Since its founding, the United States has been a nation of work. The emergence of a strong middle class in the 20th century—long a source of national pride—was largely due to an abundance of well-paying jobs accessible to the American masses. Millions found secure jobs that required neither highly-specialized skills nor higher education. Today, college degrees have become a prerequisite for many middle-class jobs, manufacturing has been outsourced abroad, and working-class jobs have declined. Nevertheless, the belief that all Americans should have the opportunity to find a job has held strong.
But this could all change in the near future. While many have enjoyed the benefits of technological advancement over the past few decades, others are beginning to feel the pain of “technological unemployment,” as robots learn to do more of the work that humans typically do. Many experts speculate that we’re headed towards a world without work—one where machines perform all our jobs, the owners of these machines rule the world, and humans become permanently unemployed. Some believe that mass technological unemployment will happen within our children’s lifetimes, if not sooner.
As a nation, we need to have a frank dialogue about what work means to us today, how our culture values work, and what we’ll do without it, lest we find ourselves blindsided by the automation revolution. The consequences of a world without work will reach far beyond the initial economic shock: our cultures, lifestyles, and sense of purpose will all be impacted. Addressing the challenge of automation requires rethinking the meaning of work itself.
Beware the Robots?
A growing body of research suggests workplace automation will affect vast swathes of American workers. A widely cited 2013 Oxford study found that as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be wiped out due to automation within the next 20 years. Meanwhile, recent research by McKinsey & Company claims nearly all industries could be automated to some extent. Few workers would be spared from the triumph of technology over labor. Even those with traditionally “secure” occupations, such as surgeons and financial analysts, might see more of their work performed by machines in the future. The potential economic and political implications of an automated workforce—including systemic inequality, mass unemployment, and universal basic income—have been discussed at length among media commentators, public figures, and policy makers alike.
While a world where human labor is obsolete most likely remains some distance away, most experts agree that automation will continue to evolve at a breakneck pace. However, they aren’t completely certain that such developments will necessarily lead to mass unemployment. John Russo, a professor of labor studies at Youngstown State University, spoke to the HPR about his view on the impacts of technological automation on work in America. Russo cited studies that had arrived at divergent conclusions on what drives mass unemployment. Some had found technology to be responsible, while others identified government and corporate policies as causes. Although Russo is hesitant to blame technology for current unemployment trends, he predicts that automation will play a larger role in the future. “New transformational technologies have only just begun to reshape the nature of work in our social and economic lives,” he said.
Labor’s Love Not Lost
Even if robots can perform all human work in the future, would people really miss having jobs? The answer is complicated: data on Americans’ relationships with their jobs reveal a mixed picture of workplace alienation and engagement. A recent Pew survey found that seven out of ten U.S. employees say that they are at least “somewhat” satisfied with their jobs, with half feeling “very” satisfied. This finding was echoed by a 2016 Conference Board survey which found job satisfaction to be at its highest point since 2005. Yet in 2015, Gallup reported that almost 70 percent of employees felt unengaged in the workplace. Furthermore, the same Pew poll which found relatively high rates of job satisfaction found that only half of U.S. workers say their job provides them with a sense of identity. The other half say that their work is just what they do for a living, and almost a third say that their job is only “to get them by” as opposed to a meaningful career.
Research relating specifically to U.S. workers’ perception of automation and job security reveals an interesting paradox. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last October found that nearly two-thirds of Americans they will be alive to see computers and automated systems perform most of the jobs that currently belong to humans. Nevertheless, over 80 percent of Americans believe that their own occupation will exist in its current form after 50 years. Of the workers who do worry about losing their jobs, only 10 percent cite technological automation as the likely culprit. Like many experts, most Americans expect the workplace of the future to look radically different, but aren’t worried about their place in it. We seem to agree that technology will bring big changes to the future of work, but not to our own lives—even when technological displacement is already becoming a reality.
Russo isn’t surprised that Americans remain optimistic for their job prospects in the face of technological change. “It’s a kind of psychological adjustment,” he said. “[Unemployed] steelworkers here in Youngstown keep saying ‘Don’t worry, the jobs will come back.’ In this country, there is a type of technological determinism … that things will always work out.” Russo further explained that for most of us, belief in the power of modernity to improve our lives is stronger than any fear of technology, so we assume that there will always be work left to do. Throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, most people become so accustomed to the idea of working for a living that the prospect of a life without work is unimaginable.
