Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why Work? (Part IV)

So, I'm coming back again to worrying about the future of work.  Previous posts in this series: part I, part II, part III.

As with part III, this is not an original post by me but a pointer to an article by someone else that I found helpful.  In this case, an article from the wonderful blog The Weekly Sift by Doug Muder.  In this post Doug muses on "Jobs, Income and the Future".   Here's his summary paragraph:

What “the jobs problem” is depends on how far into the future you’re looking. Near-term, macroeconomic policy should suffice to create enough jobs. But long-term, employing everyone may be unrealistic, and a basic income program might be necessary. That will be such a change in our social psychology that we need to start preparing for it now.
The argument is that artificial intelligence will eventually take over everything that we currently think of as a "job", or at least near enough everything that it makes no difference. I don't know whether "social psychology" is strong enough a concept to cover the adjustment neeeded if this should ever become reality, but Doug makes a case that it does:

Adjusting to that new reality will require not just economic and political change, but social and psychological change as well. Somehow, we will need to make meaningful lives for ourselves in a work-free technological Garden of Eden. When I put it that way, it sounds easy, but when you picture it in detail, it’s not. We will all need to attach our self-respect and self-esteem to something other than pulling our weight economically.

In the middle-term, there are things we can do to adjust: We should be on the lookout for other roles like student and retiree, that give people a socially acceptable story to tell about themselves even if they’re not earning a paycheck. Maybe the academic idea of a sabbatical needs to expand to the larger economy: Whatever you do, you should take a year or so off every decade. “I’m on sabbatical” might become a story more widely acceptable than “I’m unemployed.” College professors and ministers are expected to take sabbaticals; it’s the ones who don’t who have something to explain.

Already-existing trends that lower the workforce, like retraining mid-career or retiring early, need to be celebrated rather than worried about. In the long run the workforce is going to go down; that can be either a source of suffering or a cause for rejoicing, depending on how we construct it.

Most of all, we need to re-examine the stereotypes we attach to the unemployed: They are lazy, undeserving, and useless. These stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies: If no one is willing to pay me, why shouldn’t I be useless?

Social roles are what we make them. The Bible does not report Adam and Eve feeling useless and purposeless in the Garden of Eden, and I suspect hunter-gatherer tribes that happened onto lands of plentiful game and endless forest handled that bounty relatively well. We could do the same. Or not.
I'm not fully convinced by this, either by the idea that endless growth in AI and its supporting technologies is inevitable (given the constraints on overall growth that I've written about many times on this blog), or that, if such an AI upheaval fully comes to pass, the resources of "social psychology" will be enough to reorient our lives and sense of purpose.  But it is a wonderful article, worrying about all the right questions IMO.  Here again is the link.

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