We’re living in an age with extraordinary change occurring in the workplace. While we’re all very aware of the downsides of automation and job losses, some are asking whether it has to be all negative.
For generations people have asked when the propensity for technology to reduce the effort required to deliver the basics of food, water, shelter will be met with a reduction in the length of the working week. We have not yet achieved a three-day week. In certain categories of jobs people are working longer than ever. But the fact is that on the whole we are working significantly less than has historically been the case. Weekends spent outside work are now the norm, where once two full days off was the exception.
Where frequently people had to work long hours to make ends meet, as a general rule 9 to 5 is normal for many workers now. So let’s think the unthinkable: what if ’employment’ was a historic blip? Where ‘working class’ again becomes a valid description of some people, rather than the vast majority.
In a world where robots do most of the jobs, and, presumably some sort of universal basic income prevents the complete collapse of society, we could be looking at lived experience being defined by what we do at Play rather than at Work.
I can certainly imagine, even in the best iteration of this no work utopia, people feeling bereft with no productive activity to apply themselves to. When we have defined ourselves for so long by our careers it will take a major shift in perspective to avoid a generalised ‘washed-up malaise’. But, given that most of us spend much less than half our waking hours at work, it already makes sense for us to think hard about our identities and what parts of our lives comprise it.
What would you do if you didn’t have to work?
For many the answer would be to lie on a beach. You could probably manage a full month, but the rest of your life? Maybe you reckon yes – in which case ask yourself whether you’re entertaining yourself in this imagined picture by reading endless books? Or by changing beach regularly, from one exotic location to another? Or interspersing the relaxation with plenty of beach sports, swimming, snorkelling?
We all find our play in different activities, and the idea that in the absence of work we’d all collapse into a lazy, homogenous, indistinguishable pile seems to me very far from the truth. In fact, the fear of a lack of work (as distinct from questions about an equitable economic settlement if it came about) seems to me a sign of how far we’ve internalised the notion that play – activities pursued for their own end, without external validation – is pointless. This is something we need to challenge.