As both a concept and an activity, work has existed for as long as humans have been around. At first, labor was comprised of hunting for food, building shelter, and creating clothing. Producing a bartering system, the people carrying out these tasks would trade their products and services for the things they themselves required.
A hunter, for example, would trade portions of his meat for clothing or tools. The more valuable the commodity he needed, the larger the share of meat he would have to give up.
Quickly realizing that exchanging work for work in this way presented problems (a man can’t be expected to pay for everything with meat), money was introduced. Allowing people to place a value on their goods and receive remuneration for their work, it became possible for people to carry out cash transactions in the same way we do now.
Naturally, as society advanced, the needs of its people changed, and the nature of work followed suit. As well as the bare essentials, people started to desire luxury products like wine and jewelry. This demand created jobs for those able to create such things and established a close relationship between money and work.
Primitive tools were eventually replaced by machines in the Industrial Revolution, and then technology came along in the following century to make everything a lot less stressful for workers.
This brings us to the current day
Much like our faraway ancestors, we exist in a society that relies on exchanging labor for goods and services. Whilst we might not be toiling in the dirt as earlier workers did, we still sacrifice our time and talents to raise the funds we need to get by.
But what’s next? Will we remain as workers in some capacity, or will technology become sophisticated enough that we no longer have to work?
The steady rise of automation has led a lot of experts to suggest that AI will replace employees in just about every industry.
The most at risk of these workers are those operating in the hospitality sector- a study conducted by the Office for National Statistics revealed that waiters, shelf fillers, and bar staff would be the first to lose their job to a robot. Unsurprisingly, the most protected against automation are those working in medicine and education- the same study anticipates that doctors and schoolteachers will be the last to lose their jobs.
In a separate piece of research carried out at Oxford University, it was speculated that this transition could happen in the next couple of decades, making it
Whilst automation seems to be a source of concern for many (the Pew Research Centre found that an alarming 70% of American workers fear robots will make them redundant), there are some encouraging implications to the technology.
Indeed, a world run by artificial intelligence would presumably create a society that allows people to spend more time with their families and loved ones. It’s also expected that in the absence of work, people will be able to devote their lives to pursuing hobbies or leisure activities. The economy would have to transform in order to accommodate this shift, with the government providing everyone a universal basic income to purchase the things they need.
In this way, automation helps to usher in the social revolution that science fiction has been promising since the 1950s, with everyone spending their time as they please whilst the robots take care of all the tedious tasks.
It’s worth remembering, too, that many of us are currently finding ways to work that allow us to take control of our own time. For example, more and more people are entering the world of franchising to establish a healthier work-life balance. Running businesses from their laptops, these modern-day investors are able to work from home or as they travel. Creating schedules which suit them, they’re able to enjoy greater leisure time and free themselves from spending eight hours a day in an office cubicle.
Though this kind of freedom certainly appeals to some, there’s a great deal to be said about the sense of purpose and satisfaction that work provides. With this in mind, automation presents something of an existential threat that risks depriving people of something incredibly meaningful to them. Various academic and clinal studies have shown that finding significance at work has broader implications on the happiness of many individuals. Clearly, automation is unlikely to improve this core aspect of our lives.
This being said, the future of work will be governed by robots. There’s no way around it. However, it is how we choose to adapt that will truly define the next generation of workers. Should we indulge ourselves in leisure then the concept of work would certainly die a quick death. If, on the other hand, we find new tasks to undertake and ways of contributing to society, we will have a future of work that, at least conceptually, remains very much like the one we started out with back at the beginning of civilization.