Is a world without work (really) possible?

Feb 19, 2024 - updated Feb 19, 2024

6 mins

Is a world without work (really) possible?
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

There is an abundance of books available on the world of work these days, making it harder than ever to identify which ones are worth your time. Don’t worry! Our Lab expert, author, and speaker on the future of work, Laetitia Vitaud, has a passion for reading the best books on this topic and then serving up the juicy details. Here, she gives us her thoughts on A World Without Work and explains why she is not convinced author Daniel Susskind has drawn the correct conclusions.

Now that generative artificial intelligence (AI) is conquering the white-collar world, many privileged employees fear they are becoming surplus to requirements and may be replaced, just like so many assembly line workers before them. Will machines destroy our jobs? Should we be preparing ourselves for a world in which work is scarce? These questions have no easy answers but they are not new concerns either.

In the 19th century, a labor movement emerged in the UK that saw textile workers rejecting mechanized looms that threatened their jobs. The people – who were eventually named Luddites, after the legendary (and likely fictitious) rebel Ned Ludd – became known for their acts of sabotage, protesting against unemployment and deteriorating working conditions caused by industrialization. What they didn’t know is that over time and throughout history, we’ve always ended up creating more jobs than we’ve automated out of existence. The most pessimistic predictions by technophobes have until now proven false. This is why tech enthusiasts in Silicon Valley have tended to characterize neo-Luddites as short-sighted killjoys with no long-term vision.

But for Daniel Susskind, Oxford professor and economist, what was true in the past may not necessarily be true in the future. He says that this time, it’s different – and that we need to accept the idea that we’re heading towards a world without work, or at least a world where there will be less and less paid work. In his book A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond, he brilliantly explains how we’ll have to rethink our public policies to address technological unemployment and the inequality that will ensue, redistribute wealth and regulate the power of tech giants. He calls on us to reconsider our relationship with work and leisure. (In his previous book, co-written with his father, he invited readers to understand The Future of the Professions.)

I appreciated the intelligence of this book. Reading it stimulated my thinking on work, but I detected a few major blind spots. That’s why I don’t agree that a world with less paid work is inevitable.

So far, we’ve added more and more work

Over time, we’ve always created more jobs than we’ve destroyed. But what has been true over time may not necessarily hold true in the short or medium term because technological unemployment has claimed many victims throughout history, such as the unemployed workers across the Rust Belt or miners in the north of England during the 1980s. Susskind points out that these days, we tend to characterize Luddites as being ignorant about technology, even though they had valid reasons for their discontent.

However, it is true that, so far, the economy has created more jobs than machines have automated out of existence. For Susskind, there are three main arguments supporting this:

  • The complementary force: Until now, the machines that we’ve conceived have aided us rather than replaced us as workers. A job consists of an array of different tasks that machines can almost never perform all at once. Susskind argues that machines haven’t just replaced people, they also work with them on tasks that haven’t been automated. He says that throughout history, two distinct forces have always been at work: substitution, which has negatively impacted workers, and complementarity, which has had the opposite effect.

  • The size of the pie: Until now, productivity gains brought about by new machinery have fueled economic growth and therefore the need for more labor. Susskind writes that the size of the pie has grown, pointing to the fact that the UK economy grew 113-fold between 1700 and 2000. And this is nothing compared to countries that were far less developed at the beginning of this period. For example, over the same 300 years, the Japanese economy grew 171-fold, while the US economy grew 15,241-fold.

  • Unique human qualities: Until now, there have always been “unique human” characteristics that no machine could possess. At the top of this list are empathy, which is the ability to understand, feel and sense other people’s emotions and experiences, and creativity, in particular the ability to solve non-routine problems by adapting to a changing environment.

Why it’s different this time

These arguments have held up for decades, but they could be called into question today. We’re already witnessing increasing polarization in the world of work which is depriving many people of the means to have a decent life. Precarity is increasing with technological progress. The number of tasks and professions that can be largely automated is growing faster than the size of the pie, according to Susskind, Admittedly, there is little outright replacement of workers by machines, but the whole market is affected and undermined.

