The Nature of Work

My thoughts about work took a dramatic shift as I sailed around Fiji. On practically every island I visited, there was a sharp divide between the native Fijians and the populations from India who had settled over the past seventy years. Almost without exception, all the small shops and businesses were run by enterprising Indian families who made tidy profits and lived in modern homes. The Fijians, meanwhile, could be found lounging in the shade.

To the far south, at the most remote of Fijian islands, I found the nearest thing I’ve ever witnessed to paradise. Fulaga is difficult to get to, lying straight into the wind. It’s without question the most beautiful island I’ve ever visited. The locals live in three small villages, and they do as little work as humanly possible. Every day, a group of eight to twelve adults take a boat out to fish. Others gather a few coconuts and dig up a root vegetable or two. They eat pretty much the same meal three times a day. They laugh a lot. They nap when they’re tired. They dote on their grandchildren, who run around in squealing packs.

The Fijians of these remote islands live like they are retired. They work just enough to keep themselves fed and sheltered. The ambitious of Fulaga go off to Suva to work in resorts — cleaning rooms, serving food — in order to afford a few luxuries, but most tire of this and come home. When we worry about what will become of jobs as artificial intelligence displaces what most of us do, it’s worth remembering the smiling faces of Fulaga. They won’t notice that anything’s changed. No AI will replace them. They’ll fall in love, have children, create families, and laugh a whole lot.

There are thousands of islands around the world where this is true, and many more inland pockets of humanity. If we are lucky, that number will only grow.

Zoom out from the islands of Fiji and look at Earth from a distance, until humans are the size of ants. What do we see? A lot of scurrying to and fro. A lot of digging. I write this from the center of London, with tall buildings of glass and steel, cars zipping about, shops full of goods. All this was pulled out of the mud by us. We dug and gathered and smelted and shipped it into a big pile on the Thames. We’ve made similar piles of concrete and steel elsewhere. Sped up and seen from our high vantage, humans seem really keen on piling metal, stone, and wood into huge complex piles. This obsession is what we might call work. My contention is that it need not be done by us.

A very silly hypothetical: Imagine for a moment that the Earth wasn’t bathed in sunlight. What if light instead came from deep wells and we had to gather it in buckets and drench plants in photos to give them energy? It would be a lot of work. Let’s say half the global population had to do this, just to keep plants going. And plants, let’s not forget, is how pretty much all of us are kept going. Most of the other half would be working to keep those plants watered and harvested and turned into food. We would have very little time to do anything else. Work would begin before sunrise and end after dusk and we’d only take a day off if someone invented a religion demanding it. We’d work from the day we could stand on our own and do so until we died.

Now imagine we invented the sun, and suddenly free, unlimited light rained down to power all that glorious photosynthesis! We’d need a lot fewer lightray buckets and people to carry them. All those folks would have to do something else. Would they complain? Some of them would, most assuredly. But humanity as a whole would be a lot better off.

As farcical as all this sounds, it’s what happened a century ago as gasoline tractors exploded onto the market. Before the tractor, a single farmer could feed roughly 2.5 people. Today, each farmer feeds roughly 130. Even crazier: two centuries ago, 90% of humans lived on farms and grew their own food and food for others. Today, that number is roughly 2%.

The production of food has almost entirely been automated, especially since the explosion of the gas-powered tractor in the 1920s. The upheaval that ensued was intense, to say the least. The banking failures of the late 20s were preceded by farm failures in the early 20s. The Great Depression was largely caused by the tractor, an upheaval of automation that was too sudden for society to cope. It was exacerbated by government intervention, as prices were propped up, wages meddled with, until we had the absurd situation that crops were being burned to protect the dwindling livelihood of farmers while other Americans went hungry. (See government cheese caves for a more modern example of humans being weird).

As we now face the eventual automation of much of our work by AI, history points to two truths: Almost no work is truly necessary — you can automate what 90% of us do and humanity will flourish rather than founder. And when mass dislocation of work comes suddenly, it can cause intense suffering — and our poor attempts to mitigate that suffering can prolong and deepen it instead.

