What Is Your Worth? Re-evaluating Human Work in An Automated Future

A while ago I read something on Twitter that got me thinking. The tweet read something along the lines of: “What kind of sci-fi dystopia are we living in where robots taking all our jobs is considered a problem?”

A slightly more positive spin on this is: “The problem isn’t that robots are taking over our jobs, the problem is that we’ve created a world where that’s somehow a bad thing.

These feel like somewhat glib responses to increasingly complex questions about inequality and automation; however, what they actually ask are fundamental questions about what we value and how we structure society. In essence: “Why should we work?”

Why work less when you could work more?

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes made a prediction that today feels almost quaint and naïve: that within a few generations the work-week would involve as few as fifteen hours. This wasn’t unreasonable at the time, however. If we use a very traditional, masculine and formal “paid labour” sense of the term “work”, the work week had diminished from 60 to 40 hours. Why would we not expect it to continue to diminish? After all, who wants to work?

The answer, our guilty secret, seems to be “all of us”.

We don’t necessarily want to do the labour, mind you. Many studies and surveys on time-use in office jobs are borderline spurious (should we be surprised that a lot of people who filled out an online survey about wasting time at work, reported wasting a lot of time at work?). Nevertheless, there’s more than enough evidence that a lot of people waste a lot of time at work (as a PhD student myself, I am definitely sticking my hand up for some next-level procrastination).

But, bringing us back to the original tweets, this makes the problems of automation seem insane: if we don’t have to work (because of the robots) and we don’t want to work (because it’s boring), why is there a problem at all? We stop working and the robots do it all for us. Problem solved.

Addicted to work

My answer is that, as a society, we’re secretly addicted to work. Again, not the actual labour, but the very concept of it. We (and this is a very flexible “we” encompassing the problematically labelled “modern world”) have constructed a society in which “work” is one of the key methods by which people accrue social value and get remunerated.

This operates at both the personal and social levels. Firstly, following the works of Munn and Graeber, we can consider ‘value’ to be a socially meaningful action, that is, action that is meaningful to external audience, whether directly present or not. This describes the idea of work perfectly—you do an action and get paid for it.

Work is more than this, however. Many of us fashion our identities through our work. Even if you don’t identify with your profession, “it is in work, as much as in some realm outside the factory gates, that we have been taught the techniques of life conduct”, as Miller & Rose (2006) observed. Taken to an extreme, this can mean that it’s not just that you do a certain type of job because you’re a certain type of person, but that the job itself shapes your subjectivity. We all too often identify with our job. “I’m an academic.” “ I’m a tradie.”

This is not a given. I’ve had both French and Spanish people tell me that they find Australian get-to-know-you talk weird. You’re at a party, meeting new people and what’s one of the first things you ask? “So, what do you do?” That sounds perfectly normal to me, but people from both countries living in Australia have remarked that they find it intrusive. In fact, for them it’s like “Who are you? The police?”

We seem to value work because it is a large part of how we define who we are, but this does not just happen on the shop floor. Work is also what gives most people access to the resources (money) they need to live their preferred lifestyle.

Why get paid for work?

Of course, the other key aspect of work is that you get paid. And even if you do not identify with the work itself, there is a good chance it (hopefully!) keeps you in the lifestyle to which you’re accustomed. It is largely a modern societal expectation that the main way (aside from owning capital, which would be a whole other blog post) for someone to garner sufficient remuneration to achieve their desired lifestyle is through work. Or, to turn that around: if you don’t work, you are not entitled to the same markers of social inclusion as the rest of us.

Even if the link between remuneration and actual time accumulated through working is tenuous at best, welfare policies around the world are predicated on the idea that people should only receive benefits if they are willing and able to work. Hence work-for-the-dole schemes, requirements to conduct a certain number of jobs searches, etc.. With the possible exception of advocates of Universal Basic Income schemes, the assumption in most cases is that your worth is linked to your ability and willingness to work.

Let’s take a look at income management – the Australian Basics Card – as an example (regardless of the complicated politics therein). Here, welfare payments are made to a bank-style card, and the user is restricted in what they can purchase (no alcohol, no tobacco, no gambling, no pornography, etc.)

