The corrosive culture of modern work

Grady Booch, (@Grady_Booch) an eminent software engineer recently commented on Twitter about the increasing capabilities of computer-based systems and their potential effect on jobs:

“In the context of commerce and human labor, this is the fundamental question computing raises: what do we do when there is little we have to do?”

I’m not going to comment here on whether or not this will happen but I want to reflect on the underlying implication that a loss of work will lead to widespread unhappiness. I completely agree with Grady that this is likely to be the case.

Of course, this situation is already very common for those people who are forced into retirement. Many of them are unhappy and find there is little point to their lives. By contrast, other retirees lead happy and fulfilled lives. Why the difference?

I think that they key to fulfilment is active engagement. People gain a sense of self-worth by participating in communities and being recognised by other community members as a participant. And self-worth is fundamental to human happiness.

Families are, of course, the strongest of these communities and, obviously, a special case but people may be involved in work communities, faith communities, communities based around a locale, and communities based around shared interests.

I strongly believe that the more communities that you are involved with, the more resilient you are when major disruptions happen to one of your communities. Retirees who are involved in lots of communities easily compensate for the loss of a work community; those who have only ever had a work community struggle when that disappears.

For professionals, work may be fulfilling and intellectually satisfying. But the problem with modern work culture is that it is so demanding of time that there is often not enough time for the most important community – their family. There is literally no time to participate in other communities so, if and when their jobs are automated out of existence, they have no communities to fall back on.

For non-professionals, things are even worse. Strong work-based communities (which were often also local communities) formed around areas such as manufacturing and mining. These relatively well-paid jobs disappeared, the work communities fractured. The people displaced were forced into low-paid casual, impermanent work with none of the shared hardships and camaraderie of the factory, the shipyard or the mine. They also have to work very long hours – not because the work is fulfilling but because the wages are so low they cannot support their families with what they can earn in what used to be called a ‘normal working week’. They too have little time for community participation.

If (and it’s a big IF) we regulate automation so that its economic benefits are widely spread and not concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-rich owners, then a loss of jobs does not inevitably mean more unhappiness. Rather, it means we can abandon the notion that working for 80 hours a week, only seeing your children at weekends and doing nothing except commuting, working, eating and sleeping is a good thing. We can have time to develop interests, stop pretending that digital communities are the same as real communities and start meeting up with real people again.

The key question is can we change our culture to adapt to automation or is the corrosive culture of ‘hard work’ now so ingrained in our society that we cannot give it up? A currently unanswerable question but one we will surely have to face in the next twenty years.

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