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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Do Humans Need Work to Have a Purpose?

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

It started with self-checkout counters at your local supermarkets and could soon transform virtually every aspect of your life; the rise of artificial intelligence roams just below the surface of breakthrough and is about to transform the labor market as far-reaching as never seen before since the Industrial Revolution. Machines are becoming more and more intelligent and consequently, the nature of work is going to change radically. Many are going to find themselves with a plethora of leisure time at their hands as their jobs are going to be performed by machines – a summer holiday that spans the entirety of the year, even the time used to commute in self-driving cars can be spent to one’s own delights.

In his recent novel Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan addresses the eventual need for a redefinition of free time that will accompany the ascent of AI:

“We could become slaves of time without purpose. Then what? A general renaissance, a liberation into love, friendship and philosophy, art and science, nature worship, sports and hobbies, invention and the pursuit of meaning? But genteel recreations wouldn’t be for everyone. Violent crime had its attractions too, so did bare-knuckle cage-fighting, VR pornography, gambling, drink and drugs, even boredom and depression. We wouldn’t be in control of our choices.”

This quote encapsulates one of the main concerns associated with the changing labor market. We will find ourselves without work, the sense of contributing to the well-functioning of society with our daily engagement will be lost. McEwan proposes to spend the newly found abundance of time with our higher interest, a revival of arts and culture. But whether a constant digressing of thoughts into the finer parts of life is going to fulfill us with a sense of meaning is highly doubtful. And as McEwan already suggested, many would look for satisfaction in other, more dubious aspects of life.

Similar to climate change, this is an easy topic to ignore as it seems like something that will only concern our own lives far in the future. Yet, it is going to be a real problem much sooner than we would like to think. It is estimated that until 2040, 57% of all jobs in the OECD are able to be performed by machines. In India and China, the percentage even goes up to 69 and 77 percent, respectively. That would cause between 400 to 800 million people to lose their jobs because of the automation of work. These numbers are huge, and they are coming for us very soon. Next to the problems previously mentioned, the amount of unemployment that artificial intelligence will produce is going to cause a huge economic strain on many individuals and families. The latter is what the Universal Basic Income aims to address.

Profound changes in society call for innovative solutions – the Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of the most ambitious of those. The director of engineering at Google, Raymond Kurzweil, predicts the UBI to be a reality by 2030. Tech mogul Elon Musk and US presidential candidate Andrew Yang are known proponents of the UBI. At its core, the UBI encompasses the idea that a certain amount of money is given to all individuals without any conditionality. This happens on a regular interval. The amount of money paid can differ, which can make UBI cover all basic expenses or it can be a smaller amount than is needed to satisfy basic needs. Likewise, the payment interval, the conditionality of payment as well as the effect on existing social services vary according to different UBI schemes.

The UBI is a much-talked-about reaction to the advent of artificial intelligence and has the potential to relieve society in times of transformation of the labor market. It would be a way to provide security to those losing their jobs and to give financial stability to the many people who will require reeducation and retraining to reenter the changing labor market. UBI is far more flexible and efficient in supporting individuals during fast and deep-reaching changes of the economy than traditional social systems are.

However, the UBI presents us with practical difficulties. It is unlikely that an adequate version of UBI can be afforded by a state anytime soon. Even if different and innovative ways of funding UBI are considered, such as new forms of taxes like wealth tax, land tax or taxing the profit of robots, UBI remains an immense economic challenge to which no comprehensive solution is in sight just yet. Another crushing argument is that UBI plays into a notion of equality, but it does not seem to consider existing inequalities. We should not give everyone an average when some people clearly need the support of the state much more than others. Money is used on UBI that could be spent on supporting the members of society that are hardest hit by the transformation of the labor market. If we would work on building ample and well-funded social security systems, we would do much better at evening out existing inequalities.

More than that, as much security and stability the UBI can generate in economic terms, it is not able to address the upheaval of existential meaning that awaits us. Who are we if we do not work? From childhood onwards, we are being taught to strive for our dream career; jobs have long become a form of self-actualization. Automation of work strips humans from a purpose that a regular basic income will not be able to replace. Work is not simply about generating income to sustain one’s life, but it is about finding meaning and fulfillment as well. It gives us a sense of indispensability and creates the impression of being part of a community or at least a societal network. If that is gone, the 21st-century individualistic society does not leave much else to make people feel part of something bigger.

UBI is not the catch-all solution to this situation that one might hope for. The changing nature of work calls for deeper reaching answers that not only speak to economic transformations but also to the existential shift that will go hand in hand with artificial intelligence dominating the labor market. Stephen Hawking once said that it is work that gives someone meaning and purpose and that without it, life is empty. And perhaps soon, we will need to look elsewhere than work to fill our lives with purpose.


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