All play and no work

All play and no work
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By Conor McGlynn, member of the St. Gallen Symposium’s global Leaders of Tomorrow Community

What comes after the end of work? The optimistic answer to this question is that, if we did not have to work, we would spend our days bettering ourselves and our communities: reading philosophy, learning new skills, and increasing our understanding of the universe. Karl Marx envisaged that, in a non-capitalist system that doesn’t require specialisation of labour, each individual would have the freedom “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and philosophise after dinner”. Ironically, capitalist-driven technological advancement could offer the best route to turn this dream into reality.

An alternative vision is provided by dystopian science fiction writers. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley presents us with a society in which, while people still work, they spend their free time absorbed by frivolous entertainment. Technological advances today seem to be leading us in this direction. Improvements in virtual reality hold the possibility of creating entertainment experiences (it seems anachronistic to call them ‘video games’) which are more immersive, novel and enjoyable than we can now imagine.


We are left, then, with a question: What, if anything, is wrong with a life filled with distraction and hugely enjoyable simulations, compared to a life of learning and real world opportunities for growth? This is explored in a famous philosophical thought experiment, called the Experience Machine: Would you plug into a machine that gave you all the subjective experience of living a fulfilled, happy life?

What is more valuable about a life of hardship and difficulty spent in the ‘real’ world than one spent in harmless entertainment? This problem forces us to confront perhaps the oldest philosophical question of all time: What is to lead a good life? This is a question we must answer before, not after, the end of work.

Conor McGlynn is an Irish graduate living in Brussels. He works in public policy and political strategy, previously with the European Parliament and now in the private sector. Before coming to Brussels, he studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge and economics with philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. He is a Leader of Tomorrow at the St. Gallen Symposium, which is global community of the world’s most promising students, entrepreneurs, politicians, activists, opinion leaders, scientists, and business leaders under the age of 30.

This post was written in the light of the topic “Beyond the end of work” debated at the 48th St. Gallen Symposium held on May 2–4 2018.

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