The end of work? It just isn’t in our human nature

Technological change was never as fast as it is today. This is not a cliché, this is a fact: previous technological revolutions, such as the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution provided humanity with abundant food, energy and industrial products.

ICT innovation is supporting the innovation process itself. Never before did so many people have such an easy access to so much knowledge and never before was it so easy to connect with other educated, empowered people.

The end of work?

There may be one downside to all this: the pace of innovation is killing jobs faster than new ones are being created. Indeed, if we were satisfied with the 1930s standard of living, we could have a 4 hour workweek and produce all the goods and services we need.

However, work is not just about satisfying material needs, it is about establishing a meaningful place of a person in society. Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontief stated as early as 1983:

“the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.”

The fancy term for this is “machine induced human redundancy”. The usual answer to this problem is that creativity and education might prevent that. We hope that the answer to accelerating technological change is better education, more creativity, so that we can be the ones that are leading change, and so that our jobs and lives are not being destroyed in the process.

How to thrive in this new environment

I believe we have reasons for optimism rather than panic in this new environment. First, we are flexible: there are many different things that we can do and we can learn. This is why education, especially life-long education is so important. Machines too can do many different things, but machines can also help a not so perfectly skilled human to do work he/she alone would unable to do. Therefore, a key thing to learn in the future is man-machine teamwork!  

Second, we are not only those who work, we are also the customer. As customers, we will always have new desires and demands. Humans will always be guided by the ambition to better their lives and new work will always be generated as a consequence.

Demands are shaped by values and culture and we need to educate these. Appreciating the local and the particular, as conservatives, creates more jobs than finding satisfaction in the global and the general. We need to preserve the innate feeling that humans like to deal with humans! And we need to reward the desire of people to feel useful. Being useful towards our fellows creates the interdependencies and the fabric of human society. The issue is not so much about jobs as it is about being of use to others, in one way or the other.

Education: learning what makes us human  

Currently, school systems are ignoring or suppressing what makes us human. We learn how to be like machines: memorize facts, learn recipes and formulae. This is, as Andreas Schleicher from OECD likes to point out, easy to teach, easy to test, easy to replace by machines. Instead, learning should encourage us to preserve and develop what makes us human and what is uniquely human, things like curiosity, creativity, empathy and critical thinking. And, most importantly, social interaction and building communities.

Education will have to focus less on “just-in-case” topics, learning something in school in case we might need it later in life, and more on “just-in-time” learning, such as learning while working. It should be less about how to serve machines and computers, and more about how to control them; less about how to answer questions, and more about what questions to ask.

Currently, school systems are ignoring or suppressing what makes us human. 

Education should focus less on how to solve problems, and more on how to define problems; less on how to obey decisions, and more on how to make decisions; less on how to make stuff, and more on how to sell stuff; less machine skills, more people skills; less how to be smart, more how to be good; less how to treat people like objects, more how to treat people like humans.

This calls for a major overhaul of school curricula and pedagogy, whose effects will only start to reap results in fifteen years at the earliest. Therefore, a major effort is required on all kinds of life-long learning approaches and on opportunities for experimenting with creative ideas.

More education is not a panacea

Education is not a panacea, though. Too often, when faced with a problem, politicians’ answer is “more education”. As if better educated people are a solution to everything. The “more education” mantra is politically un-controversial: who could be against more education? Who could be against better educated people? Who could argue with the fact that having better educated people in the right places would solve all of our problems?

Well, Hayek had already argued against that. More precisely, his argument is that we cannot expect to have perfect people everywhere; rather, we must create systems and institutions that work with imperfect people and yet produce optimal results.

Education is about perfecting people, but it is not the only tool that governments have. Rather than only focusing on (the non-controversial) education, governments should keep a 360 degrees view on other tools available in their toolbox.

The infrastructure of innovation

States should provide the right infrastructure for curiosity, creativity, empathy and community building. This would include technological infrastructure, human-human networking, modernized IPR legislation, flexible employment mechanisms, social safety nets, all in order to allow people to experiment with new ideas. Innovation should be permission-less. Legacy institutions and legislation should not stand in the way of inventing new ways of working.

And states should put in place a responsive market economy that will recognise and reward the winners of this permission-less innovation. It is not likely that politicians and civil servants will find a solution to the future of work, but people will, as providers and as customers. The role of the state is to provide an infrastructure for innovation, for the generation of ideas, and then recognise the winners.

By innovation I do not only mean technical innovation, but also innovation in business, institutional and social models. The role of the EU is not to enforce, from the top down, a new social model for the digital age, simply because the civil service in Brussels is unable to come up with such a model. Instead, Brussels should allow states to experiment with different solutions and then facilitate best practices to spread.

To sum up, humans will always survive and thrive by adapting, learning, and creating new demand and supply. If we were happy with our current standards of living, less and less work would be needed to achieve it; however, human nature will always aim for more and better and newer! Thus, we should never be afraid of running out of work, but of running out of being human, running out of ideas, running out of fertile ground for ideas to develop into businesses and running out of mechanisms that tie individuals into a community.

The text is an expanded version of the author’s introduction and closing remarks on the panel “Tomorrow, How Will We Learn and Be Creative” at the 2016 Economic Ideas Forum.