Redefining Work in the Second Machine Age

We are in the midst of an under-reported work crisis. Not an employment crisis – unemployment levels in the G7 are at historic lows and there are more people in work in absolute terms than ever before.

A work crisis.

We simply don’t know what work is for anymore. It is to fulfill human potential? Is it to be morally virtuous? Is it to keep the devil at bay? It is to fill the hours? Is it to have purpose? Is it to pay the bills? Is it because we can’t think of anything better to do?

Why are we working? What’s the point?

Some people love work but the vast majority don’t. For them they work to live, and work is exactly that - work. Many of these hundreds of millions of people around the world do what David Graebar of the London School of Economics calls “bullsh-t jobs”; pushing paper, filling out forms, having inconsequential meetings – doing work that, in Greabar’s words, “they think is unnecessary”.


Of course, the simplest reason is for money. Other than inheritance, winning the lottery, or robbing a bank, work is the way we get the money we need to pay for the things we need to survive and thrive. For 20% of modern western societies this arrangement works pretty well. Do ok in school, get a decent white collar job, and life is reasonably good. But for more and more people work doesn’t work at all. For these people, work in 2017 means longer and longer hours for lower and lower wages, with less security, and less prospects. Secretly as well, many of the 20% lie awake in the wee small hours of the morning, worrying about just what the hell they’re doing with their working lives ...

Modern capitalism is predicated on the concept of efficiency; modern societies have become extremely efficient by reducing the labor component of the production of any good or service - by de-skilling jobs and driving wages down. People in insurance back offices, production lines, and supermarket check-outs have been reduced to doing rote, repetitive, boring tasks that see them end up as little more than robots. This is their work; being a quasi-robot. Trying to eke out a living in markets that see them increasingly as surplus to requirements. As a balance sheet liability, not a societal asset. No wonder they hate their work.

And now to make things worse real robots are showing up. Not human imitations of robots but the real thing.

Already, robots make most cars. Now software trades most shares. Soon algorithms will read most MRIs.

In the next few years machines will do everything that people do today to make money.

What happens then? What is work in a world where humans won’t be needed to make things, sell things, move things, service things, even create things?

Will the only work available for people be oiling the Terminator?

Will the majority of people end up living on a Universal Basic Income a.k.a. The Dole 2.0?

Will “the people” rise against their capitalist overlords and the unenlightened bourgeoisie?

Will there be blood?

To fully understand the future of work we have to start with an understanding of the history of work.

Through the years there have been 11 major ideas of what work is;

1 Subsistence – staying alive was a full time job.

2 Slavery – Romans and Greeks (and Americans and Englishmen) owned slaves who did the work.

3 Militarism – taking a King’s Shilling was the most common form of work for thousands of years.

4 Usury – before they were kicked out of the temple money lending was popular work.

5 Servitude – Henry VIII didn’t own slaves (nor did Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey) but his servants did the work.

6 Calvinism – work (even in its lowliest forms) was morally righteous; with a Protestant work ethic working took you closer to heaven than kings or cardinals could ever reach.

7 Capitalism – the invisible hand was the route to the riches of heaven in the future and the riches of earth now.

8 Communism – work was a tool of capitalist pigs. Collectivism was not work but joint ownership of the means of production.

9 Yeomanry – Pa Ingalls didn’t have a job but worked (hard) for himself.

10 Fordism – Charlie Chaplin worked as a cog in an auto production machine in Modern Times.

11 The Office – from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Michael Scott of Dunder Mifflin the modern world of work has had a decent run. But it is coming to an end. In the manner that 2% of the population now produce all the food we need to eat, in the near future a small percentage of the work-force will process all the mortgage applications and insurance claims that society makes – artificially intelligent software will do 90% of the work.

Now we need a new, twelfth idea about work. Modern, bourgeois, white collar work, that some consider a Platonic, idealized norm which will continue indefinitely, is hardly that at all. Working in an “office” may come in short order to be seen as antiquated as working below stairs in an English country house.

Now we need to re-conceptualize what work is in our Second Machine Age. Many people sense this ... but few have any clue as to what that new idea is.

This new, twelfth idea is currently nascent, but is fast emerging from a Precambrian soup of the following ingredients;

  • Hyper-localization – the new frontier after the “false song of globalization” is your doorstep.
  • 3-D production – print your new sneakers (in minutes) or your new home (in hours) in your local Staples.
  • Self-actualization and “experiences” – concierge services on steroids from Airbnb will let you realize your dream of being a French vineyard owner, or winning Wimbledon (in virtual reality) or walking to the South Pole. Pursuing higher Maslovian order activities will sync chic and geek.
  • Platform based barter – I trade a day of my Ruby on Rails coding for your three hours of legal contract review; no monetary exchange necessary/no IRS involvement required.
  • Open source commerce – if Linux can be made by thousands for free, why can’t all software? All products?
  • The creative commons – copyright be damned; all property is theft.
  • The sleep renaissance – Margaret Thatcher was wrong; sleep isn’t for wimps, it’s for those who believe that living well is the best revenge.
  • The 4 Hour Work Week – John Maynard Keynes was 87 years too early; machines should let us work less. Even less than 15 hours, as Keynes suggested; maybe just four hours, as Tim Ferris boasts.
  • Bitcoin and Ethereum – disrupting the hyper-financialization of society with new forms of wealth storage and exchange.

All of which will be served with a re-mix of ideas 1, 8, and 9 from above, i.e. post work subsistence, collectivism, and digital yeomanry.

Work is the foundation of modern society; everything else that we value, treasure, dream of, take for granted, worry about is based on work. Without work things fall apart. The rise of nationalism and anti-globalism is a direct consequence of this slow motion work crisis which has been gathering momentum, but has gone largely unacknowledged, for the last 40 years. Populists promise a return of work – without bothering to point out that the work being offered was, and will be, terrible, and would be short-lived anyway due to advances in new technologies. Tone-deaf elites proffer salvation through education, not stopping to weigh the fact that old dogs struggle with new tricks. Especially ones that cost thousands of dollars to acquire.

At its simplest, the time is right for a new idea of what work is and what role it should play. The twelfth idea – whatever it becomes when fully realized, and whatever it comes to be known as – is an idea whose time has come. Not a moment too soon.