My earlier column, Future of Work: Utopia or Dystopia? expresses concern about a jobless world. A recent The Atlantic article asks: Would a Work-free World Be So Bad?
People have speculated for centuries about a future without work, and today is no different, with academics, writers, and activists once again warning that technology is replacing human workers. Some imagine that the coming work-free world will be defined by inequality: A few wealthy people will own all the capital, and the masses will struggle in an impoverished wasteland.
A different, less paranoid, and not mutually exclusive prediction holds that the future will be a wasteland of a different sort, one characterized by purposelessness: Without jobs to give their lives meaning, people will simply become lazy and depressed. Indeed, today's unemployed don't seem to be having a great time. One Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans who have been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, double the rate for working Americans.
"Sometimes people retire from their work, and they don't know what to do," Gray says. "They've lost the ability to create their own activities." It's a problem that never seems to plague young children. "There are no three-year-olds that are going to be lazy and depressed because they don't have a structured activity," he says.
But need it be this way? Work-free societies are more than just a thought experiment--they've existed throughout human history. Consider hunter-gatherers, who have no bosses, paychecks, or eight-hour workdays. Ten thousand years ago, all humans were hunter-gatherers, and some still are.
Well, good or bad, we're headed in the direction of a largely work-free society, so it is important that we start figuring out how civilization ought to evolve to adjust to this tectonic shift that is inevitable in the next 50 years.
Downton Abbey offers some answers:
According to Randolph Trumbach, a professor of history at Baruch College, 18th-century English aristocrats spent their days visiting friends, eating elaborate meals, hosting salons, hunting, writing letters, fishing, and going to church. They also spent a good deal of time participating in politics, without pay. Their children would learn to dance, play instruments, speak foreign languages, and read Latin. Russian nobles frequently became intellectuals, writers, and artists. "As a 17th-century aristocrat said, 'We sit down to eat and rise up to play, for what is a gentleman but his pleasure?'" Trumbach says.
This is a best-case scenario where financial resources are abundant.
The trouble is, the bulk of the population will not have a lot of money. For them, life will be highly constrained, predictably structured, and terribly boring.
One of my favorite philosophers is Bertrand Russell whose 1930 treatise, The Conquest of Happiness, highlights the importance of meaningful work as a key component in such pursuit.
Anthropologists and philosophers arguing in favor of a work-free society may want to check this book out.
Photo credit: homestilo/Flickr.com.