The problem with “post-work”

A world without jobs would undermine the relationships that make our lives meaningful.

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After God observed Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, God summoned them to invoke punishment. The judgement: labour would from then on be a burden. Childbirth will become “a sore pain” and the production of everything else we need to live will be difficult until death ends our troubles. “In the sweat of your brow you shall earn your food, till you return to the ground from which you came” (Genesis, 3:16-20). 

Modern economists disguise the divine curse with the more scientific sounding “disutility” of labour, but the message remains the same: labour is antithetical to the good life. Leisure, consumption, fun and games are where it's at. Labour, in contrast, is forced upon us by social necessity. It is exhausting and boring.

If leisure is good and work is bad, and if we want to live good lives, then we ought to devote our intelligence – and our social policies – to finding ways to free our time from the curse of work. Or at least, that is what almost all progressive thinkers believe, whether liberals or socialists.

Those thinkers no longer worry about biblical God, because they worship at another altar: technology. The history of technology is the story of offloading the most difficult and unpleasant tasks to machines.

On this point, classical political economists and Karl Marx agreed: machines that can do for us what we formerly had to do for ourselves are good, and whatever social impediments stand in the way of creating these machines should be cleared aside.

Here, increasing mechanical productivity is seen as the key to progress. If people spend less time working, they have more time for leisure. With increased mechanical productivity, the realm of freedom expands and the realm of necessity contracts, leaving people free to choose how to spend most of their time.

In the nineteenth century, technologies that emulated our bodily powers increased mechanical productivity. Steam-driven machines could push, pull, raise and lower vast quantities of things without getting tired or experiencing pain. In short, machines freed workers from the burdens of manual labour by replicating their bodily actions.

By freeing our bodies from drudgery, machines seemed to hold out the promise of freeing our minds to think, imagine, invent, create and appreciate. The machines of the nineteenth century did not mechanise the mind or do anything that had a distinctly human character or value, so nobody worried that technology might one day replace all human activities.

But we confront a very different techno-social landscape today. Machines now do a lot more than push and pull, raise and lower. And even if they cannot think and feel like humans, they simulate thought in ways that it would have been impossible for nineteenth century scientists and engineers to imagine.

We confront a new problem that nineteenth century thinkers could not anticipate: machines doing almost everything for us, including the creative and intellectual work we find most meaningful and satisfying. We must therefore confront the possibility of a future in which human beings really do not need to do anything at all.

This might sound like Eden. However, I think we have good reason to believe that a society without work would undermine the relationships we have with each other and with our environment that make our lives meaningful.

Instead of worrying about the implications of living in a world where labour disappears as a source of meaning, policy-makers worry about the social crisis that mass unemployment might produce. This is a serious concern. And if we were to solve the problem of machine-induced mass unemployment with something like a universal basic income, then reducing our reliance on wage labour would be a tremendous step along the road to greater freedom.

But it would not be a tremendous step on the road to happiness. As I see it, losing the need for labour altogether would lead to an existential crisis. If we were to substitute work for a life of absolute leisure, we would experience a rapid loss of meaning in our existence, manifested as an inability to care for or value anything. Not having to do any one thing rather than another would cause an existential crisis because human beings are social animals who need to be needed.

Until today, labour in the broadest sense – giving birth to new humans, caring for them, working with and transforming the products of nature to satisfy basic needs and to create a human world out of nature – has been the primary way we’ve satisfied our need to be needed. Put otherwise, the problem with labour, ie that it has so far been compelled from us by our needs, is precisely what makes it so valuable.

At its core, labour is not work for the boss, but work for each other. We become real through the contributions we make to others, and to social life more generally. It is on this basis that we become valuable, and valued, members of a community. If some people are unable to fully realise their abilities because they cannot find meaningful work, the solution is not to abolish work, but make it more widely available.

Workers have historically fought for valuable work. Famously, the Luddites are derided for opposing the tidal force of technology, but they did not advance a general critique of technology. In their newspaper articles and petitions they defended their right to perform meaningful labour against the forces and people destroying their way of life.

While the Luddites lost, people today still fight for “good jobs” and valuable work. Technology should be developed in a way that gives people the freedom to choose how they will work—how they will satisfy the need to be needed—and not in a way that frees them from that need altogether.

If people think my worries about existential crisis are overblown, they should ask themselves: Would we really be better off never having to dig into the earth that sustains us with our hands? Do we really want to be tended by nurse-bots and doc-bots when we are ill? Is it better to download the prof-bot rather than get together in physical space and explore ideas? Will we be happier when there is no longer a need for architects, designers, carpenters, painters? Will computer-generated art really shine light on the human condition?

If we pay these questions the attention they deserve, I believe that the answer to each is “no.” Leisure is a necessary respite from the hard work of living, but that hard work—if it does not dominate every moment of waking life, if it can be freely chosen, and if it contributes some good to others—is not a curse.

Necessity is not always the enemy of freedom. Needing to be needed makes life meaningful, and labour is the embodiment of that need, even if our hands and minds could be replaced by machines.  

Jeff Noonan is professor of philosophy at the University of Windsor. He is the author of Materialist Ethics and Life-Value and Embodiment and the Meaning of Life.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.