To solve this, we must put an end to the fetishization of work. Work is not an inherently good thing. Employment is not an inherently good thing. We don’t think of a teenager without a job as being less worthy of our love and respect because they aren’t employed. Nor do we think a retired couple in their late 60s driving around in an RV are somehow less human. When a person puts down their shovel and sits in the grass to have lunch with their coworkers, they don’t suddenly transform into a loathsome monster. We know these things, and yet somehow we harbor shame for the idle. It’s quite likely that this shame is no more than an evolutionary tool used to make sure everyone does their fair share.

The resentment of shirkers and the lazy destroyed many a hopeful commune in the 60s, when the layabouts drove wedges between them and those who did the work to keep the commune running. I think we’ve all been involved in a group project at school or work that got tense as some put in more hours while others tried to skate by. Or we’ve had a parent, partner, or roommate who lost their cool as they dove into a chore while others sat around doing nothing. The anger we feel toward the idle is meant to make sure we all pull evenly. But it isn’t rational. And we are able to overcome this ire when we recognize that someone is too young for the work, too old, has already done their fair share, or is ill or injured.

I think we will need to learn to ignore this evolutionary urge for fairness in work. Or we will need to learn to recognize those who are displaced by automation the same way we recognize those who are unable to work for other reasons. Side note: it’s always been odd to me that we look down on the poor who choose not to work but admire the children of the wealthy who don’t have to work. My best guess is that we sense when someone has stored up their work credits (as in the retired, and those who care for their children), but we grant no favors to those who simply prefer to be idle.

Most work is not necessary. Almost all the jobs being done today are not needed. That’s evidenced by the fact that most of these jobs didn’t exist a thousand years ago, and yet humanity not only survived that state but thrived enough to enter into this state. At some point, we were several hundred early humans in a single tribe. Everything we’ve done since then, we’ve done it from those very humble beginnings. Once we started automating food production, we’ve had to invent jobs to give us something to do.

Millions of people work in entertainment. They make videogames, TV, movies, books, theater, etc. As much as these pursuits give us meaning and purpose, they aren’t work. We would do these things if we weren’t paid. We’d squeeze them into our down time and our spare time. Between hunts, we’d paint pictures of stags on cave walls. Between hours spent cooping, we’d take barrel hoops and chase them along with sticks. After a long day of farming, we’d tell stories around a fire. Automation made us so much more wealthy as a global tribe that we suddenly had extra money to give to people who had moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

At the bottom of this classic pyramid, we find the bare minimum needed to stay alive. And even then, the “staying alive” is tenuous. The homeless often get by only with what’s in the purple, eschewing even the safety and security that comes from shelter and legal protections. The Fijians of remote islands concern themselves with the bottom three tiers. What esteem and accomplishment they feel is a subset of these; there is almost no ambition to climb beyond and amass the fame and accomplishment that we recognize in “modern” societies. At the very top we find the rarefied space that comes when humans are free to pursue whatever it is that brings them ultimate joy, unbounded by work or political tyranny. It is here that I believe we are all headed. That’s the path we’ve been taking for a very long time.

The end of work is a steady march back to where humans began. Almost as soon as work burst onto the scene, and as it expanded and filled our every hour and day, we developed the tools and social conventions to minimize it. We outlawed child labor. We erected social nets to allow people to retire and enjoy leisure for the last of their years. We created the 5-day workweek and the 8-hour workday. Almost in every direction, we are pushing back against the amount we work we do and filling our days and lives with free time. There are now attempts to institute a 4-day workweek. And France is rioting as the government tries to push retirement forward to match longevity. Our lives are longer and healthier, and still we demand to work less. As we should.

AI will hasten the end of work. The only problem is if it happens so fast that we can’t adapt. Before long, we will need guaranteed incomes for all citizens. At least enough to cover the purple and green bands of the pyramid above. Every human should have enough food, shelter, clothing, and medical care needed to survive. All but the last can easily be automated, but even medical care will eventually be done by machines. And those machines will be built by and maintained by other machines. So much unnecessary labor will be removed. It will be as if the people who carried buckets of light witnessed the first rising of the sun.

