What happens when we no longer need to work?


I wrote this blog a few weeks ago. And when I wrote it, I kept thinking this seems too far in the future to actually be relevant now.

And then, I watched the trailer for "Ready Player One" (I read the book a few years back) with my kids and their reaction made me re-think my “too far in the future” thoughts. Okay, so the book and the movie aren’t exactly what my blog is about, but it definitely made me think. This future isn’t too far away.

As artificial intelligence and robotics become more capable, work will continue without us. British economist John Maynard Keynes described in "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" the idea of "technological unemployment," in which technology replaces human labor faster than we discover new jobs.

This new era will leave us asking ourselves what to do and why. If our current work, work that creates the infrastructure that defines our world today, is dominated by automated systems, working will become a choice, not a necessity.

Most of us will remain focused for decades to come on activities that yield physical or financial returns. Over time, as technology enables greater production with less human effort, one of the challenges we will face will not be an economic one, but rather a political one. How will we, as a society, share in the benefits that technology will afford us? And, secondly, as we focus our attention away from our traditional patterns of making a living, how will we define our purpose, meaning and value?

If we look to the work of Hannah Arendt and her book "The Human Condition," she cautions us about “a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor.” She goes on to state the danger is “this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.”

History would suggest that a concentration of wealth will force social change through politics or violence or both. We need to discover how to distribute the benefits of technology such that work becomes a choice. My hope is that when machines release us from the need to work, we are able to pursue a life of exploration and learning.

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