The world is changing. We get it. AI, autonomous cars, robot-controlled factories and a plethora of other nascent technologies are set to turn our polluted world upside down.
As you have no doubt read in the post about the Future of Work, change is coming hard and fast in how we work, where we will work, and indeed, what we will be working with.
There are several sides to this imminent existential threat to the currently employed masses. There are the political aspects, the social aspects, and of course the economic aspects to consider.
My focus here is on the social aspects of our changing world.
We have all heard the arguments and horror stories. Truck drivers left on the side of the road due to autonomous vehicles, factory and even care workers being displaced by robots. The list goes on. We now have AI capable of writing poetry, journalism, literature and shortly, no doubt, political treatises on how mankind should evolve. I’m looking forward to that one.
As with the fridges, microwaves, personal computer and telephones we use daily, technology has finally caught up with and is in the process of overtaking us. We have railed against the built-in obsolesce of our technologies for quite some time, constantly frustrated by engineers who develop products with a limited useful lifespan.
But how can we continue to consume if our goods last indefinitely?
With the evolution of AI, we are finally accepting our own obsolescence. Or are we?
Work shifted from the fields to the factory and from the factory to the office cubicle (or hot desk these days) and is continuing its shift. Technology, our saviour from repetitious, mind-numbing work is now intent on saving us from all work. Therein lies the problem.
As I already mentioned, the object of this piece is not to examine the economic or political consequences; rather to ponder the effect that the mass-redundancy of currently employed workers will have on the social fabric of our world.
As man has evolved (with a political and economic structure to support him) he has become what corporations like to call a consumer. This evolution has enslaved the masses and put them on the hamster-wheel of work and buy. We have become obsessed with the latest and greatest, using material goods as a reflection of our gross domestic success, and our neighbours as the benchmark. Nowhere is this more obvious than on Social Media where posts of gourmet restaurants, the ubiquitous images of tanned legs and newly pedicured feet pointing towards a tropical beach, a swimming pool, or a table of umbrella-wearing cocktails, steal our time.
With the Future of Work being the obsolescence described above, what effect will this have on how we live and relate to one another?
There are several important questions to consider:
- If our entire society is built on capitalist and consumer ideology and most of us no longer work, where will we get our income?
- In the absence of said income, what effect will this have on consumption and the erstwhile social benefits of one-upmanship that the latest products deliver?
- How will we measure personal success on a societal level?
- And more importantly, how will we measure happiness on a personal level?
In these moments I always find myself returning to the Hierarchy of Human Needs, developed by the psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow. This hierarchy was predicated on a theory of psychological health based on fulfilling innate human needs in order of priority, culminating in self-actualization.
In the absence of paid employment there are several hurdles which we will need to overcome. As you see – these form the very basis of what Maslow presented as our needs.
Without the physiological and cocooning effects of a safety net we have no foundation upon which to build relationships, much less self-esteem and you can simply forget about self-actualisation.
There has been much discussion around the topic of Universal Basic Income (UBI) again in recent times. The idea of UBI is as appealing as it is questionable. This can be clearly seen in the United States where 2020 Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang has proposed what he called a ‘Freedom Dividend’, to bestselling books on the subject by authors such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists.
It is quite straightforward. Our societal structure is predicated on the hamster wheel of working and spending. In the absence of our own personal place on a corporate hamster wheel how do we make progress – or in fact satisfy our basic physiological needs? In short we don’t.
The captains of industry understand this. Some politicians are beginning to see the light. Economists aren’t sure how to address this coming change, and most people are too busy making repayments on their house/car/boat to consider what stepping off (or more likely being cast off) that corporate hamster wheel will mean to them.
If you have based your self-image on how you earn money and/or on the products you buy to show your level of competence in your chosen field, there may be some bumps in the road ahead.
If, on the other hand, you have begun the necessary introspection required to cope with these coming changes you deserve applause.
We are rapidly approaching a time when our measure of success will no longer be the house/car/boat/holiday (insert your own success indicator here).
As a society we are ill-equipped for the coming changes. As individuals we are equally ill-equipped.
How will you spend your time, energy and your Universal Basic Income?
And more importantly, how are we educating and preparing our children for these coming changes?
Feel free to post your thoughts below.
By TS O’Rourke