It is common to hear that the future of work will be unemployment; that robot labour and the latest advances in Artificial Intelligence mean there simply won’t be any work left for most people to do. We have become so efficient at making goods and generating services, often with minimal human input, that the very idea of work will soon become a thing of the past.
Of course, this just isn’t true. The great economist John Maynard Keynes, as far back as the 1930s, first predicted that advances in technology would lead to shorter and shorter working hours. It was a utopian idea which hasn’t come to pass, and in many ways, the opposite has been true. The more that technology has led to efficiencies in how we produce goods and services, the more flexible the work we do around that technology has become.
The challenge we face today is not how to deal with a rapid surge in unemployment, but how to make sure that the nature of work which people come to do is properly fulfilling and emotionally rewarding. Many of us end up doing jobs which aren’t very interesting or enjoyable, and yet we’re still offered a rather odd idea about those jobs. Apparently, it’s not enough to simply turn up to the office every day and get on with things, instead we’re told that we should be passionate about what we do. We have to switch on our computers and begin the day with an intense feeling of desire about the work ahead. When you think about it, it’s an intensely strange idea.
Passion is something we normally associate with religion or sex, not an entire day spent analysing spreadsheets or conducting routine risk assessments. It’s a deeply unhelpful idea, in fact, because it leaves us all feeling quite bad about ourselves if we are not in love with our jobs which, by their nature, don’t have much scope to be meaningful or properly fulfilling. Something similar goes on when we talk about vocations: the idea that we all have a ‘calling’ in life. In the history of various religions, there were moments when an individual was summoned and directed by the holy finger to devote their life to an aspect of the divine cause. This has been translated into our modern working lives, as if one should merely wait for a moment of revelation, for a modern equivalent of a clap of thunder or a divine voice: an inner urge or an instinct pushing us towards podiatry or supply chain management.
For those of us who don’t feel that passion or vocational calling, the feeling of failure associated with it can be quite oppressive. It is possible to be highly sympathetic to this wish for fulfilling employment – and yet refuse to see it as either normal or easy to fulfil. Many of us end up in roles which we’d quite happily give up if something more pleasurable or rewarding came along, and this is why we have to utilise more emotional intelligence when thinking about the modern job market. The rate of unemployment in the UK has been gradually falling since 2011, but if one gets more ambitious about human potential, a darker picture emerges – darker than that suggested by the figures from government bodies like the UK Office of National Statistics.
A man employed by a sandwich shop to hand out promotional flyers which will entice passers-by to stop for lunch in that establishment is clearly ‘employed’ in the technical sense. He’s marked as being off the unemployment registers. He is receiving a wage in return for helping to solve some (small) puzzle of the human condition of interest to his employers: that not enough people might otherwise leave the cheerful bustle of a city’s main street to enter the air-conditioned interior of a small cafe.
The man is indeed employed, but in truth, he belongs to a large subsection of those in work we might term the ‘misemployed’. His labour is generating capital, but it is making no contribution to human welfare or flourishing. He is joined in the misemployment ranks by people who make cigarettes, addictive but sterile television shows, badly designed apartments, ill-fitting and shoddy clothes, deceptive advertisements, artery-clogging biscuits and highly-sugared drinks (however delicious). The rate of misemployment in the economy might be very high, but we wouldn’t know because it’s much harder to measure.
In thinking about the future of work, we have to worry about the quality of things people are employed to do: the emotional and psychological strain it places on people to work at jobs that feel meaningless or run counter to their deeper intuitions about the way the world might be. We need to make sure that misemployment is treated with similar levels of concern as unemployment in order to shape the future of work into something more benevolent and even more productive.
It isn’t easy to answer the question – ‘what does ‘meaningful’ work look like?’ – but it is possible to identify some initial thoughts which help to clarify the surrounding issues. ‘Meaning’ is quite an ambiguous term, but if we ask whether a job is ‘useful’ we perhaps get closer to deciding how rewarding it is. It’s important that an employee can see how their efforts fit into a grander project, what the fundamental purpose of their work is and – crucially – how it helps other people. When a person sees their work as ‘useful’ in this respect, it’s much more likely to be fulfilling.
Another important idea for the future of work is the autonomy with which people can behave in an organisation; although top-down, executive decision making will always be necessary to some degree, people tend to flourish in any role when they are given freedom to pursue their own ideas, to work without the restraint of overly close management. This is another way in which we can think of rewarding work: how much freedom and self-determination does it allow the employee?
A final consideration, and perhaps an acid test of fulfilling work, is whether a job will ultimately lead to some form of mastery – a sense of expert technique and ability which is developed over many years. Good work will lend itself easily to the sense that, every year, bit by bit, new knowledge is gained about how best to perform certain tasks and handle individual projects. If a job can be learnt quickly, if it requires very little experience to perform its tasks effectively, then there will almost certainly be no room for the sense of craftsmanship and mastery which is at the heart of professional pride.
The future of work will not involve robots stealing our jobs and then leaving a huge pool of unemployed workers in their wake. Instead, it may involve robot or A.I. labour taking over those jobs which are already unsatisfying, repetitive and unrewarding; which could allow us to design new roles which place more of an emphasis on the emotional and psychological needs of employees. The future of work has the potential to create a greater number of jobs which give a sense of purpose, a sense of autonomy and a sense of mastery to the worker.
In short, the future is not bleak but bright, if it includes all those things which are already cherished when we think about the dignity of work today.