The Future of Work Updates
The Future of Work is a section of Sunday Letters that examines how daily work has changed and continues to change due to global social, political, technological and economic shifts. In this section, I ask how work will look in the future, given the advance of AI, and how technology will change how we work. The Future of Work goes out every Friday. You can get it here.
COVID-19 has brought the global economy to almost a complete standstill. Where I live, the authorities allow nobody to work, unless you're part of the emergency response. Any commercial activity can be pretty much attributed to vital services and communications. We're in a kind of no-man's-land regarding work.
I'm sure you'll agree, it has been a remarkable few weeks, and for some, a painful one. Jobs we thought were reasonably secure are gone, perhaps never to return, and businesses are closing right, left and centre. Consider sports stadia and arenas, hotels and restaurants, bars, clubs, gymnasiums and other places we congregate; how can they conceivably reopen and survive after this has passed?
Within the global turmoil, personal upheaval and anxiety for the future, however, there are opportunities. In many respects, it's like someone has hit the reset button, and we now have a chance to examine our place in the world.
I've been reflecting on this for a while now, and last year I wrote about the onset of change to how we work. But to be quite honest, I didn't see such a dramatic shift happening in my lifetime. I saw it for my kids, but not for my generation.
Even though we're in a lull, we're already seeing a shift in work practices. In 12 months, it will be even more so. Many people won't want to go back to their box inside the concrete shell, and they have a valid argument.
Expect further change.
Technology & The Future of Work
Technology is ubiquitous with life. Over the past 150 years, we have advanced to where we‘re on the brink of widespread automation of societal systems and daily work. Intelligent machines are already here, and soon, some suggest by 2035, artificial intelligence will carry out many of our traditional working roles in a broad spectrum of industries.
It’s coming fast, and it will change everything. Human beings as workforce commodities, it seems, will become defunct.
So with machines doing the work, you and I will need to find something else to occupy our days. Maybe this current global situation is a trial run. However, given that our sense of value and personal worth is caught up in the idea that we must work hard and be productive, something dramatic will need to shift in us.
We gauge our sense of worthiness on our ability to work within the machine of society. Those who do not work we see as useless and almost less than human. Whatever about a safe, warm place to live, they certainly don’t deserve nice things. The system says they are not allowed the best of medical care so they wait in line, often dying before being seen.
It's just too bad.
We have enough food and resources on the planet to support everyone to a very high standard, but we don’t do it. You don’t work; you don’t get, legitimately at least.
This situation exists in all Western industrialised nations to varying degrees. So when the day comes that machines are doing most of the work, and governments provide unconditional basic income, where does that leave us?
Who will decide what that reasonable lifestyle looks like, and who qualifies?
How will we fill our days?
I don’t have an answer to all these questions, but there seem to be solutions available if we are brave and intelligent enough to execute them. Unfortunately, I don’t believe in our current psychological state, we can embrace the level of change necessary. Unless that is, a global-scale humanitarian catastrophe demands it!
In a world of true abundance, you shouldn't have to work to justify your life. You should be free to enjoy the wealth of the world. If we are going to get to that place, we have to change our ethics around that.”Sam Harris
Survival & The Future of Work
Survival-of-the-fittest is the ruling state of mind of Western industrialised cultures. We don't like to admit it, though. We'd rather believe we are fundamentally altruistic and caring for our fellow human beings. But the evidence of our behaviour doesn't consistently support that idea.
Kill-or-be-killed is subtle, hidden within the fabric of normality, going unnoticed most of the time. It is the capitalist model for life and work, and if you care to take the time, you will see it’s clear. It’s like death by a thousand cuts, every cut taking a little piece of our humanity.
We pretend to care about others, but we are so obsessed with getting through today, with preserving our sense of self and getting ahead, we have no thought for others. Unless someone puts the blood on the table, it’s business as usual, and sometimes, even that’s not enough.
That we must compete to survive has been developed and promoted by people we consider the most reliable and trustworthy in society. Those who have successfully exploited people and resources for personal and corporate gain are the ones we admire most. These corporate entities create the illusion of an open market, manipulating shallow-minded, short-sighted politicians, and engineering the consent of populations.
