Being gainfully employed is about more than money. We need to consider what will give our lives purpose and connection in the age of automation
When Aristotle described “the complete happiness of man”, he thought it would include, among other things, “self-sufficiency, leisureliness and unweariedness”. Unfortunately the philosopher concluded that “such a life would be too high for man” – it was suitable only for the gods. All the same, he encouraged humanity to keep striving to get as close to “complete happiness” as possible.
I reckon he’d be proud of where we’ve got. Today, the fourth industrial revolution – which ranges from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering and automation – promises almost total freedom from weariness and uninterrupted leisure time as demands of work are taken away from us by better, cheaper and more efficient artificial technology.
The robots are coming and apparently they’re here to work.
But will all the free time we’re being promised actually make our lives any better? Is a life without work one we’d actually want to live?
I’ve often debated the merits of continuing to work after winning the lotto with friends and family – I maintain that I wouldn’t but I always find myself in the minority. Apparently this isn’t unique to my social circle – a 2013 Gallup poll found 68% of people would keep working after winning lotto. I’m assuming they’re not thinking they’ll still need the money, so what is it about the daily grind that’s more appealing than putting your feet up on a beach?
The obvious answer is that we don’t only work for income, we do it because it adds meaning to our lives and gives a sense of purpose. Even though I insist I wouldn’t work if I struck it rich, what I mean is that I’d choose the type of work I would do and how often I’d do it. For instance, I would still write and give talks on subjects I’m passionate about.
It’s not necessarily because “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. Writing, preparing talks and doing research are all work but it’s work I think is worth doing and the financial wealth would mean I could balance it with everything else I value in life. To put it simply, I’d do it because it would bring me closer to Aristotle’s “complete happiness”.
There’s new research to back up this popular mode of thinking. The economist Paul Dolan’s recent book Happiness by Design shows the happiest people are those who experience feelings of both purpose and pleasure over time. All work and no play might make Jack a dull boy but all play and no work isn’t going to make him happy either.
Of course not all work is going to provide us with a profound sense of purpose. Some of it is both pointless and unpleasant – a total happiness suck. Someone in a role they hate, working for a company whose values don’t match their own or not earning enough money to live off isn’t going to be nourished by their work. Assuming their financial needs could be met, they’d seem to be much better off quitting and leaving the work to a robot.
Here’s where the challenges for automation start to arise. It’s easy to say there are certain individuals who would be happier if they left their jobs to a robot but automation isn’t going to replace individual roles – it’s going to replace entire industries. Experts say 47% of jobs in America are likely to be replaced by robots and other automated processes and researchers reckon the situation is likely to be similar in Australia.
There are almost undoubtedly people who find purpose or pleasure in the work they do and will not be happier having their jobs replaced. But automation looks likely to capture the satisfied and dissatisfied alike across a range of industries – cabbies, surgeons, accountants, artists – the list goes on.
It’s worth noting automation isn’t just about making businesses more efficient or profitable. In some cases, it might also be the right thing to do for society. If robots prove more capable surgeons or artificial accountants are less willing to facilitate tax evasion than the occasional dodgy human version, there would be a solid ethical argument for making humans redundant from those professions.
This is great news for those who hate their jobs – not only are they freed of meaningless work and therefore happier, they’re doing the right thing. But what about those who like their jobs? Would the ethical argument appear anything more than rationalisation for their newly found unhappiness?
That depends on whether losing a job you loved due to automation would actually have a negative impact on your happiness. If automation meant you were able to use the time you’d previously spent working doing things that felt more pleasurable or meaningful, you might still be better off.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 46% of employed people (about 5.3m) work 35 to 44 hours a week. Each hour spent at work – however meaningful – is an hour that can’t be spent on some other potentially fun or purposeful activity. I find my job both pleasurable and purposeful but, were it to be stolen by a robot and I were able to spend more time with my wife and son, I’d probably experience a happiness bump for the simple reason that not all activities are equally pleasurable or meaningful. Unless work was the single most important thing in your life, there’s still the chance a robot taking your job would make you happier.
This means a robot workforce might actually provide people with more meaningful lives even while simultaneously taking them away from meaningful work. Plus it will provide those whose jobs are making them unhappy with the opportunity to do something different.
This paints a compelling picture: CS Lewis once described friendship, philosophy and art as being meaningful precisely because they were unnecessary and had no survival value. They were, instead, “things which give value to survival”. If the fourth industrial revolution is able to help people focus on those things that give our lives value, robotic workers almost present as a moral imperative.
Of course there are enormous logistical questions as to whether those who are going to be displaced by robots will actually be provided with the means necessary to pursue other meaningful ways of living. We simply don’t know yet whether the taxi driver who enjoyed the chance to have conversations with different people every day will have other opportunities to find a sense of sociability or whether he’ll be forced into less meaningful work.
More significantly, we don’t know if people will be able to see their lives as meaningful without work. Even if automation provides people with the opportunity to find purpose elsewhere, it’s not clear whether we’ll be ready or able to conceive of a life of meaning which is totally disconnected from work.
This concern was raised by Hannah Arendt in her influential work The Human Condition. Decades ago, Arendt predicted that the rise of automation would mean humanity would be “liberated from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of labouring”. For her, this wasn’t something to celebrate. She feared that a variety of economic forces had effectively changed the way people saw themselves so that it was their labour that defined them.
Given the central role work plays in psychological wellbeing – unemployed people report feeling less satisfied with their lives than those who have jobs – it seems Arendt might have been on to something. Think about the last time you introduced yourself to somebody – how long was it before you told them what you do for work? Was it the first thing you told them after your name? When you met someone, how long was it before you asked “what do you do?” Maybe our jobs do define us more than we give credit.
