Work dominates our society and culture like nothing else. But despite its growing importance in our lives, it has never been more under threat. According to a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, up to 800 million jobs could be lost to automation worldwide by 2030.
Usually viewed as a disaster looming on the horizon, could the displacement of jobs by automation also be an opportunity?
The changing face of work
We often talk about automation as a future issue, but it is a process that has been underway for decades. We now drive cars assembled by robots, withdraw money from cash machines, and use self-checkout machines in the supermarket. But there are still jobs to be found in manufacturing, banking and retail.
This highlights a key point about future automation: machines won’t always replace whole jobs, but rather parts of them. True, some low-skilled jobs could be completely lost – factory worker or truck driver, for example – but most of us will simply find that the way we work changes.
In the short term at least, machines will augment humans in the workplace, taking over the mindless, monotonous aspects of work, and allowing us to make use of our unique human qualities, such as emotional intelligence, decision-making and creativity.
This could potentially unleash a wave of productivity, resulting in an abundance of high-quality products and services at low prices.
Over time, however, more and more tasks will be automated, affecting both blue- and white-collar workers. This will leave the work available to humans increasingly squeezed and specialised. Some of us will be able to retrain, but for many this will be impossible – particularly those too old or unable to afford the time and money to do so.
As well as destroying jobs, automation will also give rise to whole new markets, creating jobs that we can’t even imagine today. Again, this is nothing new – just look at the number of current industries that didn’t exist a few decades ago, from social media and SEO to app development and web analytics.
Whether or not enough new jobs will be generated to offset those lost to automation remains to be seen, but the consensus is that we should prepare for a future where work is increasingly scarce. The work that is available will be highly specialised, meaning that the majority of people will find themselves in a world where their skills are irrelevant – not only unemployed, but unemployable.
The natural reaction is to see this as a potential catastrophe, and with good reason – in our current system, high unemployment is the sign of a society on the ropes. But a world with less work also represents an opportunity to effect positive societal change.
Catastrophe or opportunity?
We assume that wide-scale unemployment would be an unmitigated disaster only because in our current system, work is coupled to income. If you lose your job, you lose your income. This spells disaster for the individual, who loses their self-reliance, but it also spells disaster for the economy.
Our current economic system is dependent on people having money. As such, employees aren’t just people that perform work, they are also taxpayers, customers and consumers. If we stop paying taxes and buying stuff, the wheels of our economy will quickly grind to a halt.
In order for society to survive the transition to a world where work is scarce, we would need to rethink the connection between work and money.
One such idea is universal basic income (UBI) – an unconditional payment made to every citizen, whether they are working or not. This could be funded by taxing the huge profits generated by automation and AI, making the market accountable for the displacement it causes.
By decoupling income from wages, UBI could smooth the path for those struggling to find paid work in the future, while allowing them to continue participating in the economy as consumers and customers.
While UBI would have to provide enough income to live off in the event of unemployment, it should not be enough to encourage those in work to quit. Its proponents suggest that rather than encouraging laziness, it would allow people to strive for a better quality of life, giving them the freedom to take more professional risks, whether by starting their own business or retraining completely.
It would also allow people to take their foot off the pedal a bit, giving them the freedom to spend less time working and more time with family, pursuing hobbies or doing unpaid charity work.
Will work survive?
We currently live in a society obsessed with work and money. What we do for a living is wrapped up with our sense of purpose and identity, and can be a vehicle for self-determination, hope and ambition. But for many, work can be a source of great frustration, disappointment and stress.
Despite this, we aren’t very good at doing nothing. Long-term unemployment is seen as an overwhelmingly negative situation, often associated with low self-esteem, boredom, social isolation and hopelessness.
One thing is clear: as the amount of available work decreases over time, we will be forced to find new ways to engage ourselves.
Some believe that a combination of UBI and work scarcity could usher in an era of leisure, where we fill our days socialising, relaxing and playing – or perhaps lost in the virtual reality of our choice. Others believe that work will always exist in one form or another, simply because it is in our nature to be engaged in something constructive.
Perhaps in a world where work is no longer associated with financial reward, we will be able to channel our drive and creativity towards personal or community projects – things we truly believe in and feel passionate about, giving our work lives new meaning.