A great deal has been written about the perils of automation. With predicted mass unemployment, declining wages, and increasing inequality, clearly we should all be afraid.
By now it’s no longer just the Silicon Valley trend watchers and technoprophets who are apprehensive. In a study that has already racked up several hundred citations, scholars at Oxford University have estimated that no less than 47% of all American jobs and 54% of those in Europe are at a high risk of being usurped by machines. And not in 100 years or so, but in the next 20.
“The only real difference between enthusiasts and sceptics is a time frame,” notes a New York University professor. “But a century from now, nobody will care much about how long it took, only what happened next.”
Employees have been worrying about the rising tide of automation for 200 years now, and for 200 years employers have been assuring them that new jobs will naturally materialise to take their place. After all, if you look at the year 1800, about 74% of all Americans were farmers, whereas by 1900 this figure was down to 31%, and by 2000 to a mere 3%. Yet this hasn’t led to mass unemployment.
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks by 2030. Yet, since the 1980s, work has only been taking up more of our time, bringing waves of burnouts and stress in its wake.
Meanwhile, the crux of the issue isn’t even being discussed. The real question we should be asking is: what actually constitutes “work” in this day and age?
In a survey of 12000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review in 2013, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance”, and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission.
Another poll among 230000 employees in 142 countries showed that only 13% of workers actually liked their job.
A recent poll among Britons revealed that 37% thought their jobs were utterly useless.
They have, what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as, “bullshit jobs”. On paper, these jobs sound fantastic. And yet there are scores of successful professionals with imposing LinkedIn profiles and impressive salaries who nevertheless go home every evening grumbling that their work serves no purpose.
Let’s get one thing clear though: I’m not talking about sanitation workers, teachers and nurses. If they were to strike, we’d have a state of emergency. No, I’m talking about the growing armies of consultants, bankers, tax advisors, managers, and others who earn their money in strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value-add on co-creation in the network society. Or something to that effect.
So, will there still be enough jobs for everyone a few decades from now? Anyone who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new "bullshit jobs". If we want to reap the rewards of the technological advances made in recent decades (and of the advancing robots), then we need to rethink our definition of “work.”
It starts with an age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Most people would say the meaning of life is to make the world a little more beautiful, or nicer, or more interesting. But how? Our main answer to that is: through work. Our definition of work, however, is incredibly narrow. Only the work that generates money is allowed to count toward gross domestic product. Little wonder, then, that we have organised education around feeding as many people as possible in bite-size flexible parcels into the employment establishment.
Yet, what happens when a growing proportion of people deemed successful by the measure of our knowledge economy say their work is pointless?
That’s one of the biggest taboos of our times. Our whole system of finding meaning could dissolve like a puff of smoke. The irony is that technological progress is only exacerbating this crisis.
Historically, society has been able to afford more "bullshit jobs" precisely because our robots kept getting better. As our farms and factories grew more efficient, they accounted for a shrinking share of our economy. And the more productive agriculture and manufacturing became, the fewer people they employed.
Call it the paradox of progress: the richer we become, the more room we have to waste our time. It’s like Brad Pitt says in Fight Club: too often, we’re “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”.
The time has come to stop sidestepping the debate and home in on the real issue: what would our economy look like if we were to radically redefine the meaning of “work”? I firmly believe that a universal basic income is the most effective answer to the dilemma of advancing robotisation. Not because robots will take over all the purposeful jobs, but because a basic income would give everyone the chance to do work that is meaningful.
I believe in a future where the value of your work is not determined by your salary, but by the amount of happiness you spread and the amount of meaning you give. I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived. I believe in a future where “jobs are for robots and life is for people”.
And if basic income sounds utopian, then I’d like to remind you that every milestone of civilisation – from the end of slavery to democracy to equal rights for men and women – was once a utopian fantasy too. Or, as Oscar Wilde wrote long ago: “Progress is the realisation of utopias.”
This article has been translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton. Rutger Bregman is correspondent for De Correspondent, Netherlands