Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
People are naturally distressed by recent events in the world of work. Plants shut down, offices downsized, goods and services off-loaded to gig workers with no negotiation rights, health care or pensions. Unions are no longer busted in old-school violent fashion, just phased out of relevance in so-called “right to work” states, where employees can avoid dues but still demand the benefits of collective bargaining.
This is labour reality, 2018 style. One of the bleakest, and funniest, depictions of the work in North America was a recent episode of the satirical television show Portlandia. Two of the characters portrayed by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen try to explain to some schoolchildren, on Career Day, why gigging is great. The freedom to work as many hours a day as you want! The gratification of delivering someone a pizza! One of the kids then orders a pizza during the presentation.
Work is changing, and not for the better – at least if you’re a human. The most common worry about the future of work is that robots are going to take jobs away from flesh-and-blood entities. Given that the non-human workers are likely to be more efficient, faster and without need for food or shelter, this sounds like a legitimate concern.
Of course, the more realistic current issue is that algorithms of various advanced kinds are replacing human judgment. Already medical diagnostics, financial transactions, and aircraft functions, among other things, are run by (sometimes biased) artificial intelligences. We stress about self-driving cars, but consider: The last time you flew on a large commercial airliner, it was landed by one computer interfacing with another. The four-stripe human pilot, while doubtless reassuring on the intercom, was there mostly for show.
Most questions are more basic. How do we make ends meet, feed our families or afford a home when employment becomes so elusive? Labour used to be the rock-solid answer to life’s questions, even though opportunities were unequally distributed and often tied to legacy advantage. When I was in graduate school at an “elite” university, it was just assumed that all the undergraduates would have their pick of jobs in Manhattan, Boston or Chicago. The chant at football games, after scores by less precious but athletically superior opponents, was this: “That’s all right, that’s okay, you’re going to work for us one day.” Those of us in the philosophy PhD program had a less complacent view.
But we should always recall that current anxieties are never new. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, argued a fundamental point: The essence of human life is not work. Work lies in the realm of necessity, not philosophy. Leisure time, understood as the contemplation of the divine, is the true aim of life. Granted, elsewhere Aristotle defended slavery, so – easy for him to say, obviously.
Still, the leisure question is more complicated than just not working, as any retiree will tell you. Or, if you celebrate Christmas, for example, this month’s bills are likely to be larger than usual because of gifts. January will be lean, say; but you might also be tempted to leverage the shiny new purchases with a loan. Household debt in Canada has grown every year for more than a decade because people want things that their work earnings don’t in fact underwrite. There’s no way out of debt if income falls short of spending. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.
Work also provides meaning to our lives, and this is where we need more reflection and discussion. My own latest work, just out in German, is called Nach der Arbeit – “After Work.” In it, I ask: What comes after work? Obviously, that doesn’t just mean how we spend our post 9-to-5 time (happy hour!), or our weekends (living for it!), or even retirement (freedom 55! golf every day!). If work were no longer what it used to be, how we would cope? Who would we even be?
These are the deep, essential questions. Sure, let’s talk about job-stealing robots. But robots are just a clue that we must think more deeply about ourselves and our desires. I’m one of those lucky ones: I do something I love so, as the saying goes, I’ve never worked a day in my life. (Except, of course, when I’m grading essays, like right now.)