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Why has the prediction of the future of work not come true?

By Joseph Donica

Oct 9, 2018



Oct 9, 2018


Arguably the most influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes had a famous, optimistic prediction about how technology would affect our working lives in the future. In the essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he says that by the time his generation’s grandchildren reached adulthood, they would be working fifteen hours a week as technology would take over their mundane tasks. Keynes, as many of his social class in the early twentieth century did, had an optimistic vision of what technology could do for us in the future. Clearly, his prediction did not come to pass. In fact, Keynes worked himself to death—literally. He envisioned work as something we would do to satisfy our longing to create and engage the world around us and not simply to maintain the physical world as much of work consists of today. He says, “Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy.” The problem he refers to is the human need for routine and creation.

Keynes’s optimistic view of how technology will change the future of work seems quaint today. Technology has simply made more work for us as we have to spread content out among a growing number of platforms in addition to learning multiple new interfaces every year. Technology has also failed to secure full-time, living-wage work for most. It has done the inverse. Those who work fifteen hours a week do not make a living wage. Their underemployment is due, often times, to technological advancements replacing them. However, their free time is not filled with the enjoyable and carefree tasks with which Keynes envisioned it being filled. Instead, it is being filled with more and more mundane tasks such as analysing and creating (sometimes meaningless) narratives about big data. Increasingly, though, narratives based on big data are producing frightened outlooks. Keynes was trying to map out an optimistic vision for those he saw “suffering . . . from a bad attack of economic pessimism.” Almost one-hundred years later, the pessimism has won out, as promised by an article in the Business Journal titled “Millennials: Things are bad now, and they’ll get worse”. The pessimistic view is that solid, full-time, benefited work is a thing of the past.

Our inability to make technology work better for us lies, in part, in how we have represented the future of work on screen. Most representations of work in the future simply map the jobs of today onto the future and do not rethink work fundamentally. We seem to be unable, at least in the U.S., to imagine anything other than a technological dystopia—one marked by violence and inequality. Netflix’s recent show Altered Carbon simply maps our current economic stratification and the jobs that underlie it onto a 25th-century future where human consciousness is stored in microchips that can be switched in and out of different bodies, what the show calls “sleeves.” It is a dismal future in which the extremely wealthy have an endless number of spare bodies and mutilate those of the poor for entertainment and sexual pleasure. However, the advanced technology has not reordered human’s working lives. There are still beat cops, sex workers, and bartenders who work the same hours—just in worse conditions.

If any technology could bring us to a realisation of Keynes’s vision of future work it would be AI. However, our visions of AI have been dire as well, seeing as jobs are going to disappear because of it. McKinsey predicts that jobs involving data collection and physical work are going to decline in large numbers. They also predict that those working jobs like these are going to need to transition into creative, care-giving, and judgement-making jobs. Kai-Fu Lee’s recent book AI Superpowers reinforces this prediction. In speaking on the podcast Recode Decode, he says that the jobs AI cannot do are “creative jobs.” He says, “Jobs like scientists, storytellers, artists and so on” will remain if workers in those positions can show themselves as compassionate and provide a human connection that AI cannot. Those of us in fields like education and creative arts would do well to take Lee’s advice.

So, our pessimism needs to be tweaked, and we must hold tech firms accountable. There are powerful interests invested in our pessimism toward the future of work. Sure, there are many articles that come out every day about how minor technological innovations will make our everyday lives a little better. These tend to be software upgrades and new apps for organising our working lives and leisure. But even these tend to be fixes for us to cram more work into the same amount of time. They are intended to make us more productive and not for forcing technology to be more productive for us.

What are the reasons we have so few optimistic visions of the future of work and technology’s role in it? Firstly, we have not found a way for the labour market to catch up with technological advancement. Jobs in certain sectors are going to disappear rapidly in the next few decades, and there is no plan to ease the cultural transition. A healthy fear of what is to come is understandable. Universal basic income is a viable solution to ease the transition, but I have my doubts this will come to pass in the U.S.. With more technology comes more work. We constantly have to learn more platforms and extend more data across multiple platforms. More than one commentator has pointed to the fact that being connected across sites and devices makes us, practically speaking, “never off the clock.” Finally, our visions of our technological future are pessimistic because they simply project our current problems and the systems that enable them onto the future.

We should start looking to those who have a well-developed policy plan for the work of the future. Andrew Yang is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020. His recent book, The War on Normal People, asks what is going to happen to American society if, as one prediction states, 73 million jobs disappear in the next twelve years due to automation. He tries to create an optimistic vision of the future but one that is based on solid policy and not just speculation. He explains that “The future without jobs will come to resemble either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble for resources of Mad Max. Unless there is a dramatic course correction, I fear we are heading toward the latter.” Optimistic science-fiction can help shape more egalitarian visions of the future, but policy and regulation are the only means for ensuring our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to become Captain Picard.