Of all the challenges that face us in this near future, by far the greatest will be to love those who choose not to work. This will be impossible for many, and it will be a great shame on them that old evolutionary habits prove stronger than logic or moral sense. The people who choose to spend time with other people, laughing in the shade, learning to juggle or skip stones, chasing after their squealing children, writing stories for the fun of it, or gardening just to see things grow — these are the folks at the top of the pyramid, self-actualized, doing what makes their hearts sing.

It may be that many (if not most of us) find that our hearts sing to do something that machines can do even better. This will not stop us. I enjoy playing chess even though machines can do it far better than me. Most of the things I enjoy, another human somewhere is better at doing. Superiority is not why we pursue things — it is curiosity and play. Freaking out when computers pass us at yet another thing misses this point. We will continue doing anything that humans love doing, and all else will fall away. Which is precisely what we should want.

I believe future historians will look back and recognize the 1950s or thereabout as the time that we should’ve instituted a universal basic income (UBI). It was sometime after the Second World War that we had enough automation and prosperity to care for every human being without causing suffering for the rest. Our refusal to do so comes from that ugly evolutionary drive to shame the idle (even as we tolerate trust fund children and other lottery winners). For sure it is past time to institute UBI now. We are doing it in fits and starts with food stamps, free lunches, homeless shelters, mortgage subsidies, universal healthcare, medicare, medicaid, tax-funded police / fire departments / military / roads, and more. In these imperfect remedies we see society wrestling with what is logical on the one hand and irrational on the other: the need to care for those who choose not to work and the annoyance we feel at any who aren’t.

The greatest gain from UBI would be to not feel threatened as technology came for our jobs. People act emotionally and irrationally when they feel any part of Maslow’s pyramid might be taken away from them. And this anger becomes more primal and powerful the further down the pyramid that threat is targeted. If someone believes their ability to feed and clothe themselves and their family is at stake: watch out. These are the kinds of reactions I’m seeing a lot of these days. With the proper safety nets in place, job displacement will appear for what it truly is: a chance to fulfill our creativity and curiosity, to spend time with our families, and to lounge in the shade.

9 responses to “The Nature of Work”

  1. As a late 60s retired person and one who lived on one of those communes, I can relate to wanting to sit on my ass and also the resentment felt to those who did.

  2. “… to love those who choose not to work” How must the East Indians who now own most of the Fiji Islands look at the Fijians? I’ll bet they look on them as so many rabbits, sub-human, worthless. What happens when the wealthy non-Fijians want the land that the non-working Fijians live on? They’ll run them off, wipe them out, maybe. What happens in America when the non-workers outnumber the workers? Maybe the workers will stop working. Then what? AI and robots are going to do all the work? Maybe they’ll see the humans the way hard-working East Indians might some day (if not already) see the Fijians. Maybe the robots will ‘decide’ that humans are completely un-necessary? Bottom line, I see your ‘concept’ as flawed. First of all, your assumption that most people see ‘trust fund children’ as laudable and people who just refuse to work as despicable. I find neither of these groups laudable. Also, I would not want to entrust my life to people who never work and live free. I know my opinions stated here will be in the minority, and likely subject to scorn and charges of ‘hate speech’ or some such. But my opinions and feelings, I believe, are written in my DNA, and, yes, taught as well. It is what it is.

    1. Cheers to you, I totally agree with you.

    2. I just wanted to ad, that I give kudos to Hugh for his accomplishment in going from ‘self-published’ to securing publishing contracts with major publishers and garnering, I’m guessing, millions of readers. I’m a writer who has done modestly, no where near where Hugh has gone. So, though I may disagree with this idea, I think in time he will see the flaws in it as well. If anyone is interested in what I write, they might want to take a look at one of my latest, Crossing Over by Paul Clayton. Best to all!