Even though most Americans remain untroubled about technological change, those responsible for the automation revolution are beginning to take action. Technology elites are beginning to take accountability for the socioeconomic disruptions that their innovations might cause if left unchecked. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, whose company’s driverless technology could put millions out of work, recently reaffirmed his support for a universal basic income, explaining that without substantial employment, a permanently unemployed society will need to be financially supported.
But replacing work isn’t as easy as giving everybody a paycheck. Musk acknowledged as much at the World Government Summit in Dubai, saying that people might lose their purpose in life if they don’t have to work: “A lot of people derive meaning from their employment … so if there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning? Do you feel useless?” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg echoed those sentiments in his recent commencement speech at Harvard, when he called for graduates to create jobs that provide meaning to communities in the face of technological change: “When our parents graduated, a sense of purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. … But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in a lot of communities has been declining. A lot of people are feeling disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void in their lives.”
Some “post-workists,” however, see the current state of work as more of a burden than a boon to society. They believe that the coming automation revolution will be a chance for us to renegotiate our relationship with work, and point to increasing working hours, stress, depression, and disengagement as reasons to look forward to the end of work. Their concerns aren’t without merit: along with the aforementioned finding about employee disengagement, numerous studies have chronicled the toll of the modern workplace on health and well-being. Our working lives are getting in the way of enjoying our personal lives. Post-workists claim that technology has the potential to allow us to work fewer hours, get closer with our loved ones, and live healthier, more meaningful lives. If automation can help us reclaim that, they argue, why not embrace it?
Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, spoke to the HPR about historical expectations for technology and a post-work world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The so-called “Luddite fallacy”—the fear that new technology will eliminate jobs for humans, named after a 19th century English anti-industrial movement—was largely discredited in the late 20th century once it became apparent that technology was creating jobs (although it is regaining traction as of late). But for many working-class laborers in late 18th and early 19th century America, the automation of work was a welcome phenomenon. “The new age of technology was supposed to usher in a realm of freedom, one where people could concentrate more of their lives on living, and not just making a living,” said Hunnicutt. It’s the same technological determinism that Russo attributed to Americans, only in the other direction: hope that technology would give us less work, not more of it. Hunnicutt believes that this hope for liberation only gave way to fears of wage-enslavement after the 1970s, when we started working longer hours for the same pay and the work-life balance collapsed over our heads.
All the noise about a post-work society does beg one question, though. If the people of the future won’t (or can’t) work, how will they use their time instead? The question might have already been answered—by retirees. More Americans are staying engaged in their retirement than ever before. They’re enjoying leisurely pursuits that often get overlooked in our work-oriented culture, but are just as important to living meaningful lives. Retirees are spending time with their friends and family, rediscovering the joy of learning for its own sake, engaging with the arts, taking care of their well-being, and getting more involved in civic life. Yet there is a bizarre irony in discovering our passions only when we have less time to enjoy them. In a world without work, we might be able to find more of the interests and hobbies that make us human at an early age, uninhibited by the demands of the office.
The Work Ahead
It is important to note that the changes brought by a post-work world would lead to more than just an increase in free time; they would demand nothing less than a full reexamination of our values and our society as a whole. Our education system was designed to teach children to become productive workers, not how to create meaningful lives. Companies shower rewards on industrious super-employees logging long work weeks—at great cost to both parties—while optimizing for productivity. We look forward to retirement as an escape from work but for too many of us, this is when we finally discover how we can best enjoy our lives. Put bluntly, our social institutions aren’t ready for a post-work world, and neither are we.
In reality, many of the consequences of a post-work world will be dealt with in the realm of public policy. But work is more than just an economic metric. As Hunnicutt noted, we frequently present ourselves to each other in occupational terms—work is how we construct our identities. A world without work would not only impact our financial prospects—it would also impact our culture, our values, and our lifestyles. Yet the conversation surrounding a post-work world has thus far failed to address these latter concerns. Rethinking work means taking a critical look at the current state of labor and all of its shortcomings. Admitting and remedying them is no easy task, but the coming automation revolution and the threat of mass unemployment makes the task more urgent than ever. Technological advancement holds the promise of a better, healthier, and more engaged society that we can all look forward to. If we are to secure that future, however, our introspection needs to start now.
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