Time to rethink the meaning of work

The take-away

  • In the UK and the Netherlands, around 40% of workers feel their jobs are pointless.
  • In the future, the value of social jobs such as teacher, therapist or psychologist may increase.

Could the world do without your job? If you sit there twiddling your thumbs, endlessly browsing your news feed or spending hours in unproductive meetings, chances are you have already concluded that the answer is yes. In the UK and the Netherlands, around 40% of workers polled said they thought their jobs were pointless.

In 2013, London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber penned an article – called On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant – that went viral. It was read millions of times, translated into a dozen languages, and led to a popular book of the same name. Graeber had clearly hit on an issue that resonated with today’s workers.

Beyond BS

“Productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away,” Graeber wrote. Looking ahead, AI will make many more jobs obsolete. A recent OECD study of 32 countries concluded that 14% of all jobs could be automated, with another 32% at high risk.

“During the industrial revolution, our arms were replaced by machines,” says Alexandre Maurer of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). “Now, with the AI revolution, our brains will be replaced for more and more complex tasks.”

In the short term, useful jobs that are unstructured and take place in disorganised environments are relatively safe. Surprisingly, this could mean highly skilled professionals like solicitors being replaced earlier than low-wage workers like waiters. Tasks requiring creativity or jobs that demand social intelligence are also unlikely to be automated in the near future.

“In this new world of work, the value of certain jobs – social ones such as teacher, therapist or psychologist – will likely increase,” says Tanja Schwarzmüller, research associate at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). At the same time, many of today’s well paid and prestigious roles will be carried out by machines.

Ethical automation

Even within the roles that humans remain better at performing, workers will need a host of traits to survive. “Our research at TUM points to the importance of flexibility and agility, of the willingness to continuously learn new skills, of being resilient regarding stressors and of being a creative problem solver,” says Schwarzmüller.

Similarly, companies will need to adapt to an increasingly automated world. “If they just want more with less by substituting humans with AI, then we lose,” suggests Vincent Nassar, EPFL Chair of Corporate Strategy and Innovation and Advisory Board member of ImpactIA, a foundation that aims to ensure that AI serves humanity in a sustainable way. “But if we use AI to predict employee psychosocial problems or hidden competencies, then everyone is a winner.”

Schwarzmüller believes that ethically applied AI can free workers to focus on core creative or innovative tasks. At the same time, employees replaced by AI could be educated to train the AI to do their former job.

However, Maurer paints a different picture. “It is not clear that we can build an economy of 7 billion AI researchers or artists”, he says. If the AI revolution continues unchecked, unless most of us are employed in bullshit jobs there might simply be not enough work to go around.

Universal basic income

Like many forward-looking observers – including Graeber and tech billionaire Elon Musk – Schwarzmüller and Maurer see a universal basic income as a potential solution. This would free people from stressful or pointless employment. And with automation’s productivity gains, it could lead to a higher and more equitable standard of living throughout the world.

But just like having to work in a pointless role, it would also raise the problem of how to give meaning to life. After all, for centuries humans measured their worth through labour. “Automation can lead us to the best society that has ever existed, but important changes will have to be made – in our politics, in our mindsets, in our organisation of society,” concludes Maurer.



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