Why a Future Without Work Is a Dangerous Political Fantasy

We usually think of a workerless world as the stuff of science fiction. George Jetson’s two-hour workweek. Or in Star Trek, where the Federation’s “replicator” opens up the post-scarcity world of “Trekonomics.”2

But in his new book A World Without Work, Daniel Susskind informs us that the world of technological employment is here. Now, the challenge is not how to allocate scarce resources, but how to fairly distribute the windfall of prosperity created by our machines.1

Exciting news for everyone who thought they had to wake up for work tomorrow!

Fantasies of a post-work, post-scarcity future predate the Space Age, though. 2,300 years ago, Aristotle dreamed of robots and player pianos, “so that shuttles would weave themselves and picks play the lyre,” so servile work would be unnecessary.3

This idea also inspired socialist leaders – Karl Marx thought this world had come with industrialization: seize control of the machines, and everyone would be able “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…”4

As far as Aristotle and Marx are concerned, the future is here. So why is there still so much work to do? Because the more time- and labor-efficient our production becomes, the more we consume. There is scarcity because human desires are limitless.

Machines and robots have replaced farm laborers and assembly-line workers; however, Americans consume more (and more variety) than we ever have. The labor market changes to meet these new demands: for healthcare, for telecommunications, for logistics, for entertainment. Even ten years ago, nobody could predict the demand for goods and services that did not exist then—oncological immunotherapies, streaming entertainment options, new medical and telecom infrastructures. Our unlimited desires to provide our loved ones healthier, happier lives do not only keep_
_us working: they keep everyone else working too.

Most people don’t want a world without work. When jobs are replaced by machines, people retrain for new jobs. New needs are created. Production continues. Labor markets create options that reward us for developing our talents, and for contributing useful services to our neighbors.

Dreamy socialists may try to sell the fairy-tale workerless world of the “universal basic income,” or shrewd demagogues may stoke fears that the robots have taken our jobs for good. But economic principles will still apply tomorrow. And common sense agrees: work isn’t going anywhere.

Endnotes:

1. Daniel Susskind, A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond (New York: Henry Holt, 2020).

2. Manu Saadia, Trekonomics (San Francisco: Pipertext, 2016).

3. Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 1253b37.

4. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., trans. and ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 124.