We continue to underestimate machines. By looking for intelligence that resembles our own, we overlook this vital truth: Machines don’t need to be intelligent like us to do the job! This is our biggest mistake when it comes to AI. Susskind argues that there is a misconception that the only way to develop machines capable of performing a task as well as humans is to copy the way humans do it. He says that this belief is widespread, influencing how many people still perceive technology and work.

Over the coming years, there probably won’t be massive job losses. However, there will be an increasing amount of “frictional unemployment” – in other words unfilled job vacancies due to disparities between supply and demand because of inadequate skills or a lack of mobility. Training won’t be the answer to everything.

Susskind believes we’re going to have to start preparing ourselves for a world where work – especially well-paid work – will become increasingly rare because there will be few jobs that machines can’t do. Even “unique human characteristics” won’t cut it. So, we will need to devise “leisure policies” to keep humans occupied, and give meaning and a sense of belonging to their lives.

The book’s blind spots

Susskind’s explanations are nuanced and well-argued. I wouldn’t want to caricature them. But I’m not convinced that we’re heading towards a world with less paid work. Today, recruitment needs and worker “shortages” are high. This could change with the next crisis. But I also see at least six blind spots in Susskind’s analysis, which lead me to believe that we will still have difficulties recruiting enough workers in the future.

1. The aging population

Evolving demographics are given little attention in Susskind’s book. However, not only are the generations that are about to retire sizeable but there will also be many individuals unable to work due to their responsibilities as carers. What’s more, demographic changes mean that the caring professions face heightened recruitment needs. The implications for employment go beyond the issue of available labor: new needs and new ways of working could emerge.

2. Global heating

Can we really ignore the consequences of global heating on work and employment? Rising temperatures, drought and all sorts of climate catastrophes could considerably increase the need for labor in the future. For example, farming with no pesticides and less water requires more human effort. Another example: infrastructure damaged by extreme weather events requires more maintenance, while extreme heat prevents us from working as before.

3. Cultural changes

Culture encompasses the way we want to use technology. Just because a machine can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we want it to do it! For example, machines have been beating humans at chess for a while now, but there are still human chess tournaments and great chess masters. In this case, it’s the human feats and stories we tell ourselves that interest us. We haven’t created chess tournaments for AI machines because they would be incredibly boring.

4. The power of collective bargaining

Recently, collective bargaining culture has been reinvigorated with the victory by United Auto Workers, who won substantial pay increases. This proves that pay isn’t only linked to technological advances that may lower the value of human work, but also – and perhaps most importantly? – linked to collective bargaining, labor unions and changing power dynamics between workers and companies.

5. Slowing technological progress

Susskind assumes that machines will continue to enjoy the same pace of progress as in the past. But what guarantee is there of that? Progress is neither consistent nor linear. Negative external factors, such as pollution and traffic congestion, can slow down transportation. Poor data quality can negatively impact the quality of future generative AI, (They “hallucinate” when trained with their own data). Geopolitical, climate and energy crises could put an end to the idea that technological progress is guaranteed.

6. The power of human relationships

Our jobs aren’t just an array of tasks that can be automated or not. They’re an array of human relationships built on trust and caring. For example, I don’t hire a consultant just to give a PowerPoint presentation. The relationship I have with my doctor depends on the quality of the trust that has developed between us. A large part of “work” rests on a network of relationships, built on trust – or even affection. We want to work with people we like.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the issue of wealth distribution, which occurred naturally through work during the 20th century, is one of the burning questions of our century. A world without work won’t happen tomorrow, but a world full of poor workers is a reality today. In this regard, I do agree with Susskind that the state has a huge role to play, not to grow the size of the pie, but to guarantee – with efficient public services and taxation – that everyone gets their fair share.

Translated by Jamie Broadway

Photo by Thomas Decamps for Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every week!

Topics discussed