It used to be argued that workers who lost their low-skilled jobs should retrain for more challenging roles, but what happens when the robots, or drones, or driverless cars, come for those as well? Predictions vary but up to half of jobs are at least partially vulnerable to AI, from truck-driving, retail and warehouse work to medicine, law and accountancy. That’s why the former US treasury secretary Larry Summers confessed in 2013 that he used to think “the Luddites were wrong, and the believers in technology and technological progress were right. I’m not so completely certain now.” That same year, the economist and Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky wrote that fears of technological unemployment were not so much wrong as premature: “Sooner or later, we will run out of jobs.” Yet Skidelsky, like Keynes, saw this as an opportunity. If the doomsayers are to be finally proven right, then why not the utopians, too…?
The work ethic, [Susskind] says, is a modern religion that purports to be the only source of meaning and purpose. “What do you do for a living?” is for many people the first question they ask when meeting a stranger, and there is no entity more beloved of politicians than the “hard-working family”. Yet faced with precarious, unfulfilling jobs and stagnant wages, many are losing faith in the gospel of work. In a 2015 YouGov survey, 37% of UK workers said their jobs made no meaningful contribution. Susskind wonders in the final pages “whether the academics and commentators who write fearfully about a world with less work are just mistakenly projecting the personal enjoyment they take from their jobs on to the experience of everyone else”.
That deserves to be more than an afterthought. The challenge of a world without work isn’t just economic but political and psychological… [I]s relying on work to provide self-worth and social status an inevitable human truth or the relatively recent product of a puritan work ethic? Keynes regretted that the possibility of an “age of leisure and abundance” was freighted with dread: “For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” The state, Susskind concedes with ambivalence, will need to smooth the transition. Moving beyond the “Age of Labour” will require something like a universal basic income (he prefers a more selective conditional basic income), funded by taxes on capital to share the proceeds of technological prosperity. The available work will also need to be more evenly distributed. After decades of a 40-hour week, the recent Labour manifesto, influenced by Skidelsky, promised 32 hours by 2030. And that’s the relatively easy part.
Moving society’s centre of gravity away from waged labour will require visionary “leisure policies” on every level, from urban planning to education, and a revolution in thinking. “We will be forced to consider what it really means to live a meaningful life,” Susskind writes, implying that this is above his pay grade.
The review concludes that “if AI really does to employment what previous technologies did not, radical change can’t be postponed indefinitely.
“It may well be utopia or bust.”