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The Future of Work — Surviving the Next Mega-change with Purpose
Unveiling the origins of work ethic, the work dilemma, and the need to redefine success in an AI-driven future
Imagine yourself transported back 300 years. How would a typical workday look? Most likely, it would center around agriculture, with duties adjusted according to the seasons. It might involve toiling in fields from sunrise to sunset, or engaging in indoor activities while awaiting the arrival of spring.
Leap forward to 150 years ago. The revolutionary impact of the Industrial Revolution drastically altered workers’ lives, leading many to relocate to cities. Instead of caring for crops and overseeing farmland, the average worker now adhered to fixed schedules in a factory.
This transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy instigated profound global changes. Governments spent decades grappling with the repercussions of these changes and reestablishing stability. People faced immense challenges when attempting to open their minds radically, as it is an arduous endeavor requiring great effort.
The period of transition from the domestic to the factory system of industry and from the older to the new farming conditions was one of almost unrelieved misery for those who could not integrate into the new economy, whether due to lack of capital or lack of physical or mental adaptability.
— Rick Bookstaber
Fast forward to today, we stand at the brink of another monumental shift — the digital transformation powered by artificial intelligence (AI). This transition may call for strategies such as universal basic income (UBI) to counter job losses. However, it also risks depriving people of the satisfaction, accomplishment, and challenges work provides, where many invest a significant part of their lives. Therefore, understanding why we work, how this shift affects us psychologically, and redefining success are crucial. This article aims to shed light on these issues, offering insight into the future.
The Origins of Work Ethic
Let’s delve into the history of work. Have you ever pondered the roots of our work ethic and motivation?
1. Historical Belief
Firstly, there’s the long-held belief in the virtue of work. For centuries, religious and moral teachings have conditioned us to associate work with virtue. Puritans, 16th-century English Protestant Christians, regarded labor as both a means of redemption and a form of punishment, thus valuable beyond its productive outcomes. This ideology persisted beyond the Industrial Revolution.
In response to a perceived moral decline in the new industrial society, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle argued that labor should not merely be seen as a means to fulfill material needs, though it does fulfill them. According to Carlyle:
All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work alone is noble […] for this is the noblest thing yet discovered under God’s sky.
This belief system continues to significantly influence us today. The self-esteem and dignity of most people are deeply tied to their work. When we ask someone at a social gathering, “Hey, what do you do?” We don’t expect them to reply, “Ah, I absolutely love gardening.” People’s identities are often tied to their profession.
We live with such ideas about human nature that are so pervasive that we don’t even realize there’s another way to look at ourselves. — Barry Schwartz
2. Capitalist Belief
Secondly, there’s the capitalist notion of perpetual growth.
Capitalism, through ingenious advertising, compels us to work relentlessly to acquire goods we never knew we wanted. From the 1950s, advertisers began to incorporate psychological techniques into their tactics. Advertising persuades us that genuine human needs, like social acceptance or cultural identity, can be purchased. This message is difficult to ignore: one study showed that by 18, the average American will have seen roughly 350,000 advertisements.
To become aware and be able to act mindfully, the cycle of hedonic adaptation (also known as the hedonic treadmill) should be well understood. Below is a simplified version for an easier understanding:
See: We see a product advertisement which influences us unconsciously
Want: As a result, we desire the product
Buy: We buy the product to quench the desire
Happy: We are happy as we own the product but only for a short while, as such pleasures are fleeting
Adapt: We no longer experience the same level of pleasure and we start seeking more possessions to regain initial happiness. Return to step one and repeat with no end
As above, running on the hedonic treadmill is a never-ending cycle — working makes us feel deserving of a reward, like a designer coffee or a favorite premium drink. To afford the things we think might satisfy us, we need to retain our jobs. It’s a system designed for the perpetuation of capitalism at the societal level, but this brings the question — would the same system benefit us at the personal level?
