What would a future without work look like? It may be closer than you think. Artificial intelligence is redefining work as we know it. First there was outsourcing. Next up is "othersourcing." Here are three signs we are moving toward a "post-work" future.
Half a billion years ago, life on earth experienced a short period of extremely rapid diversification known as the Cambrian Explosion, a period when a variety of animal phyla came into existence. Another Cambrian Explosion might be upon us again, this time called othersourcing. Though it will first loom as a disruptive economic force, it will advance humanity sooner than you can imagine.
Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and smart systems will disintermediate an increasing number of global human workers in the future – otherwise known as cutting out the middle men. A McKinsey study suggests that the “automation bomb” could destroy 45 percent of work activities currently performed in the U.S., including 59 percent of jobs in manufacturing, 73 percent in food service and accommodations and 53 percent in retailing. White-collar workers are also at risk, as 66 percent of jobs in finance and insurance could be lost.
Post-Work & The New Creative Class?
The widespread disappearance of work would usher in a profound social transformation and create a new normal, where the idea that work is central to life would fade for much of society. Theorists called “post-workists” welcome the end of labor. They argue that Americans work so hard because their culture has conditioned them to feel guilty when they’re not being productive, and that this guilt will fade as work ceases to be the norm.
But how realistic is this portrait of a future quasi-utopian post-work society? It is likely unrealistic in the short term, but certainly feasible in the longer-term. We may already be headed towards a workreation future: where jobs consist of more creative endeavors and where creation itself (rather than material compensation) is what compels us to work.
Adaptations We See Today
While the idea of a post-work future is still largely theoretical, we are already engineering at least three important societal and industrial “adaptations” that may signal its eventual arrival:
- Moving Toward an Agricultural Post-Scarcity Future:
Today, there is a direct relationship between how much people work and their ability to afford basic necessities. But, what if we engineered far more sustainable methods of (or alternatives to) agriculture, thus ushering in a post-scarcity future where it becomes much easier and cheaper to feed ourselves? It’s already starting. Some examples:
- Personal Food Computers: Researchers have built a device that controls humidity, illumination and air temperature, among other variables. The goal is to decouple climate from geography by building a “catalog of climates.”
- Urban and “Floating” Farming: The world's first floating dairy farm, which is expected to be completed in January 2017 in Rotterdam, will grow food for the cows on board.
- Vegetarian Cities: The mayor of Turin, Italy, Chiara Appendino, wants the city to be the first vegetarian city.
- Synthetic, Agriculture-Free Products: A start-up in San Francisco is making synthetic wine without grapes.
- The Collaborative Society:
As guaranteed jobs disappear, people will have to figure out ways to live without steady income streams. Enter today’s still fairly nascent collaborative economy (or “shareconomy”). Examples:
- Libraries of “Things”: Specialty libraries for everything from toys to tools are sprouting up around the world.
- Fractional Home Ownership: Point, a startup in Silicon alley, envisions a world in which people "fractionalize" home equity in exchange for outside investment.
- Crop Mobs: Volunteers give a boost to small farms by helping with a range of tasks like weeding, harvesting crops or cleaning up greenhouses.
- Income Redistribution: Stocksy, a cooperative online photo stock site, gives a share of the company to each of its photographers, aiming to distribute more profit in this gig economy.
- Reconceiving Of Work Itself:
We already see some companies and even countries experimenting with cutting back the actual hours that people need to work. And, there are other important emerging innovations toward a “post-work” future, as well. What if we had greater autonomy over how we chose work? We could perform new tasks that might not resemble traditional labor. Instead of doing one job, we could hold several diversified paying jobs.
The Bottom Line: Industrial Efficiencies on a Massive Scale Could Be Achievable…and Sustainable
What if capitalism did not go away in a post-work future – instead, it merely changed its form? Profits would still be important and distributable, but they could be achieved through othersourced labor. Industries of all kinds would benefit from monstrous economies of scale, as future iterations of the industrial Internet of Things (IoT) would create hyper-efficiencies that we can barely forecast today.
Humans may, indeed, need purpose in their lives – but purpose does not necessarily equate to “jobs.” And, we are already pursuing other means (such as driverless cars) to free up people’s time so they could, in theory, use their time more constructively or creatively. The trajectory of this will inevitably be determined by our ability to engineer, and then implement, major adaptations on a societal scale. And we are already starting to do it, whether we realize it or not.
(Top image: Robot "Asimo" developed by the Japanese car maker Honda is presented on stage to visitors of the Zurich Motor Show in Zurich, Switzerland, on November 9, 2012. Courtesy Getty Images.)
Jared Weiner is Executive Vice-President & Chief Strategy Officer of The Future Hunters.
All views expressed are those of the author.