Jobs, and what they mean to us have never been more relevant subject matter than now.
With thousands of us furloughed, or watching our freelance work dry up or our businesses founder, there’s a real fear that our future emplyment may involve some form of reinvention.
So there’s no better book to read just now than the latest from Daniel Susskind. He is a former policy analyst in 10 Downing Street and now an Oxford University economist whose work focuses on the impact of technology and the future of work. He is the author of a terrific new book, A World Without Work, published by Allen Lane.
If Susskind is right, it’s not just a world pandemic that is threatening all of our assumptions about the world of work.
For many people — I include myself — work provides a sense of meaning to life. If you go to a party and meet a stranger, they’ll pretty soon ask, “What do you do?”. When I tell them that I’m a columnist for the JC, they stare in awe. For most of us, our jobs are still regarded as central to our existence and the measure of our contribution to society.
That may have to change. In the past, new technology has been disruptive to types of work but has created other opportunities. The invention of the ATM might have put bank-tellers out of a job: in fact, there are as many bank tellers as ever, they can now just focus on other things (like giving financial advice).
Susskind argues that this time around it’s likely to be different. It’s possible, he says, that we’re approaching the end of “the Age of Labour” — and remember that he wrote this well before anyone had heard of COVID-19. There are many reasons for this, but it’s principally to do with the rapid advance in robotics, the digital revolution and the arrival of artificial intelligence.
There’s long been a blasé assumption that some jobs are safe from robot/AI encroachment — such as those in the medical or legal professions. That’s no longer a reasonable assumption. You can already pick up valuable legal advice online — by-passing an expensive solicitor.
At Stanford University they’ve developed a system that analyses photos of freckles and is more accurate than the best dermatologists in determining which of them is cancerous. In the foreseeable future many illnesses and diseases that were once diagnosed by medics will instead be identified by machine. In so far as doctors and lawyers survive, they will do so only in a radically different form.
Whether this brave new workless world becomes a utopia or dystopia will depend on how we respond to it.
It’s likely that it will be accompanied by growing inequalities in the division of spoils between capital and labour, more will accrue to those with capital (the people who own the machines) and less to workers.
So if we’re going to prevent mass poverty and/or civil war we’ll have to find ways to redistribute wealth. Although our government seem to have started down that road already, in crisis.
The deeper problem is one of meaning. Since identity and status is so bound up with work, the jobless future might witness endless ennui.