The Coming Employment Shift
What Happens When Work is Not Needed?
I like to think I have a philosophical temperament. What does that mean? Well, among other things, it implies a capacity for detachment, for viewing the daily hustle and the short-term bustle from a distance, the birds-eye view. The Latin term for this is ‘sub specie aeternitatis,’ which means ‘from the aspect of eternity.’
Now I am not a philosopher. If I were, I would be spending most of my time wrestling with the Big Questions. You know, the questions we find scribbled on the bathroom walls in university libraries — what is the nature of being, how did consciousness happen, what is the logical basis for establishing true statements, what is the Good Life, is there free will, is there a God, would you like a good time? Call 627- ….. Oops, that last one probably shouldn’t count.
Are We As Well Off As We Think?
I do some philosophizing, more than I used to when I was working and raising kids, but not enough to qualify as a pro. I do try to detach when I can. I don’t think I’d want to be an academic philosopher now, anyway. Philosophy is not in the best of shape. It has retreated from its former place at the top of the pyramid of disciplines. It was considered the natural science that gave order and priority to the other branches of study — no longer is this so. Its professional practitioners now hide in obscure corners of the Ivory Tower haunted by a sense of irrelevance. When a small number of students find them, they see these professors spending much time quibbling over the meaning of terms, yawn, and go away.
Does this matter? I think it does, and here’s why? Although I won’t live to see it, the human race is about to go through an epic paradigm shift, and we are going to need to think deeply about fundamental things to survive the process. Let me take my usual circuitous route to explain what I mean.
My youngest son has been reading Yuval Hariri’s book ‘Sapiens. It is a fascinating read. One of the things my son noted was striking. Hariri suggests that our primitive hunter/gatherer (HG) forebears may have had a better deal from a lifestyle perspective than the vast majority of the human race has had in the 8,000-odd years since we made the fateful decision to domesticate plants and animals. Whaaaat! This whole civilization gambit with all of its manifest benefits (Cheetos, 79-different styles of blue jeans, and talk show hosts with perfect hair), has played out to the disadvantage of the majority of the human race for most of the time we have been busy progressing! Say not so!
Well, Dr. Hariri is not engaging in dramatic overstatement. He is doing what I like to do – detaching and taking the long view. We have stuff; the HG’s had something that only a minuscule percentage of the Race has had since — free time, leisure, in effect. Sure, life could be tough for those HGs, and for a long while, it was an even-money bet as to who would eat whom. But when the hunting was fine, and the gathering was bountiful, the HGs work-day was done, they clocked out, put their hairy feet up, and had time to cultivate what the great French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the sentiment of the sweetness of existence. They also had time to create some marvellously evocative cave-art.
Since we started farming and taming, most of us have been doing just that. A peasant agriculturist’s life is beautifully depicted in Pearl S. Buck’s ‘The Good Earth,’ and it is frankly appalling. Even through the romantic gloss that Ms.Buck paints over the day-to-days of the peasant Wang Lung, a dispassionate reader would run, not walk, to join a group of HGs rather than hang with Wang. There is a reason 400-million Chinese peasants headed for the cities as soon as that option became available. Add that proximity to domestic animals is one of the main drivers of the epidemic infectious diseases that still kill us in large numbers, and you begin to see what Dr. Hariri is talking about.
Of course, those agricultural surpluses were the engine that started us down the road to civilization. Priests and warriors could live without farming from dawn to dusk by expropriating whatever the farmer didn’t need to stay alive. These aristocratic elites built cities and off the human race went, to where we now are.
The Impact of Scarcity
The main driver of human progress, the ghost in the machine of civilization itself, can be stated in four words, ‘the battle against scarcity.’ Nature was miserly, there was never enough to go around, and when we managed to get a little ahead of the game, population increase put the pressure on again. Suppose one takes the rather strange, bird’s-eye perspective found in Sapiens, almost as if you were an immortal alien sitting on the moon watching the human hurly-burly for thousands of years. If you did, you might argue that the single word that best defines the spectacle is — treadmill. Of course, this perspective is partial, leaving out of account the beauties, the creative achievements, the subtleties, and refinements that no HG could hope to acquire; but for most of human history, the pleasures of civilized life have been enjoyed almost exclusively by leisured elites, (and possibly outlaw biker gangs.)
So leisure defined as a lifestyle, not as grabbing a break for ten minutes while bailing hay, free time not dedicated to the pragmatics of staying alive and acquiring material goods, disappeared from the purview of most of us for 8,000 years give or take a millennium. The industrial revolution did not change this for most of us. The middle class grew but still worked long hours, and factory workers didn’t have much more fun than Wang Lung in Dickensian industrial capitalism’s early days. But the productive fecundity of market capitalism was the most potent weapon ever devised in the battle against scarcity — and we started to win, get ahead of the game. Free time has been expanding, and it is about to re-enter the main stage of human life in a big way.
