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Could the fourth industrial revolution mean we never need to work again?

Posted by: Sam Wheeler


Referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, the rise of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and automation is exciting and creates a whole world of possibilities. However, we need to consider both the intended and unintended consequences of this gigantic, looming potential transformation of our society.

The fourth industrial revolution is likely to create massive amounts of upheaval and change to our current job market in 3 main ways; displacement (people losing jobs), augmentation (jobs improved and evolved with technology) and the creation of entirely new jobs.

As the economy evolves and adapts to this new technology, new jobs, new companies and new ways of working will emerge. But what if the fourth industrial revolution eventually replaces working entirely and with it, promises total freedom from the average weary working life we have come to know and instead opens a window to uninterrupted, unlimited leisure time?For a moment, a life without work sounds utterly blissful. Imagine all the holidays you could embark on, the time spent with loved ones, even how easy it would be to work around awkward dentist appointments. But how could this continuous leisure time impact on the lives we lead and would it automatically mean a better quality of life?

Firstly, let’s consider the more practical side of things because without work how would we gain an income? Obviously, without an income how will we buy these wonderful holidays for our leisure time? Or even, how could we feed ourselves? Further, how would it impact society on a greater level, without incomes where would taxes that pay for our roads, schools, etc come from?

A large majority of people don’t just work for an income; don’t forget that work adds meaning and purpose to our lives. If we didn’t have to get up for work, what would we get up for? Plus, work creates a personal sense of success, accomplishment and pride. It also furnishes you with new information and skills. As well as being a social outlet where you meet new people, interact with others it can be a source of pleasure.

Think about your conversations with loved ones and new people, how much of it relates to work? When you are introduced to someone, one of the first things asked is “what do you do for a living?” It creates a bond or solidarity, an instant connection with a new acquaintance because we all share that foundation to life. So finding meaning and purpose outside of our professional identity would be key. Relationships are an obvious area where we could find alternative meaning and purpose; however they too have changed through technology. Platforms like Tinder have reinvented intimate relationships and expectations as well as others such as Facebook which has reinvented how we connect and communicate with each other. Messaging services such as Whatsapp mean that people can communicate remotely rather than face-to-face, often removing the “human” element of relationships and the physical connections.

Finding meaning in our personal lives could be obstructed further by AI, as it is likely to replace us in many aspects outside of our professional identity such as cleaning, child minding and caring. An automated care industry could be a genuine possibility as robots are perfect contenders to provide practical support in this industry. Robots could provide autonomy for those who are dependent for example by cooking, cleaning, providing transport, and carrying shopping and even areas such as lifting a less able person in and out of the shower. This could mean that vulnerable people would feel less like a burden or embarrassed and would be able to retain a sense of dignity. However, that robot will never be able to provide a level of actual care in human terms. It is also possible that family being removed from circumstance could mean that love and care between them will be lost because it has not been fostered through genuine personal relationships and encounters and to create the necessary bonds. Without this, there may not be a foundation to sustain a loving relationship and could even impact our motivation to just call when it’s someone’s birthday. Further, if we outsource our professional and personal lives to robots – what’s left for us?

If we transfer all meaningful and “hard” work to artificial intelligence this may impact our ability and our appetite for stimulating or important work. The more we do the “hard” stuff, the better we get at it or coping with it and it creates qualities such as perseverance, resilience, charity and empathy. Without this work and those qualities, we are being deprived of certain skills and emotions, meaning that we are robbed of opportunities to improve ourselves and in turn are less motivated to find new challenges.

So the question remains, will the majority of us not know what “work” means in the future? And I’m not limiting that to just labour market; it includes relationships, parenting, sport, exercise. Without work, how can you finish a job or understand what hard work means or what results and achievement feels like? Without work will we all end up lazy and apathetic? It’s not clear whether we will be able to conceive a life of meaning that it totally disconnected from work; do our jobs define us more than we give them credit for? This reasoning shouldn’t meant that we stop embracing future developments, but keeping in mind the huge steps made in technology in such a short space of time, we need to start thinking about and planning for the social consequences. How we approach it, the limitations we set and the guidelines we use are imperative for the transition from our current working life to the evolving future world.

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