The commercially and financially powerful reflect on their material success and suggest that they succeeded because they beat the competition. You and I can achieve the same success if we work hard. They say that competition aids innovation and provides the best model for success for all. Promoters of the competitive capitalist model say it provides jobs and wealth for everyone if we will work hard for it.
But it doesn’t work that way.
This notion that we must compete and defeat those weaker than us for the spoils is limited, parochial and ultimately self-destructive. It allows us to justify all kinds of horrific and inhumane behaviour.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.Carl Sagan
Work As A Means To An End
We fail to distribute global wealth equally, and everyone does not have equal opportunity. Most people do ok by all modern standards of success – just enough to keep them content and servile. The exploited minorities on the lower edges have no power and few prospects. The gilded minority on the upper fringes hold control and keep the middle majority subdued, and content by dangling carrots and selling us shit we don’t need.
The jobs they give us serve to increase corporate wealth and enslave us in a system heavily weighted in their favour. They sell us on the dream, and we fall for it. We believe in the capitalist system; we take their jobs, and we pursue the elusive universal goal of wealth and success.
Consequently, our daily work has become a means to an end. And that end is to trade hours for cash, to pay bills and repay debt, to buy stuff — stuff that is supposed to make us happy.
But it doesn’t.
I’m not promoting the idea that we should blame others for our dissatisfaction with life. I’m not suggesting that we should stand and point the finger at corporations for manipulating us with their propaganda marketing. Neither do I think you and I should blame our teachers and parents for leading us down the garden path . After all, they fell for the promise just like we did.
Instead, I am pointing the finger firmly at you, and at me, for failing to notice. It’s our fault for choosing the comfort of job security over the challenge and the short-term discomfort of following our creative impulses.
We have been unconscious co-conspirators in the creation of the current worldwide state of affairs by accepting what they told us without question. We've denied ourselves the right to freedom and creative expression by adopting the standard working model for life and work.
We have created it all by blind obedience and an unwillingness to question the standard model. And so it is up to us to change it.
“If you ask the CEO of some major corporation what he does he will say, in all honesty, that he is slaving 20 hours a day to provide his customers with the best goods or services he can and creating the best possible working conditions for his employees. But then you take a look at what the corporation does, the effect of its legal structure, the vast inequalities in pay and conditions, and you see the reality is something far different.”Noam Chomsky
I accept that not everyone is at odds with their daily work, but I have found through my own directly conducted research that many are. They want something better. They at least want to look forward to work rather than dreading it.
However, dropping everything and leaving your current job may not be the right option. After all, you’re in the system, and you need money to live. The solution, therefore, is to make peace with it, at least until you can build something new.
Ultimately though, if we are to create meaning and discover happiness in our lives, we need to find work that stimulates that draws us in. We spend the best years of our lives working, so what better reason is there to engage in something that excites and thrills?
Besides, robots and AI will take over the work we currently do, so soon, we will be left with no choice. In fact, this is already happening and has been happening since the dawn of the industrial revolution. However, today, that trend is growing exponentially.
Some say working at something you love is not enough — there’s got to be something else we must do to find success. Well, first, success is arbitrary and subjective, not universal. Second, the undeniable truth is that if we don’t enjoy the work we do, then no amount of ulterior motivation will sustain us.
Immersion in enjoyable daily work must foremost be our motivation. Only then can something worthwhile come about. I’ve had too many personal examples of this phenomenon and read many testimonies of others who assert the same to accept the contrary. They may not have said it as I have, but it seems to be the same thing.
Curiosity is the seed, and it grows if we follow where it takes us. Often that runs counter to the prevailing narrative, but we must develop the ability to ignore that and listen to the small voice instead.
Because one day soon, we’ll expire, and everyone we know will be gone too. It’s a sobering thought, but in consideration of that inevitable fact, there is no more significant reason to do the work that calls us.
No one can predict the future. We don't know for certain what lies around the corner. However, where daily work is concerned, there is no greater imperative for each of us to consciously chose the work we want to do, and do it now.
In this, we hold some control and determine a more stable future for ourselves.
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