I have written elsewhere about the AI/robotics revolution that is gathering momentum, seemingly under the radar of most of us who are not techno or science fiction wonks. It is real, it is life-changing, and nothing is going to stop it. Intelligent machines that learn will soon do most of the jobs humans do and do them better. And unlike in the past, these lost jobs will not be replaced by other jobs that humans need to do because these machines will learn these new jobs faster than we can. A universal basic income will have to be provided on a massive scale just to keep money for consumption flowing through an economy wherein wage-work can no longer be the primary source of income. In very large numbers, we are about to be granted something that we have never had — time to cultivate that sentiment of the sweetness of existence.
Natural scarcity didn’t just steal our free time. It forced us to kill each other. That is why, according to some very influential political philosophers, we made the social contract under which we now live in political terms. (Please see the note below for an explanation of what is meant by the social contract.) So now let us surmise the demise of scarcity courtesy of robot factories, 3-D printers, and cheap, clean energy. A bounty of free time is coming to a multitude that have never before had this option. The competitive struggle for resources, the chief (non-psychological) reason we compete, go to war, and generally inflict mayhem on each other, will diminish along with the increase in leisure for the masses. In unprecedented numbers, we will have time to think about something other than staying alive, providing for our families, and keeping up with the Cleavers. There is no historical precedent for widely distributed material abundance and leisure on a mass scale.
Utopian or Dystopian?
What will we do when work for sustenance and survival shuffles off the main stage? Are we prepared for a world in which we no longer have to compete to prosper? Am I predicting a utopia, heaven on earth? Or do I see masses of sullen, rudderless people who are ill-equipped to deal with leisure and abundance because their sense of self-worth has atrophied along with their roles as providers?
I am back where I started with my remarks on philosophy, detachment, and the bird’s-eye view. Here is what I see, even though I will not live to experience it. I see a world in which busyness is no longer our chief protection against existential anxiety — the Big Questions will stand out in stark relief because so much detritus has been cleared away. Some of us will embrace the opportunity to wrestle with these questions. Perhaps the Epicurean gardens in which small coteries of the philosophically minded discuss the BQs will make a come-back — for some.But for the Many, this free time could be a curse not a blessing. Have you ever heard the expression, ‘I just have too much time to think about … X” Will most of us just shy away, perhaps manufacture pseudo-purpose with the aid of new prophets. Will we self medicate by sinking deeper and deeper into virtual environments, or will we just jack our pleasure centers directly into the grid. Will cults proliferate and Luddism make a serious comeback? I don’t know the answers to these questions. The only prediction I make with real assurance is that the population of the planet will fall steadily after peaking this century.
A world without bread-winners in which the bread is freely given may seem a remote science fiction construct to you. I do not think so. I think my grandchildren will see it, and I hope they will be among the few, always the few, who do not shy away from the challenge to find meaning, to cultivate the sentiment of life’s sweetness in this brave new world.
Well, there you have it — some philosophical thinking about the future. But what, dear reader, you might be asking in the finest tradition of philosophy, does it all mean? Perhaps it is that the future, like our fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves. Our actions today will help determine whether our future is utopian or dystopian. If we wait until the paradigm shift in jobs is totally upon us, it may be too late. Today, you may see a program like a universal basic income as an unaffordable societal luxury. Would you feel the same way in the future if there are half as many jobs or fewer and your grandchildren permanently lose theirs through no fault of their own? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer doesn’t seem so bad when you are on the right side of the line. What happens to society though when that line is out of reach for almost everyone? If you would rather the big question of the future be ‘Why am I here?’ instead of ‘What’s the point in still being here?’ then the conversation needs to begin in earnest. Will you be part of it?
I am not sure that most of us not steeped in political philosophy understand how fundamental the concept of scarcity has been to the very foundation of liberal democracy. The essential presuppositions that shaped and justified our current political regimes are clearly stated in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke — and scarcity was a major player in their deliberations. In a very schematic outline, here’s how their reasoning went.
Humankind entered society from a state of nature in which he was a solitary being. Life in nature was ‘solitary, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Hobbes). Because Nature was miserly and did not provide sufficiency for us, we were forced to take from each other. This necessity generated the “war of all against all.” (Hobbes) The fear of violent death generated the social contract because only such a compelling motivation would convince essentially selfish beings to give up some of their power and freedom to a central authority. Governments, granted the monopoly on coercion, committed to protecting our life, liberty and property from our equally selfish and fearful brethren.
This contract theory has the advantage that it does not require us to be virtuous, heroic, or self-sacrificing (a standard that these thinkers were convinced most of us would fail to reach or maintain); it just requires us to be rational, industrious, law-abiding, and to follow our own self-interest within the limits set by law. This is not a particularly edifying profile of human nature, one must admit; but very solid ground on which to construct a society in which everyone understands that your right to wave your fist stops at my nose. It is a system based on rights and respect for rights and it has worked. Market capitalism is the perfect economic exemplar of the psychological assumptions that underlay social contract theory. Remember this is a philosophical construct not anthropology. Whether this state of nature ever really existed is now a forgotten premise in the argument. But the Founders of the American Republic were steeped in these ideas and they created the modern liberal democratic template.