A retirement expert’s advice for how to be productive when a robot takes your job

If we’re no longer needed at work, what should we do?
If we’re no longer needed at work, what should we do?
Image: REUTERS/Alex Domanski
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For SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City CEO Elon Musk, the “harder challenge” presented by an automated future is not how to replace incomes lost by machines taking over jobs. It’s how to help people find meaning in a life without work

“A lot of people derive meaning from employment,” Musk said when asked about “advice for the future” at the World Government Summit in February. “If there’s not a need for your labor, what is the meaning? Do you have meaning? Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”

Machines are taking over human tasks not only in warehouses and at fast food restaurants, but also at law firms, prestigious hedge funds, and in hospitals. As they continue to do so, the work humans do will change. At the very least, this changing nature of work will displace some workers and alter the jobs of others. At the worst, some worry, there won’t be enough work for humans to do—or at least not in a way that allows everyone to make a living.

To fix the income problem, some, including Musk, have proposed a basic universal income—a small salary for the unemployed that covers basic human needs.

But if we are truly approaching a world without work (which is, again, debatable), we’ll also need to figure out how to structure our days. “Work is not just what people do for a living. It is a source of status,” New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter wrote in a recent argument against a universal basic income, summarizing the sentiments of Harvard economist Lawrence Katz. “It organizes people’s lives. It offers an opportunity for progress. None of this can be replaced by a check.”

A world without work, or a world in which survival is less dependent upon work, today seems like science fiction. But there is a large group of people who have already faced and answered questions about how to derive meaning and a sense of purpose without work. They’re retired. And compared to the merely unemployed, as a group in the United States, they’re happy.

Dr. Dorothy Cantor is a psychotherapist, a former president of the American Psychological Association, and the author of What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up, a handbook for people making midlife changes, including preparing for retirement.  I asked her what retirement might teach us about the future of work (or not working).

Quartz: What are the ways that work is important to people beyond just filling their time?

One of the key questions I ask people to think about is: “Tell me all of the things that you get from work, besides money.” They’ll say, I guess it’s purpose. I feel productive. I feel very gratified and satisfied with what I’m doing. I get a lot of social contact. I get praise. People will say, I get weekends. And you can laugh about that, but it is that differentiating of, this is the special time that is just mine [as opposed to work].

What I say to people is, as you contemplate retirement, you have to think about not only do you have enough money, but how are you going to fulfill those other rewards of work that aren’t money?

How do your retired patients find purpose even though they’re not working?

One source is that they’ve taken what they’ve already been doing and given it away to the community in some way.

I have a retired friend who had been a corporate lawyer. He was just going to play tennis and maybe golf [during retirement], but he found out he couldn’t do that all the time. He ran out of steam. He started to volunteer with an agency that helps people get small businesses started. I know retired teachers who volunteer as tutors, or tutor for some money, but a whole lot less than they made at their other job.

Another source is to look back and say, “What did I really love as a kid or teenager and give up because it wasn’t practical or I couldn’t see myself making a living at it?”

One of the places that people get stuck is that they generally have eliminated the things from their repertoire that they don’t feel particularly good at. Whereas children will use trial and error to find out what they like and what they’re good at, adults are far more reluctant to do that. So getting back into a mindset of, I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I’m willing to try something. And if I’m not good at it, oh well. And if I am good at it, and I really enjoy it, then it’s something that I can continue with.

What makes it difficult to think about how to contribute outside of the structure of a job?

It’s that someone else defines [what they will contribute] for them. A job provides when to come in, what to do. They’ve chosen a field. Maybe you’re a consultant or an accountant or an engineer. You name it. Then the job sort of points you in your direction. It’s the lack of structure of retirement that I think becomes problematic for people. They have to make all of the decisions on their own.

Having spent so much time with patients who are adjusting to retirement, do you think a world without work, or with less work, would be a good thing?

To me it would depend on what people did with their time. If they just sat around and ate bon bons, it would be a bad thing. Because what would be the purpose of life? I think that work gives people a sense of purpose. And when they retire, they need to find a new purpose. And sometimes it’s grandparenting. It’s helping other people. It can be anything. But if you don’t have a sense of purpose, how do you have a sense of accomplishment? And how do you develop self esteem?

That’s what I thought might be instructive about your work. Do your patients generally find that once they have the opportunity to sit around and eat bon bons, the day after they retire, that is what they want to do?

There are some who are basically satisfied with that, who will basically do nothing. But at least in my experience, and the people who I talk to—either the people whom I know socially and more broadly in the community or people who come to see me—no, that doesn’t’ work for them. They don’t want to sit around. Because they’re accustomed to being productive people.

A lot of  your patients have successfully found purpose in retirement. If the robots took over all of our jobs, do you think the rest of us could find similar work to do?

We could. It would not be called work, but we would be painting and writing and helping each other. But if you just curl up in a corner or sit by a pool or hit golf balls. That ain’t gonna do it.

Let’s say this version of the future were going to happen, and people weren’t going to work as much. You were tasked with designing some way to prepare people for figuring out what to do with themselves. What would you do?

In school today, from the time kids are little, we’re asking them, what do you want to be when you grow up? Our orientation is, “What is your work going to be?” [The idea of finding purpose aside from work] would have to become part of the culture. From the time kids are little, the question wouldn’t be what are you going to be when you grow up, but some form of “How are you going to have a meaningful life when you grow up? What is going to give your life meaning?”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.