  3. How many average Americans can sail around Figi? You talk about us admiring a rich kid and looking down on the poor lazy person. Personally, I look down on both. The rich kid doesn’t work and has everything. The poor lazy person gets their monthly check from the government which in turn really comes from us who choose to work. I own a business, am I rich because of it? Not no, but hell no. I am taxed to death by our government. My true opinion is that our government needs to be reformed. We need to change this because they are overpaid, under worked and have no common sense. They lie, cheat and steal from the American people. I have paid into SS for over 51 years. I am 66 years old, grew up on a true farm not a mega farm. Did chores, went to school and still played. But our government keeps changing the retirement age and stealing my SS money, the average life span of an American is 72 years of age. If I went by that I have 6 years to live. I am proud of what I have accomplished with my life, do I live a life of luxury no. But I am happy and that is all that matters. Yes, I have worked all my life, but I have also enjoyed my life. Your line of thinking is fine but I do believe if you talked to the general population you would find that they don’t mind working, they are just tired of their money rob by the rich.
    By the way congratulations on your tv show coming to life. Let us know where you will be traveling to next.

  4. Hugh,
    Recently came across your writing, really enjoy it. I’m a published author based in NJ, and write about work-life topics but published in health and fitness space.
    I posted a store about work that I thought you may enjoy! Regards, William Smith

  5. As a worker in the industrial social safety net industrial complex, spot on. We fear freeloaders so much that we rather punish 9 to stop that 10th from getting something for nothing. Also, America’s social safety net is woefully unprepared for mass job loss. It’s all tied to work, not being a human. So unless we do some radical reinventing of our policies, my guess is AI will create tent cities unlike we have ever seen, perhaps even starvation, and civil unrest. Hopefully, we can get passed it to the post work world.

    With that being said, I think the only reason why people fears a UBI is they think they will loose workers. But they never ask themselves, am I treating my workers well enough to keep them with a UBI? I think people will still work with a UBI, they like big screen TVs and sports cars. I just would like to see work not tied to basic human needs. Make work a thing people can do if they want not because they have too.

    With that being said, I’m down for safety and security, and basic needs being a human right, but I’d add education to that list. Though I’d switch our education system from a career oriented one to a critical thinking, media literacy, statistics, environmental systems, and history through all cultures not just the conquering one. I think for people not to fear the freeloader they need critical thinking skills.

    I would love to live in the post work world where the first tiers of Maslow’s are met. I get much more fulfillment from my creative endeavors that have made me little money than creating a spreadsheet my employer that pays for my lower Maslow tiers. I’ve always thought it would be a wonderful world where people can do what they truly enjoy not what pays their bills.

    Also, I feel bad for Maslow. He makes this cool triangle that it very useful and my coworkers and I use them to mean the bathroom. We literally say, gotta go take care of Maslow.

  6. My dear partner and I talk about many of the things you write about here. While I agree with many of the ideas you share, I think it’s worth noting that you can only ponder (pontificate?) because you enjoy success FROM your talents and passions. You can choose not to work because you are already successful. In reality, most humans don’t have the luxury of not working, much less of debating these ideas. And sure, I could sell what I have and move to a simple place, but there I would have to live out my years without the means to see more or explore. In a sense creating another environment that I’m chained to. In any case, I always enjoys your posts! Can’t wait for May 5! Beata

  7. Come on! Did any of the Fiji islanders invent the Dacron thread in your sails, the aluminum for your mast or the fiberglass plastic in your hull. Did they develop the electrical energy to run the instruments that your wind generator provides? You can safely sail around Fiji in a high tech vessel (probably with a diesel auxiliary) because you are a hard working competitive, creative, brilliant writer who can enjoy the wealth that he merits. I agree with you that Malsow’s lowest tier should be provided with the basics of life – food, shelter, and health care and that includes islanders everywhere as well as those physically and mentally compromised, inept and unmotivated. Clearly, the rest of us who are motivated to compete, create, invent, should be able to expand our life beyond the beach without feeling guilty.

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