Automation and the post-work society



Technological advancement has long impacted the way we work. Its common goal is to take the jobs we don’t want to do. To make them better, easier, or even redundant.

At the forefront of technology-led job disruption stands automation. Automation has sparked fears of job loss. And the hope of it. That is, some believe automation will help to usher in a new, post-work society.  

For better or worse, the concept of a working day and of ‘careers’ has become embedded into the fabric of society. The question is, is it possible that work is coming to end?


A post-work society

For many people, it might be hard to imagine a life without labour. But that’s what the post-work society is. The idea of a society where no one must work.

4-hour days, 15-hour weeks — even the four-day workweek — all are ideas of the future. And all are aimed at reducing the amount of work we do. It stands to reason that there’s also the dream of a world without work at all.

·       Post-work utopia

Imagine. No more 9-5. No more overtime, or being too tired to cook dinner.

Instead of having to pay for babysitters, you can spend time with your children. Instead of selling your time to a company, you can pursue your hobbies. You could learn a language, take up art or dance. You could further your own personal studies and you’d have time to invent, create, and innovate.

You’d have more time to enjoy life.

A post-work society would mean no compulsory work. No stressing about bills or the tasks piling up on your desk. What’s not to like about this idea?

·       Post-work dystopia

On the flip side of the coin, some argue against the utopian vision of a post-work society.

The argument goes that work gives people’s lives meaning. It creates community — people work to help each other. There are ethical concerns that removing the need for work means removing the raison d’être for many.

The other issue commonly cited is that a post-work society could look like the wealthy elite controlling the technology, while the unemployed struggle to survive.

Of course, for a post-work society to happen, the necessary work to sustain modern human life must go somewhere. So, whether a post-work society is something we want or not, where would those jobs (theoretically) go?


Enter future automation

Automation technology is a key component of the theoretical post-work society. The idea is that the jobs we once did (and currently do) are ones that automation technology and robots will do for us.

So, a post-work society relies heavily on the capabilities of future automation (and artificial intelligence). Automation and AI will need to be able to replicate the skills of humans in every industry.

Along that vein, this also means that automation technology would need wide acceptance and adoption. Rather than fear of ‘robots taking our jobs’, the idea would need to be embraced — and supported accordingly.  


The current state of affairs

There are two sides to our current situation to consider when discussing the possibility of a post-work society.

The first is the role of work in society. That is, its importance and its problems. (And, by extension, the ethics around removing the daily grind.)

The second is the abilities of technology as it stands today. For a post-work society, technology would need to be perfectly adept at every job that disappears. So, to understand the plausibility of a post-work society, it’s worth looking at what technology can do. And, of course, how it needs to grow or improve to make post-work possible.


The role of work

Work is a fact of life. It defines our society, our routines and the way we interact with each other.  

As digital technology has advanced, the barrier between work life and home life has blurred. For a large number of people, work doesn’t end at the end of the day.

In forming such a huge aspect of our lives, it’s plausible that our work is how we find value in ourselves. It’s how we define ourselves, how we create community. (That is, our jobs are how we connect and help each other.)

Our careers can tie into our life satisfaction. Work is a human condition. And as such, it’s hard to imagine a post-work society at all.


Conversely…

But there’s another side to every coin, and for our jobs, it’s the argument that work isn’t working.

It’s commonly argued that we work because we have to, not because we necessarily want to. The choice is work or starvation. People work to earn money. Yet a few years ago, it was found that almost two-thirds (60%) of those in poverty in the UK are in working households. So, a work-based society isn’t keeping people out of poverty.

There’s also unemployment, debt, and housing crises, further pointing to the idea that work isn’t working for many people. Others point out that for many, it’s bad for your health. (Sitting at a desk all day, rather than getting exercise, for instance.)

Plus, it’s argued that people don’t always find value in the work they do.


The abilities of technology

But how pressing is the discussion of a post-work society? Is the technology ready for us to introduce a post-work lifestyle? Well… no. Not yet at least.

Automation can do a lot of things. As long as, that is, you tell it in step-by-step rules what to do. Automation can sort emails, convert documents, maintain databases, and all manner of admin tasks. That’s not to mention its utility in the manufacturing world.

And in terms of artificial intelligence, machines are learning to see and understand and speak. And they’re learning to create new content, too.

But for all this, automation can’t replace humans. It needs humans to tell it what to do. To monitor it. To handle the tasks that are low frequency and over-complicated. It can’t tell good from bad or make decisions for you.


What would need to happen for a post-work society

So, provided the technology continues to grow into more functionality and roles, what else would we need to reach a post-work society?

A rushed post-work implementation could cause a host of problems for people short-term. Abolishing jobs without replacing them — or providing any sort of support to patch their absence — could cause suffering and difficulty.

Many suggest that a post-work society would need a universal basic income as standard.

Beyond that, we would have to find answers to questions of how resources get distributed. Of how to foster a sense of community. And any ethical concerns that come with the large-scale disruption of transitioning to a post-work society.


So, what now?

When it comes to creating a post-work society, we’re not there yet. There are still many issues to iron out, ethics to consider and questions to answer. But that doesn’t mean it’s off the table for future discussions.

The question remains: is the post-work society something we should all work towards?

Until such a time comes, perhaps the goal should be to use automation to answer the needs of civilisation today? (Rather than shooting straight for a post-work society.)

And then, one day, the post-work society might feel a bit more than fanciful thinking.


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