What if robots ran one economy and humans ran another?

Illustration by Calvin Sprague
Illustration by Calvin Sprague
Image: Calvin Sprague
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The rise of AI is often framed as an inevitable conflict between humans and machines. While it might be interesting to imagine a near-future where robots rule all, the reality is far more nuanced. Yes, people develop the technology, but sometimes its impact and reach exceeds our own grasp. We can see it today. Social media creators thought they were bringing humanity together, when in reality these platforms tend to divide and isolate. Automation has the potential to drastically shape the way we work, but we must work to ensure that it benefits everyone.  

Citrix’s new report, Work 2035: How people and technology will pioneer new ways of working, looks at how technology could change the way companies work—whether that’s a world where everyone is a freelancer in an AI-powered gig economy or companies use AI to help their employees better adapt to new challenges. In each possible scenario, the biggest gap between now and 2035 is not what technology could create, but between employers’ and employees’ differing outlooks. Citrix calls this major hurdle the “digital disconnect.” 

Leaders envision a bright future ahead, one where advances in tech usher in a brand new economy. In this world, automation handles all the tedious and repetitive work, and humans are free to pursue their passions. It could be a second Renaissance of sorts, where all of the surplus value generated by AI is reinvested in people. Employees, however, can’t help but see replacement, increased surveillance, and even more uncertainty.

It’s up to leaders to bridge this digital disconnect by paving a path towards a new kind of economy where robots run one and people another. What exactly does this new working world look like, and how do we get there? First, we’re going to have to rethink what “work” is and who does it. Don’t worry, it’s simpler than it sounds.

A life of leisure economy

The notion that technology would enable humans to work less has been around longer than the concept of artificial intelligence. It even predates the first digital computer.

Nearly a century ago, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay theorizing that technological progress would make workers so efficient that people would only need to work 15 hours per week. “We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another,” Keynes wrote in 1930. Sound familiar?

He suggested that technology would bring us to a point where our basic needs would be met and we would finally be free to “devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.” A little more than a decade later, psychologist Abraham Maslow would expand on this with his hierarchy of needs—that after we’ve housed, fed, and clothed ourselves, we’d actually like to pursue a little bit of self-actualization, as a treat. 

Before wellness and self-care were capital ‘C’ Concepts, two guys at the tail end of the first industrial revolution both realized that humans weren’t put on this world to just work. (The protestants might disagree, but we won’t get into that!) 

However, it wasn’t until economist Jeremy Rifkin published his book The End of Work in 1995 that the notion of machines doing the work, and not us, began to take hold. It makes sense, right? We shouldn’t have to work so much if we have the technology to help us do less. 

Based on those surveyed in the Work 2035 report, most are on board with this technological transition, with some 77% of professionals predicting that in 15 years AI will, above everything else, speed up decision-making processes and productivity. What’s more, 79% of professionals surveyed would even allow technology to monitor them at work if it made a significant boost to their performance. 

What might this look like? In his latest book, A World Without Work, economist Daniel Susskind presents the idea of a “leisure economy.” Here, automation has replaced a lot of the tasks that would normally fall to people to do. In turn, that surplus value is reinvested in people so that they can make life for themselves and others more enjoyable by learning new skills, helping to conserve the environment, making art, or exploring the millions of possibilities that an arbitrary 40-hour workweek otherwise limits. 

The Work 2035 report outlines a potential future in which, yes, automation does take over some things that humans traditionally performed—mostly administrative and clerical tasks—but this simultaneously spurs a shift towards two new blossoming sectors: AI and the service industry. 

One thing that Susskind stresses in his book is that automation replaces tasks, not jobs. AI might be handling your accounting, but you still need an entire industry of people to develop, train, and improve the AI. Likewise, a future in which there’s some form of universal basic income—grown out of AI-produced surpluses—means that there will be an increased demand for more experience-oriented services. Think restaurants, spas, boutiques, gardens, museums, and theaters. 

This is what Susskind means by the “leisure economy”. It’s one that has reorganized human work around the act of leisure. Just because AI is handling all the busywork in the future doesn’t mean that the world is going to run on autopilot. We are human after all. And we’ll always want services that remind us of that. 

A world without “work”

This is the promise of automation: People will still go out into the world to do things, but this “work” isn’t tied to a bottom line. The hope is that at some point we can all finally pursue our true interests, or at least have a little space and time to figure out what our true interests might be. 

Today, the labor market asks us to strike a delicate, sometimes maddening, balancing act. We tell ourselves that we’re following our passion, but we measure our success in terms of the value that passion generates. A “successful” career isn’t necessarily one that lines up with our values or interests, but one that sits at the precarious intersection between what we want to do and what someone is willing to pay us for. We have a term for this: “a real job.”

We do this because we’re human and need a reason to get up in the morning. But also because today human labor drives economic growth. If automation can become the primary force expanding the economy—and the surplus value used to provide humanity with its most basic needs (food, housing and healthcare)—then we no longer need to perform that delicate dance between following our passion and generating economic value. 

That’s not to say that all of this is going to happen overnight—that one day we’ll hand the keys over the machines and then live out our post-work utopia. Some people will stick to finding purpose in the size of a paycheck, others will want to realize the full potential of their talent, some will still try to pursue both, and yes, there will be those who will probably just do nothing. The post-work future is one in which we not only move away from our traditional relationship to work, but finally have the ability to explore multiple ways to just, well, live.

Future Primitive

Over the course of this series examining tech’s impact on workplace experience (WX), we’ve presented practical steps that will ready you and your teams for a future of work redefined by technology: how to talk about automation with employees, how to foster a culture of learning and upskilling, and how to give employees the ability and autonomy to stay flexible. But the biggest step leaders can take is to present technological progress as human progress.

Sure, things like AI assistants, augmented reality, upskilling classes, and Chief Artificial Intelligences can make everyone more productive. But there is a huge difference between telling employees that they have to deal with all of this new technology, and asking your company how they can use technology to improve their work.   

In 2010, the New Economics foundation released a report detailing how reducing the workweek to just 21 hours would “address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.”

We have the technology, as the famous line goes, the only thing we have left to figure out, is how best to use it.

What do you think?

Don’t forget to tell us what you think on social media with #Work2035.