Given the strong connection people make between their work, identity and sense of meaning, Arendt was concerned about the implications of automation on their lives. She believed “nothing could be worse” than being told meaning could only be found in a certain thing – like work – and then having that source of meaning taken away.
Arendt’s point is that the benefits of automation are only going to be enjoyed if they are recognised – that is, if workers are able to see themselves as having meaning outside of their job. The father who defined himself primarily as a lawyer might not be able to find the same sense of purpose or meaning from a life of domesticity. Even though he could theoretically find meaning in his family, he would need to change his perspective first. For some, this change won’t come easily. For others, it might be impossible.
Paul Dolan makes a similar argument. He suggests there’s no such thing as an objectively pleasurable or meaningful activity; rather, each individual defines what purpose and pleasure mean for themselves. Which means if people have decided or been conditioned to believe the only thing that can provide meaning in their lives is work, then it doesn’t matter how much opportunity we create for them to do other things – they’re not going to see it as a viable replacement.
This won’t apply to everyone. Although there are careerists and workaholics among us, many people do find joy, meaning and identity outside of their professional identity. However, automation poses threats to these people as well because robots aren’t only likely to replace paying jobs; artificial intelligence will enable robots to replace us in a range of personal and domestic roles as well. Care for the elderly, parenting, volunteer work and other forms of support for the vulnerable may soon be dominated by robots.
The philosopher Thomas Wells sees an automated care industry as a real possibility. As robots become more intelligent, they will be able to provide the illusion of care –providing practical support, conversation, even intimacy.
In many ways, this is a good thing – like wheelchairs, hearing aids and other technologies, robots can provide those who are dependent on support with autonomy. If I have a robot to cook my meals, I’m no longer forced to rely on my family to bring me food; if a robot can carry me in and out of the shower, I’m freed from the indignity of being naked and vulnerable in front of a care worker. Robotic care might actually be a way to give some dignity to those in need of help.
Wells makes the point that what these robots provide isn’t care in the true sense of the word. They can provide support – both physical and psychological – but they’ll never actually care. He’s right but, even if robots were capable of genuine empathy, the crucial question remains: once we start outsourcing care and relationships to robots, what’s left for us? And even if there is something left, will we want to do it?
Maybe your grandmother might be more dignified and better supported by a robot than by members of her family who took turns coming over to help out. Maybe she’d still receive a sense of love and community from more meaningful social calls when you’re able to be genuinely present instead of busy with chores. But there’s a risk you can’t have one without the other. It’s partly through the moments of help, care and support your relationship is sustained and deepened.
Solidarity and love can only be fostered through genuine personal encounters, so if we outsource the caring to robots I’m not sure there will be enough to sustain the relationship; enough to motivate us to stop by for a chat or call on her birthday.
The same is true for other aspects of our lives. If we leave the most difficult, boring or frustrating work to robots, this might change our ability and appetite for more stimulating or meaningful work. Humans are creatures of habit – the first time we do something it’s difficult but it gets easier over time. A recent anti-smoking ad tells us that “every time you quit, you get a little bit better at it”. The same is true for everything else in human behaviour: every time you work at something difficult you get a little more perseverant, every time you give yourself to someone else you get a little more charitable and so on.
The question is whether automation will shoot itself in the foot by freeing up our time to do things that matter but at the same time deprive us of the skills we need to use our time meaningfully. Although fictional, the marshmallow caricatures in Pixar’s WALL-E resonated with many viewers because they recognised the possibility of such laziness in themselves and in the technologies they use. They had all the time and resources they needed to live happy lives but, as robots took over the heavy lifting, people were robbed of opportunities to improve themselves and lacked the initiative to find new ones.
Automation might not make us all lazy and apathetic – as I’ve already said, there are other meaningful and purposeful activities that can fill the void of work. But the general shift away from human labour and toward a robotic equivalent might have consequences for those humans still engaged in work. While we’re all workers, it’s easy to remember the importance of work to be dignified, safe and fairly compensated – our shared experience of work creates a solidarity between one another.
Once work is performed by robots – to whom we don’t (and shouldn’t) assign the same moral rights as we do humans – the associations we have between work and dignity are less easily recognised. Our bond of solidarity to fellow workers is broken. For this reason and many others – like the rise of the gig economy – the dignity and rights of workers needs to continue to be a centrepiece of our conversations about the future of work. While, for many, work might become redundant, its value and the virtues it can cultivate are evergreen.
Soon enough, the majority of an entire generation won’t know what it means to have a job but they will need to know how to work. Work isn’t exclusive to the labour market – relationships, parenting, creativity, sport and exercise are all kinds of work. But if robots are taking care of household chores in a decade, I’ll need some other way to teach my son that there’s more to life than pleasure, that sometimes you need to stick at something to get results and that in a community, everyone has a role to play so everyone can flourish. For my parents, chores and household jobs were a way of teaching me that message.
None of this is reason to fear the coming of robots or to put a moratorium on their development. In fact, given the advantages they might bring to humanity, it might be unethical to stop. However, if the huge leaps we’ve seen in technology over the past decades has taught us anything, it’s that by the time new technology has arrived, it’s too late to start thinking about the social and moral consequences. Those conversations have to begin now.
How we approach automation, the lines we draw and the principles we use to govern our decision-making need to be shaped by a clear sense of purpose – the same is true for the entire fourth industrial revolution. If all we seek is a state of decreased labour, increased innovation or more progressive ways of living, all we have to do is wait. But there’s no guarantee we’ll like what we get.
Source: The Guardian