Purpose & Status in a Post-Work World

We live in a society that places great value on the individual’s ability to work — particularly to work on activities that others are willing to pay us for. We certainly value additional things too such as family and community, but work is pretty close to the top of the list.

Externally, our work gives us money and status. Internally, our work gives us purpose.

We’re moving toward a new reality though, in which the average person is becoming less and less valuable to the economy — less and less viable in the economy. As automation and AI evolve, we are collectively becoming “useless”. With the passing of each day, there are fewer and fewer things that others are willing to pay people to do. This is true across all professions — both those that require us to work with our hands and those that require us to work with our minds. While industries and professions have been asymmetrically affected by this trend, none have remained untouched.

Most domestic manufacturing jobs have already been replaced by automation and robots.

The taxi industry was disrupted by Uber, which will be transitioning to a driverless model over the next 10 years.

Retail salespeople have been eliminated by self checkout systems and e-commerce.

One might think that industries like academia are decades away from such disruption. But in just the past six months, many people have come to question the value of paying $100,000 for a college education, when they can get an education of 80% the quality online, for free. Once students around the world have access to a free online education from the best professors in every domain, what is to come of all the other professors in those domains? There will be no tuition fueling the economic engines of these academic institutions. No resources to support their salaries or research.

Perhaps this is just another cycle of creative destruction; new technologies have historically created net positive jobs through the formation of new industries. This has however historically relied upon the retraining of people for new industries at a faster rate than that of innovation. We’ve reached the point though at which our rate of innovation is now faster than the rate at which we are able to retain human capital.

The first question this raises is how people are going to support themselves if they have no economic value in society. This is obviously a huge concern, but it is a problem with a solution. UBI (universal basic income) has been introduced to a number of countries overseas and has been suggested domestically by politicians such as Andrew Yang. In fact, the pandemic stimulus checks are our first step in the direction of UBI. A tax on the wealth created by tech companies can be used to support those who’ve been displaced by their technology.

While this may hypothetically solve the economic issue at hand, another issue still exists. In a society that has no economic value for the average person, from where will people derive status and purpose?

This is a question that I thank we need to start collectively considering right now.

There are certainly prosocial ways through which people can derive status and purpose outside of work. We must, however, cultivate norms and systems to promote these outlets.

If we fail to, people will turn to destructive means of acquiring status and purpose. Gangs, cults, and race-groups are existing microcosms of this reality.

What do we want our post-work world to look like?

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Posing thoughts and questions about the human experience.