The Challenges of Work
While the system has its advantages at the societal level, such as contributing to a country’s prosperity, it may overlook individual-level elements.
1. Overemphasis on Productivity
Firstly, immersing ourselves too deeply in work might cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture.
A culture that overemphasizes productivity doesn’t just persuade us to ignore leisure time; it also encourages us to mindlessly focus on means like money instead of ends. Specifically, concentrating on how much we accomplish can lead us to neglect what we accomplish — many of us are so focused on ticking off tasks that we’ve stopped asking whether the things we’re doing genuinely make us happier.
The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.
— Bertrand Russell
By prioritizing work efficiency and output, we often find ourselves neglecting more significant end goals such as nurturing our relationships with family and pursuing personal growth.
2. Absence of Purpose
Secondly, although I have emphasized in a previous post the significance of loving what you do as the yang aspect, it is essential to acknowledge the yin aspect of the yin-yang principle — we inherently seek a higher purpose in the work we do, but for many, working is merely a means to an end, the paycheck.
In the 1965 book Maslow on Management, Abraham Maslow suggests that work should be seen as a primary source of self-actualization, stating that “work is not a curse, but a human blessing.” However, many of us don’t view work this way.
Let’s go back a bit further in time. Karl Marx, renowned for Marxism, concurred with the idea that individuals find self-realization through work. Despite the controversy, he depicted work as a means through which humans intentionally modify the natural environment to enhance human life possibilities. Authoring influential works on society, economics, and politics, Marx was a passionate advocate of the intrinsic value of work, extending beyond mere financial compensation.
In fact, Adam Smith, the patriarch of capitalist thought, also acknowledged that the pursuit of wealth and fame does not necessarily lead to true fulfillment. In addition to his renowned book The Wealth of Nations, which forms the foundation of capitalism, he also authored a lesser-known book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This work touches upon the subject of the pursuit of wealth and its relationship to human sentiments and moral principles. However, The latter is often overshadowed by his influential work on economics and is not as widely discussed.
Coming back to present times, in a recent book Bullsh*t Jobs, David Graeber illustrates how many jobs in our society don’t contribute to society’s well-being or the individual’s self-actualization. He states that many jobs are “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.”
Today, many people feel their jobs are meaningless, which leads to a lack of motivation and overall dissatisfaction with life. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, only 15% of workers globally are “engaged” in their jobs, meaning they are emotionally invested in and focused on their work.
Just realising your talents without the context of the meaning behind it is a recipe for a lot of talented people to live a very unfulfilled life. — Scott Barry Kaufman
Work should be about more than just earning a paycheck; it should provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. When it doesn’t, we may feel unfulfilled, leading to lower productivity and satisfaction with life in general. (The matter is made worse as we explore the profound shift of work in the next point, which “eliminates” work altogether.)
3. The Next Mega-change “from Work to No Work”
As we delve deeper into the subject of purpose, let’s remember the upcoming mega-change we touched on at the beginning — the digital transformation and automation powered by artificial intelligence.
According to the founding editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, 70% of today’s jobs will become obsolete before the end of the century. Whether you’re a lawyer, or an IT professional like me, the ongoing wave of automation could potentially endanger your profession.
Even traditional occupations like plumbing could be automated, as computers are trained to assemble standard components. This mass unemployment could have severe repercussions. Not only will people lose their income, but the social interaction and sense of purpose that work provides could be lost as well.
Imagine spending a lifetime fine-tuning your skills, only to be outperformed by a computer after just a few weeks on the job! Unemployment is directly correlated with elevated rates of alcoholism, depression, and suicide. The societal consequences could be devastating.
Suggestion — Strive for Excellence Rather Than Success
In the era of transformation, it’s crucial to consider not just how we work but why we work. It’s a chance to redefine success, to move away from the capitalist notion of perpetual growth and towards a more holistic understanding of well-being and self actualization that is not contingent on unreliable external validation.
