Obsessing about the potential of the world beyond work

This week Aeon Magazine had a piece focused on my favorite topic: the world after work. Helping businesses and individuals who are struggling to cope with the change to the world beyond work is the focus of my ongoing studies, in fact, and something I incorporate into change management strategy when helping clients. I realized while reading how little I talk about this passion, so expect more from me on this.

Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to read this article by James Livingston, a professor at Rutgers. It is a great thought exercise in the ways work holds us back, and the need to find other ways to define our value and occupy our time.

“When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work — education, healthcare, service — becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper — socially beneficial labour — becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.”

Speaking personally for a moment on what I believe is a related topic, I think this tense election season was a very real result of refusing to deal with this question in a realistic, non-emotional way. It’s hard to hear politicians around the world clinging to nationalistic ideas as some pacifier for the disenfranchised, underemployed, poverty stricken public when technology has already made it impossible to “bring back the jobs.”

As one example, perhaps you can resurrect coal country for a short number of years until coal’s march to obsolescence finally reaches its brutal end. Wouldn’t you achieve far more if you spent that money and effort retraining those displaced coal workers in the new energy jobs that are emerging in solar and wind power infrastructure building? Even if a company is smart enough to invest in retraining workers from one dying industry to be well-versed in another, as the necessity of work continues to fade at an exponential pace the next “retraining” will have to be in how to find value elsewhere.

As a society, especially when viewed through an American lens, too often we are encouraged to only find value in the inferiority of others or the glorification of excess. In a world beyond work, needing to feel “better than” our fellow humans won’t fly. Empathy will have to rule the day. In fact, I’d argue that empathy needs to be ruling the day now — as we program artificial intelligence systems, robotics, machine learning algorithms, computer bots, new financial systems, and the “everything” of things, we must always remember that adage: garbage in, garbage out. If we create new tech without ethics as our base, new tech will have evil repercussions. You could say it’s already happening. Remember how phrenology was debunked as racist pseudoscience? Well, it’s back in AI form.

Getting back to the main focus of this post, you can find the Aeon piece, aptly titled “Fuck Work,” here. I’d love to know what you think of the author’s main points.

This post also appears on Medium and LinkedIn.

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