cars to robots in the operating room and grocery stores. Automation which will replace millions of drivers and retail workers.

Image credit: Big Think

They see that the capabilities of machines continue to grow exponentially while ours remain stagnant.

Indeed, technology has been reshaping the workplace over the past few centuries, particularly since the Industrial Revolution. But the speed at which automation technologies are currently developing is unprecedented.

But how fast can it infiltrate the global economy?

Research on automation of the global economy, conducted by McKinsey, looked at over 2,000 work activities and measured the technical viability of automating each of them. They found that less than 5 percent of jobs can actually be fully automated using current technologies.

So perhaps we need not worry about it too much?

Well...they also found that even if whole occupations are not automated, partial automation will affect almost all jobs.

The impact will be felt across the job spectrum: from factory workers, clerks, fashion designers, insurance sales reps, CEOs to landscape gardeners.

They also found that about 60 percent of all professions have at least 30 percent of activities that are technically automatable, based on existing technologies.

That means that more people will have to use technology to execute their work tasks and that their occupations will consequently change.

Highly skilled workers who work with technology will benefit while low-skilled who work with technology will be more productive.

As a consequence, they will experience a decrease in wages because of the large supply of equally low-skilled workers. That is if demand for the occupation is less than the labor supply.

Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago report that almost 50 percent of the decline in bargaining power for some workers is a result of the replacement of workers with technology.

For example, in 1964, AT&T, the most valuable company at the time (worth $267 billion) employed 758,611 people. Today, Google (worth $370 billion) employs about 55,000 people, less than 10 percent of AT&T’s workforce back in 1964.

So, when will machines fully take over our jobs?

When machines evolve to the point where they exceed human capabilities, then automation will pick up. But that does not necessarily mean that automation will be prevalent in the workplace.

There is still the cost of developing and installing the hardware and software of the technology to fully automate the workplace.

And if there is a large supply of workers with adequate skills for the job, and is significantly less expensive than automation, then the rate of adoption will be slow.

It may take at least 20 years before automation in the workplace reaches 50 percent of today’s work activities.

The fact remains that many of the tasks carried out by workers today have great potential to be automated. But workers are adapting.

The Flipside

Even though technology is replacing certain jobs, it is creating new jobs and even new industries. For example, agricultural technology created the farming industry and the industrial revolution gave birth to factory workers.

33 percent of new jobs created in the US in the past two decades did not exist before, especially when we look at the IT industry.

Technology can also create entrepreneurship and gives workers in small businesses or self-employed workers the ability to earn more.

For example, Google is rolling out the Internet Saathi program in India which teaches women in rural areas on how to use the internet. They can then use those skills to provide services in their villages through internet-enabled devices. For example, they can distribute telecom products locally or work as field data collectors for research companies, etc.

Another effect of technology is that an increasing number of workers are branching off by offering their services on platforms like Upwork and Uber; and debunking the traditional ways we think about how work is done and the very nature of work itself.

Yes, technology has given birth to many industries. However, globalization and automation has steadily reversed those creations and given birth to a nation of services instead.

Despite that, the number of jobs has always risen. But what may happen, pretty soon, is that computer scientists and software engineers will put us out of work and the number of jobs will steadily decline.

In that case, what would happen to first world economies like America, where industriousness is the unofficial religion (work lies at the heart of the country’s economy, politics and culture)?

What about third world countries? Indeed, debates around AI, automation and the future of work tend to focus on the way in which technological developments affect first world economies.

It is important to acknowledge that the impact will be equally as important for workers in developing or third world economies.

Companies like Adidas employ a million workers in factories around Asia and Africa, who make about 300 million pairs of shoes each year.

Image credit: The Economist

In 2017, Adidas opened a factory in Germany which looks to make about half a million pairs of shoes each year with just 160 workers.

The remaining work activities in that factory are carried out by machines.

So the question is, what happens to us all when it all goes away?

What Does a World Without Work Look Like?

That is the question a lot of people have been asking lately. What with globalization and technological advancements that are reshaping economies and societies. Their effects are greatly felt in the workforce.

Image credit: The Guardian

Especially among middle class individuals and families.

A lot of traditional middle class jobs are fast disappearing in the first world, while wages for the other classes are pretty much stagnant. The middle class is indeed being scraped off country after country and that is a major concern for all of us.

A large, established and flourishing middle class is essential to civil society. Many economists agree that a thriving middle class fosters inclusiveness and democracy, among many other things.

The middle class is also a driver of demand in any economy since moderately prosperous households buy a lot of goods. So what happens when the industrial-era jobs that established the middle class start to disappear?

