The future of not working

by Sarah Firisen

I recently had a conversation with someone I know who is around 50 and has been out of work since the COVID-19 pandemic started. He’s had a challenging life over the last 20 years or so dealing with addiction. While he once had a successful career, since rehab, he’s been working pretty low-level jobs in catering, an industry that died during lockdown. I asked him what he’s going to do as lockdown eases, and he confessed that this last year or so has been the best year of his life. With his stimulus and unemployment money, he’s had the time to paint and write, and he’s loved it. 

I’ve written before around the question, “Does work have to be such….work?” I wrote,  “As automation creeps into more and more back and front office work, there’s a lot of understandable fear about loss of jobs. But in reality, a lot of automation will be…taking out a lot of the drudgery that most of us inevitably have in our daily work. ” The pandemic has allowed, in some cases, forced many people to reevaluate their lives and careers and consider what really makes them happy. We’ve all had reason to appreciate better the small joys in life: family, friends, being able to go out to restaurants and travel to see those we love. But, for many people, it’s also changed their relationship with work. Working from home has given many people a new freedom and flexibility that most don’t seem willing to give up as restrictions ease. 

There’s an interesting video from a few years ago called “Humans need not apply.” It raises the specter of automation decimating all sorts of industries, from transportation to the medical field. It challenges analogies to the industrial revolution. These analogies paint the rosy picture that the jobs destroyed were horrible, dangerous, low-paid jobs anyway. The video claims that such analogies don’t consider the sheer scale of the job replacement that this new automation will bring. The video questions the possible future where people can now spend their time doing more human endeavors, like writing poetry. The video posits that it’s hard to imagine a poetry-based economy that will help support all the theoretically now-unemployed and unemployable people. But what if this view of what a future without “work” for many people looks like is too narrow? Perhaps, we need a paradigm shift in thinking. 

Some people love to work. They love the challenge of mergers and acquisitions or the sense of fulfillment they get from being doctors and saving lives. But it’s also true that many people don’t. Many years ago, I did some contracting work for New York State. State employees can retire on very livable pensions after a few decades of employment. The number one topic of conversation in the office I worked in, on almost any given day, was how far various people were into that tenure. They were constantly talking about calculations on the optimal time for retirement to be fully vested. And of course, for many people, retirement is the prize at the end of the rainbow. The stereotype of retirement equates it to golfing, gardening, and traveling. But for many people, it’s rather about having the time to do the things they are passionate about. To have the financial freedom to spend time doing the things that matter to them. What if we didn’t have to wait until our 60’s or 70’s to have this freedom?

There’s no doubt that North Americans work too much, “Today, in the U.S. and Canada, workers work approximately four more hours a week than in many European countries.  This despite studies showing workers who work longer hours are less alert, less healthy, more likely to gain weight, to suffer type 2 diabetes, heart disease, impaired sleep, absenteeism, high blood pressure, injuries and depressive symptoms, and are less productive than those working fewer hours. “ There’s no magical rule of the universe that says that the workweek has to be five days, for at least 40 hours. Many companies are starting to experiment with flexibility about those 40 hours instead of a standard Monday to Friday. But the basic idea is that people will still work at least 40 hours. But if companies can automate so much of the manual, repetitive work that so many of their workers do and be more efficient, effective, and profitable, why shouldn’t their employees benefit from a shorter working week?

But what about a more radical proposition? As a presidential and now mayoral candidate, Andrew Yang’s signature policy proposal is the Freedom Dividend, “a universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 a month to every American adult as a response to job displacement by automation.” A $1,000 a month is hardly a liveable income in most places in the US. But would it give people enough of a financial buffer to enable them to try doing something about which they’re more passionate?

With my co-author, Catherine, I’m currently writing a book and hosting a related podcast called The Impromptu Game Plan. In the book and podcasts, we explore the career and life stories of people who’ve made pivots in their lives to create more meaningful careers that speak to their passions and values. In some of the stories that we’ve shared, people had some kind of short-term financial buffer, often through redundancy pay. This buffer allowed them the freedom to finally leave the 9-5 grind and do something that brings them joy and feels more meaningful. 

Reflecting on the idea of a universal basic income made me think about the Star Trek universe. While it’s science fiction, it’s amazing how many of Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic ideas have become a reality over the years. The book Trekonomics looks at the economics of the Star Trek universe. This universe has technology such as replicators that can create any physical object from nothing. The book says, “In Star Trek, humanity has reached abundance. Thanks to scientific progress and good governance, the Federation has overcome the social ills commonly associated with the uneven distribution of material wealth. The citizens of the Federation no longer work to sustain and provide for themselves — they find meaning in more elevated pursuits.” The book makes clear that such a society isn’t utopian; such an economy still has its challenges. But still, it’s an intriguing proposition. 

There are still some jobs in the various Star Trek franchises; you can join Starfleet as an engineer or as a doctor. And the show often has the crew coming across various scientific expeditions, so scientist is clearly still a work option. I did challenge this notion in a past piece,  The Leadership Dilemma Of AI…Or…Leadership, The Next Generation, “In Star Trek The Next Generation, Mr. Data is an extremely human-like android who is able to plug into computer systems, crunch enormous amounts of data and work alongside the humanoid members of the crew seamlessly….So given that he does everything the non-androids do and more, why hasn’t the United Federation of Planets worked to make most or all of its crew’s androids like Data?” Because this is, of course, where science fiction and reality do begin to part ways. Every Star Trek franchise has a human doctor; it’s not clear why they need one at that point of technological advancement. 

Putting aside this question and ones like it for a moment, does a future world sound so bad where people who want to be engineers, scientists, and Starship captains can be, but other people can paint, write, cook and enjoy their lives? I’m not an economist, so I can’t even begin to talk to the practicalities and ramifications of such a world. But what the last year or so of lockdown has shown many people is that there is a world in which they find more joyful and meaningful ways to spend their time. Of course, cooking, painting, and writing aren’t for everyone. But this isn’t the only “creative” choice; we may never have had more of a need for people whose dream is to innovate;  “With so much cheap money available, so much cheap access to high-powered computing, so many new services being digitized and so many new problems to solve, we have all the ingredients for a burst of innovation, start-ups and creative destruction.” In one of our podcasts, we talk about how “work” doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing something you’re passionate about and makes you happy. So perhaps that’s the future of not working. It’s instead, a future where everyone gets to only do work that brings them joy and meaning, whatever that is.