At the personal level, there is a common suggestion to address both the lack of meaning in work and the potential job losses due to artificial intelligence — pursuing excellence.
Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy. — Alex Dias Ribeiro
For ages, success has been equated with material wealth under capitalism. But another philosophy exists — that the pursuit of excellence, as opposed to material success, brings about the kind of rewards that truly enrich life.
What would you choose — success or excellence? While they might seem synonymous, they hold different meanings according to Ryan Hawk’s book The Pursuit of Excellence.
Success is relative, depending on comparisons with others, whereas excellence is an internal gauge.
Success can be fleeting and often hinges on factors beyond your control. Hence, pursuing success can end up being unsatisfying. In contrast, striving for excellence is more rewarding and satisfying.
As a result, chasing success can end up being unsatisfying. The more satisfying and rewarding pursuit is excellence.
The only comparison I should be making is with myself.
1. Will I be better tomorrow than I am today?
2. Will I be more thoughtful, more intentional, more purposeful in the future than I am right now?
3. Do my habits, routines, rituals, and actions match my intention to be better tomorrow than I am today?
These questions are the gateway to excellence because living a life of excellence is about the fanatical pursuit of gradual improvement.
— Ryan Hawk
In essence, the pursuit of excellence provides a sense of purpose and meaning, regardless of your circumstances. And that’s exactly what a fulfilling and satisfying life requires: purpose. You only need to strive to be better today than you were yesterday.
To win is not important. To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. — Eliud Kipchoge (Kenyan long-distance runner)
While the upcoming profound shift in work might distance workers from seeking purpose in their professional lives, pursuing personal excellence — where we become self-actualized and self-aware — hence more empathetic towards ourselves and, in turn, others, may help us adapt to the AI economy. Interestingly, according to Andrew McAfee, an MIT economist, jobs involving human interaction, such as social work and mental health therapy, will likely persist too.
Although each of us is unique, for a long time, society has pressured us to be mindless work machines, where individuals have tied their purpose, identity, and life’s meaning to their nine-to-five jobs. Furthermore, many people tie their happiness to the unfulfilling hedonic lifestyle and material wealth, clinging to the hedonic treadmill without realizing it. Hence, the mass unemployment that could result from artificial intelligence may trigger deep existential concerns.
Work like you don’t need the money. — Mark Twain
The future of work is not just about the transition to artificial intelligence. It’s also about working with a sense of purpose, which will be increasingly essential as governments may start providing their citizens with “financial freedom” in the form of universal basic income. However, this won’t address the underlying need for purpose. Each of us will need to introspect and redefine what is truly meaningful.
We need to remember that work is not the end goal but a means to an end. It’s an opportunity for self-expression, for contributing to society, and for personal growth. By keeping these things in mind, we can create a fulfilling future with or without traditional work, where our daily activities are not just about survival but about thriving; for example, pursuing personal excellence instead of traditional success.
Derren Brown said this in his best-selling Stoicism book, Happy:
What counts is not the work but our relationship to it. Schopenhauer, refreshingly, ascribed far more importance to what one does with one’s leisure. The ideal he describes […] is to be wealthy enough to have expansive free time and the intellectual capabilities to fill it with contemplation and activity in the service of mankind. It may not be our work but rather what we do with the rest of our time that gives us our true sense of worth. We might choose to identify far more with our hobby of paragliding, or the daily demands and rewards of trying to be a good-enough father or mother. In the meantime, we can stop asking people what they do for a living and recognise it for the meaningless and frequently discouraging enquiry that it is.
As we continue to navigate this shift, let’s keep asking ourselves: why do we work, and what sort of activities bring us fulfillment and happiness?
Keep looking, don’t settle. — Steve Jobs
I empathize not everyone can derive meaning from their work, especially in the upcoming AI era, so I wish you a fulfilling life, whether you find purpose in your work or in other aspects of life. ❤️️
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