We should start working less now to mentally prepare ourselves for automation

What will happen when a work-obsessed culture stops working?
What will happen when a work-obsessed culture stops working?
Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Your job is going to be automated. It’s just a question of time. Truck drivers and accountants will be the first to go, followed by blue-collar workers and then those wearing any color collar to work. Eventually nearly all of the labor market will shrink, save for a few primarily human roles such as prostitution, reporting, and creative arts—and even they are not immune.

To prepare for a less-employed future, we can begin to shift our attitudes in the present. AI will not take our jobs overnight, after all. The process will be gradual, so we should prepare by training ourselves to care less about our jobs now.

Economists and op-ed writers have been laying out convincing arguments for how we will cope, drawing analogies from the previous industrial revolutions. Look, jobs were disappearing all the time, they say, suggesting that there will always be a new sexy occupation with a higher pay-check that people will opt for. Hell, why else would there be only 2% of farmers today when a century ago the majority of people woke up at a shepherd’s ungodly hours?

That is a valid argument for the past, but what is omitted from this equation is the effort it takes to re-educate workers into a new vocation. In previous industrial revolutions we took people off the fields and put them into factories—but putting millions of manual laborers with no higher-education degrees through fancy boot camps in software engineering and data science will be a whole different task.

Even the tech savvy are not immune. The first signs of this are already here, hidden in the spotlight. We can see it in the rise of web-design platforms like Squarespace and Wix, and the development of open-source solutions by Google (TensorFlow) and Microsoft (CNTK) that simplify machine learning. Technologists themselves are self-driving the automation of their own technology jobs.

But this is no revelation. The inevitable automation of jobs is a known unknown. It’s become a platform for presidential candidates and technology moguls to drop criticism on policy-makers: In their minds, it’s the government’s responsibility to offset the economic disaster that will accompany the tectonic shifts in the labor market. Taxes need to be raised and solutions like universal basic income (UBI) have to be explored, their line of reasoning goes.

The argument is rather simple: With less offices to keep populated, there will be more unemployed taxpayers. These citizens might have only one or two days of work a week, and the government will have to make up for the difference so that they can continue living semi-healthy lifestyles—and encourage all the spending and consumption that drives the economy.

But what a money-based solution like UBI doesn’t account for is the fact that unemployment is heavily linked with depression and chronic illnesses. Unemployed—the 5% in all the modern macroeconomic reports and central bank memos—tend to drink, fall ill, and lack sleep more often than those with jobs. And no amount of government handout can give you your pride back.

What happens when a work-obsessed culture stops working

In the culture of workism, when people competitively answer emails on a sunny coast and turn fitting rooms into meeting rooms, “jobless” is a stigma stronger than any other. Meritocracy immediately puts a label on those who don’t work. Philosophers have pointed out that the human obsession with working and being successful is not only about the money. Evolutionary psychology suggests that it might run even deeper than that: that working is wired into human behavior, a natural instinct that makes the process of securing wealth and status akin to that of securing food and shelter.

The idea of working less has also persisted through industrial revolutions. In the 1920s, when working 48-hour weeks was the norm, Henry Ford introduced the concept of the five-day week. For him, the argumentation was purely practical: Human productivity is positively influenced by longer weekends. And in 1930, John Maynard Keynes—most famous for his post-WWII economic—predicted that people will have five-day weekends in the 21st century. (Both Keynes and Ford would also be interested in the economic benefits of six-hour days, like is common in Sweden.)

Keynes understood that as machines became more productive, we would work less—but he also predicted that we would have less sense of self-worth. “How to occupy the leisure?” he asked.

Almost a century later, we still do not have a clear answer to this.

If we can work out a way for our lifestyles to be paid for by the government, will we ever be contended by a life of leisure? We are obsessed with our jobs and professional achievements only because we, as a species, convinced ourselves that a higher salary correlates with intelligence and persistence. But if that environment changes, we can adapt to it.

Imagine a corporate office where you replace every employee’s paycheck with a guaranteed allowance overnight. In such a scenario, a thousand people would probably happily spend their time painting still-life imagery and playing chess the next morning—but given a month or two, they’d be bored to depressive tears.

However, if you gradually reduced the length of their workday—and eventually the number of days in their workweek—then maybe you won’t have to deal with a corpus of depressed people suffering from alcoholism and clinical depression.

Perhaps even more importantly, introducing the idea of working less will alleviate some of the pressure we put on finding ourselves an honorable and respectable occupation. We need to lay out the foundation for a reality where the title on your LinkedIn account does not determine your self-esteem and mental well-being. In a future where some of the more “intellectual” vocations such as doctors and lawyers might disappear, it will be easier for people to take up job offers that simply make them money instead of being their identity.

There are big shifts to be made: reconsidering the ideology of workism, breaking the shackles of meritocracy, and teaching ourselves to find satisfaction in things other than what we are paid to do. We have to stop feeling shame for not working. But it is possible to start with at least reconsidering how much we work.