Voltaire once observed that “work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.”

Trade and technological advancements do make a society wealthier as a whole. However, they also cause a problem of scarcity and bring about the issue of distribution.

We go to work in order to earn money to buy things we need and want. So what happens when job opportunities become scarce? A world without work?

Let’s look at the case of Youngstown, Ohio.

In the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills made the city one of the most prosperous in all of America. They had a median income and one of the nation’s highest homeownership rates.

That all changed when manufacturing was outsourced abroad after World War II. Youngstown’s steel mills suffered and on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed their Campbell Works mill.

The city subsequently lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages within five years. It was so severe that a term was invented to describe the event: regional depression.

Let’s turn to Voltaire again. So boredom, vice and need. Should we be worried about those three things?

Some argue that we should not. If we don’t need people to do certain jobs, then why should we care about what they do and what happens to them? – not from an emotional perspective but from a purely objective and economic standpoint.

Surely, if people want to indulge in alcohol, drugs, video games or sex, why should be care?

Well, research by political scientist Charles Murray shows how social conditions have changed in the last 50 years for the middle class while they remained unchanged for the upper-middle class.

In particular, divorce and crime rates are high; and the number of children being raised in single-parent households and absentee fathers has also gone up.

The rise of these social problems correlate to the evaporation of industrial-era jobs.

There is however a lot of debate about whether the lack of steady work causes them or if they’re a result of other factors. Strong research exists to show that it is a lack of work that is the cause.

A recent study by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and Anne Case shows a much more scary trend than a decline in social conditions.

They report that while death rates have dropped significantly for American adults in the past few decades, the death rate among the least educated middle-aged whites has increased.

They also report that between 1993 and 2013, the death rate among that group rose by 134 per 100,000.

They attribute the spike to suicide, cirrhosis, and alcohol and drug poisoning. The people in that socio-economic group are essentially killing themselves on purpose, both quickly and slowly.

Although much more research is needed to fully understand cause and correlation, we can safely assume that the decline of jobs for the middle class is incidental to that finding.

And just to reinforce the research studies, let’s refer back to the case of Youngstown.

Youngstown not only suffered an economic depression but a psychological and cultural breakdown as well. Suicide, spousal abuse and depression skyrocketed; and the number of patients in the city’s mental-health center tripled in 10 years.

The city built four prisons in the mid-90s.

The case of Youngstown is a national metaphor of the decline of labor. It shows that when jobs disappear, cultural and social cohesion quickly disappear along with it. Perhaps the cultural breakdown is even more of a concern than the economic decline.

So the boredom and vice that Voltaire talks about gives way to serious public health, cultural and social problems. And these problems are increasingly represented in social and health statistics.

The meaning of life without work should be a concern for us all.

Is There Anything We Can Do to Save Ourselves?

We have established that a world without work could be disastrous for humanity. One could however argue with Voltaire about the effects of boredom and vice on culture and society.

Their argument could be that having less work means more leisure time and thus less boredom. However, that only works when all of our basic needs are met.

That means that we would need to have a policy like Universal Basic Income (UBI) - a social security or welfare program in which everyone receives a basic income to survive on - for a world without work to work for us. And in a world with efficient robots, we might be able to afford that.

Finland is currently experimenting with it, with some mixed results and opinions. There are still questions as to how it will affect people and specific industries. Some worry that people will lose their sense of purpose in life if it is universally implemented.

But do we really need work to find meaning and purpose in life? Well, yes and no.

To be honest, jobs that provide meaning and purpose are rarer than we think. Ask yourself if you would keep working at your current job if money weren't an issue. Would you rather have more free time to pursue your hobbies and passions?

Perhaps doing so would give you more purpose and structure in life; and maybe even a greater connection to your community and society.

But perhaps, you may go quietly insane; and become the next victim of vice and boredom that Voltaire spoke of. More leisure time could be great for a while, but could quickly lose its novelty when there is no end in sight.

Work means different things to each of us. Objectively and economically, it means earning a living and allocating purchasing power. In a world without work, it would mean none of those things.

Our identity and self-esteem are tied to work or lack thereof. Not working is frowned upon in many cultures and work is a fabric of many societies.

We simply have reached a point where we cannot imagine a life without work.

What will happen to us when robots start doing all the work then? How would we cope?

Wrapping Up

Change is indeed here.

While we are still in the dark about the impact of the technological revolution on the workforce in the next few decades; we can reasonably assume that the latitude and scale of change will necessitate substantial societal adaptation; and that the process will require intense preparation and discussion.

It’s important to begin that preparation and discussion now, today.