Robots and the Post-work Society

Or would it be a dystopian world like the one in Elysium where in which the One Percent live lavish lifestyles safely removed from desperate masses who struggle to survive with no money and no help?

Elysium’s two worlds

In yesterday’s post I talked about automation as the fourth wave of how traditional jobs have been lost in the struggle for ever greater productivity and profitability.

But what would an automated post-work society look like?  Would it be a utopian, Star Trek-like universe in which no one has to work but people take on the jobs they find fulfilling? Or would it be a dystopian world like the one in Elysium where the One Percent live lavish lifestyles safely removed from desperate masses who struggle to survive with no money and no help?

Oddly enough, two recent articles in The Atlantic highlight different sides of automation’s impact and the value of work.

Missing Jobs / Missing Men

Derek Thompson’s article on “The Missing Men” investigates why prime-age men (25 to 54) are disappearing from the economy. After exploring several possible reasons, he arrives at two conclusions: (1) the jobs that were traditionally held by young, single, able-bodied men have disappeared.

Ironworkers on construction site

Derek Thompson’s article on “The Missing Men” investigates why prime-age men (25 to 54) are disappearing from the economy.  After exploring several possible reasons, he arrives at two conclusions:

  1. The jobs that were traditionally held by young, single, able-bodied men have disappeared. The available jobs have become more white-collar and “feminized,” which means traditionally done by women.
  2. Not enough such men live where the jobs do exist. They don’t migrate to parts of the country where work can be found, instead remaining in places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, where there simply are no jobs.

To be clear, Mr. Thompson does not think that it is a good thing for 10 million able-bodied young men to drop out of the work force. Nor does the think that a life without work is an opportunity for personal achievement. He points out that unemployed men spend a great deal of their time watching television—which is neither productive nor enriching.

The Utopian Post-work Society

Or would the post-work world be the ideal envisioned by Ilana E. Strauss in her Atlantic article, “Would a Work-free World Be So Bad?”  Ms. Strauss examines different cultures and historical periods and discovers a world of merry people who, unrestricted by bosses and working hours, mixed work and play—or played all the time. Here, for example, is her definition of farming:

“There were no managers or overseers, so they would switch fluidly between working, taking breaks, joining in neighborhood games, playing pranks, and spending time with family and friends. Not to mention festivals and other gatherings . . . “

I’m not sure even today’s farmers with their work lightened by such labor-saving devices as tractors, harvesters, and automatic-milking machines, would agree that their lives contain so much light-hearted leisure time. The peasants of ages past worked unremittingly from sunup to sundown with few breaks and games to lighten their drudgery.

Irish peasants farming potatoes (Getty Images)

I’m not sure even today’s farmers with their work lightened by such labor-saving devices as tractors, harvesters, and milking machines, would agree that their lives contain so much light-hearted leisure time. The peasants of previous ages certainly worked unremittingly from sunup to sundown with few breaks and games to lighten their drudgery.

Nor do I find her comparison to the aristocrats of old Europe convincing. Their leisure time and unpaid public service were supported by the constant labor of both the peasants who worked the land owned by rich nobles as well as the household staffs who produced the “elaborate meals” they ate and maintained the enormous houses in which they lived. If peasants spent more time with their families it was because all the family members were toiling together.

The Darker View of a Post-work Society

I guess I’m a cynic because I take the darker view of what a post-work world would be like. Also because I think Ms. Strauss envisions such a society through rose-colored glasses. Will robots and other mechanisms eventually do all the work that peasants, farmers, servants, and factory workers once did? If one assumes that these robots will be produced and distributed to the benefit of all the people outside of any profit motive, you’re talking about a huge shift from a capitalist economy to a Communist state. We all know how well Communism did at improving the lives of the people. It wasn’t a pretty picture and I don’t see that happening here.

Post-work Society: If they are sold, they will be purchased by the One Percent who will live, as they do now, lives of ease and comfort without much visibility to or interaction with, the 99 Percent who struggle to make ends meet with jobs that don’t pay a living wage—when they are fortunate enough to find something robots can’t yet do.

Household robot

If the robots are sold, they will be purchased by the only ones who can afford them, the One Percent who will live, as they do now, lives of ease and comfort. These privileged people won’t have much visibility to or interaction with, the 99 Percent who struggle to make ends meet with jobs that don’t pay a living wage—when they are fortunate enough to find something robots can’t yet do.

The Value of Work in a Post-work Society

I also believe that many people derive a great deal of satisfaction and self-worth from work. Detached from it, they become, as Ms. Strauss acknowledges, less happy and less healthy.

“Also, some research suggests that the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time.”

Realistically speaking, not everyone has the creativity, self-determination, drive, or initiative to find a way to fill their lives with meaning and purpose. This has always been the case. Some people need more structure than others. Some find rules and schedules constricting while others use rules and schedules to structure their lives. Some folks rise to a challenge while others are defeated by it. In a post-work society some would have the drive to attend Starfleet Academy and rise to captain a starship. Others would fall into sloth, turn to drugs, or simply move from one shelter and soup kitchen to another. (We never do find out whether robots clean the toilets at Starfleet Academy or grow the food the faculty and students eat.)

Some folks rise to a challenge while others are defeated by it. In a post-work society some would have the drive to attend Starfleet Academy and captain a starship. Others would fall into sloth, turn to drugs, or simply move from one shelter and soup kitchen to another. (We never do find out whether robots clean the toilets at Starfleet Academy or grow the food the faculty and students eat.)

Starfleet Academy

The Rush to Skynet

I am dismayed by any loss of jobs because I do believe that earning a living allows workers to feel pride in their achievements and in their ability to support a family.  Even the simple, mechanical tasks of an assembly line that robots can do faster and more accurately, once were held by men who were proud to work hard, earn a good wage and contribute to the economy. They built things and created things, making the world and their own lives better.

Do I want to return to a life without labor-saving devices? Of course not. I simply think that automating jobs and taking away someone’s livelihood benefits neither the individual nor the economy.  Eventually the impact of our rush to Skynet will become obvious to the people who are driving it. Either they will lose their own jobs or the customers on whom their business depends. It will be interesting to see what happens then.

1 thought on “Robots and the Post-work Society

  1. I’m not so sure. Ask someone who works three different minimum wage jobs if they are proud to work hard or if they’d like to work 20 hours a week instead and spend time with their children.

    Perhaps (and hopefully) our transition to a post-work society will happen incrementally, like Germany and France, with reductions on the number of hours in the standard work week and limits on calls and unpaid interruptions from employeers in their time off. Either wages will rise, or we might see something like basic income.

    If we had a better education system, and opportunities to pursue careers in arts or science without having to worry about supporting a household we might find more interest. To become a teacher today means you’re willing to take a vow of poverty. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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