Whatever your feelings on the sale of these products generally, they are for sale to the general public. Those who haven’t worked, however, do not have the right to purchase them.

To be clear, I make no claim as to whether the Basics Card is a good thing or not. What is important is that it highlights the importance of work in our society. If you don’t work, you don’t have the right to enjoy the same pleasures as everyone else.

Bullshit work

Unfortunately (and as a sci-fi nerd, I really do think it’s unfortunate), we are not yet living in a post-scarcity society in which robots can do literally everything for us—there is still some work that needs to be done by humans (even more so if we stop considering “work” as just masculinist productive labour). Nevertheless, by many reckonings, the amount of actual labour required to sustain our social structures appears to be only a fraction of the total “work” currently being done (particularly if we exclude time at work spent on social media). Why then do we insist on making membership to civic society and, to some extent, economic remuneration predicated on work?

In his appropriately titled book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber talks about what he sees as the growing number of “bullshit jobs” and the increasing “bullshitization” of jobs. For Graeber, these are jobs that are so pointless that even the people doing them don’t think they have any real purpose. For example, in an academic context possibly familiar to many readers, he describes an academic dean in charge of “strategic leadership” at a campus of a university. She had a huge budget, several people working for her, and no actual authority. She primarily produced plans to justify the university, continuing to do what it already was doing that had little bearing on reality. A “shed load of money” (her words) was spent on avoiding the sort of efficiency drives that made her role necessary in the first place.

For Graeber, this whole scheme is a way for the rich to buy the tacit support of the professional and middle classes. The theory goes that because both their social standing and financial remuneration are attached to their “work” (but not necessarily their labour), these groups are encouraged to buy into the same system that produces rampant inequalities between the owners of capital and wage-earners. While I cannot bring myself to take such a conspiratorial perspective, the election-winning slogan “jobs and growth” highlights the societal importance given to work. Jobs were what people wanted, the type/quality/remuneration were irrelevant.

If unemployment is a concern that needs to be solved by simply creating more jobs, the value of what is produced by that labour is not as important as the value of the job itself. If ‘value’ is socially meaningful action performed in front of an audience, the mere act of ‘working’ is often more meaningful to the very broad audience titled “Australian Society” than the actual labour being done.

For Graeber, professionals are given the job of writing “strategic visions” so that they won’t create trouble elsewhere; those who own financial capital get the growth; and those who don’t fit into either of the two previous categories don’t really matter (at least to the wealthy). One of the biggest pieces of evidence for Graeber is that while advances in automation tackle more complex tasks, no one has yet tried to make a strategic-vision writing robot.

Delinking work from… well, everything.

Graeber had a huge number of responses to his call out for contributions on Twitter. Again, there is a methodological problem there: How many people are going to respond to a call-out on Twitter for insights into bullshit jobs and write “My job isn’t bullshit, and actually I find writing strategic visions quite meaningful, thank you very much”?

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of responses highlights that we have created a society in which many find it better to work a job they openly acknowledge is meaningless than simply do nothing (or, you know, pursue a hobby). As robots do more jobs, there will be greater pressure to find work for people to do.

Returning to the original problem: why should our worth, valued both economically and in social standing, be determined by whether or not we “work”? If the amount of labour needed to sustain our current lifestyles is only a fraction of what the entire population spends at their place of work, why not simply do less of it and distribute economic resources to people along entirely different lines? 

That our social standing and remuneration be linked to our “work” may seem instinctually correct, but it has not always been so. Nobility and various forms of clergy have existed for millennia without the expectation to “work” in the narrow sense of the term. And, from serfdom to slavery, there have been innumerable economic forms in which “work” did not provide either social standing or remuneration. In fact, the idea that the main way to earn a living was “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” has only been around for a minority of human history. Serfdom and slavery may not be systems we want to emulate, but they highlight that the correlation between work and remuneration is hardly set in stone.

In fact, if we are to ever realise that robots taking our jobs is something we should be happy about, that is precisely what we’ll need to do: decouple social standing and economic remuneration from “work”. What systems we then use to determine their distribution is, of course, an open question for the future. 

[Image of the robot in a Kyoto mall is by Lukas sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the neon lights is by Jordan Whitfield sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the man covered in stickers is by Luis Villasmil sourced from Unsplash.]

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