Notes on The Future of Work
Posted on January 27, 2016
It is possible to conceive of a world so productive that no one needed to work, and indeed working on matters essential to social functioning would be a privilege that had to be earned.
Long before we reach that condition, and assuming we solve our ecological problems, we will reach a world where we can easily support a large nonworking population but still need a lot of workers. (In a sense we are there already—we can now easily support a large population of retired people, at least in the developed countries, which is something new under the sun.)
In a decent world, the means of minimal participation in society will be available to all by right–which presents us with the problem of how to motivate work. Many people want to want to work for its intrinsic rewards, but others do not. Currently we motivate work with material incentives, and we will continue to do so. However when the time comes that a decent standard of living is available to all by right, many people will decide they do not aspire to anything above the minimum and would prefer to play. There are two potential problems with this.
1. If there are too many non-workers we will have a problem of not getting all the work done that needs doing. That can be solved, at least in a reductive sense, by setting the minimum standard of living low enough to encourage enough workers.
2. More importantly, people with no attachment to the working economy can become untethered from ordinary morality. They can become, at the least, callous, and perhaps also vandals or thugs.
Ordinarily we learn much of our moral sense through reciprocity: the give and take of the working world. We will need to develop a new way of organizing moral education. That is, we will need a moral economy that provides prestige in return for services to others or to society in general that are not part of ordinary productive work. We need to reward people for kindness and sensitivity as much or more than for what they produce. We also need to expand the moral rewards for that kind of activity intermediate between work and play, in which creativity that pleases ones self also pleases others: namely, the arts and humanities.
But also sports.
We have already seen what happens when you expand the financial rewards for excellence in sports. At the extreme, that is a social dead end. But in a world in which basic economic support was not at issue, we could see a return to real amateurism, sports that are done more or less for its own sake, or done for the sake of nonfungible prestige.