The Future of Work?

This text is based on a ten-minute talk I gave at Changing Conversations in April 2018.

I want to talk about the future of work, looking at the relationships between work, technology, exploitation and living meaningful lives.

Technology and ownership

In the 1950s there were predictions of lives of plenty and leisure for all, through wonderful technological advance. The technology duly arrived, but not the plenty and leisure for all. Why not? – I’ll answer that question that with another question:

What is the most dangerous word in this sentence?

“Robots are going to take our jobs.”

I would say the most dangerous word is ‘our’.

Your washing machine is a robot. It has taken your job. Are you deeply concerned? Would you rather you had it back? When you own the robot, it saves you work. If your employer owns the robot, it saves them money – by putting you out of work. So the 1950s dream became a nightmare because we didn’t understand ownership. The problem we have with robots and jobs isn’t about technology, it’s about ownership. It’s about who owns the technology.

But our problem with ownership goes deeper than that – it comes down to who owns the jobs. When someone owns your job they control whether or not you make a living. Essentially they own your means of survival. That’s why the most dangerous word is ‘our’ – because they are not our jobs – and this is where many of our problems come from.

When we’ve done enough, we stop

In our daily lives, if we decide to do something that needs doing, when we’ve done it we stop. It would be madness to carry on doing it!

But if we arrange society so that people can make a living only by making (or doing) things to sell then, just to survive, we have to make sure we never stop making (or doing) those things – and we have to ensure that people never stop buying them, even if there is no need for them.

Here’s a personal example: as well as being an engineer in my paid work I am a gardener. A few years ago I built myself a device to protect seedlings on frosty nights using heat from the sun stored in barrels of water. It took me only a day or so to build it out of scrap I had lying around, but it will carry on making my life easier for decades. When I had done what I needed, I stopped.

By contrast, in my paid work, my company produces small, general purpose computers for controlling instruments and machines. We have to sell thousands of them every year if we are to make a living, and we have to keep finding ways to sell more whether or not the world needs more. We can never stop.


This problem gets worse if you make a living by employing other people to make things, to sell at a profit. This is because:

  • You don’t have to do the actual work, so one of the natural limits is removed.
  • By not paying your employees the full value of what they have produced you make a profit.
  • Your profits can fund advertising to create cravings for things people don’t need.
  • If you become very rich you can essentially ‘buy’ the government, procuring a set of laws that protect your economic position.

Though I think that the basic principle of trade unions is a good one, when unions fight for jobs without questioning the overall economic system, they too get caught up in ensuring that we never stop producing and consuming.

When our economic system is based on having to sell stuff that people don’t need it leads to much work being done that doesn’t need doing, while much work that needs doing is not done. Work that doesn’t need doing is meaningless work. So under the current economic system most paid work becomes meaningless and most meaningful work isn’t paid.

Imagine that we can start over…

I’d like to imagine what we might do if we were to start afresh. What might work be like in a human-centred or non-exploitative society? This is what I think:

We would prioritise by thinking carefully about all the work that we need to do to sustain everyone. We would divide up this critical work fairly and then organise ourselves into teams to do it. The teams would elect leaders, but the leaders are not more important than the team. They do the same work – they simply have an additional role, which is to think about the overall task. In my experience there is immense satisfaction in being part of a team like this.

“Even difficult, boring, dirty or dangerous work can be deeply satisfying if it needs doing, if its true worth is recognised, if it is done as part of a team, and if everyone does their share.”

Even difficult, boring, dirty or dangerous work can be deeply satisfying if it meets some or all of these criteria:

  • If it needs doing
  • If its true worth is recognised*
  • If it is done as part of a team
  • And if everyone does their share.

[*What is the true worth of clearing a sewer? When you experience a backed-up sewer you get to understand the true worth of clearing it.]

And, when we own the jobs, we would naturally ask ‘how can we do this better?’, and be in a position to change it. For example, we might ask how we can make our work less difficult, boring, dirty or dangerous?

What do we want to do?

Then, after we have figured out what needs doing, we can look at what we want to do, what we love to do – and then organise ourselves to do that, either as individuals or together with others.

Organising ourselves to work like this would lead to massive increases in productivity, i.e. the amount we get done for the effort we put in. I’ve laid out the logic underlying this idea in this article.

Meaningful work now

What is the most meaningful work we can do at this point in history? We live in interesting times. We are living through the breakdown of the dominant economic system and the social and political systems that hold it in place. This is closely linked to the breakdown of the ecological basis of organised human society due to climate change and other forms of ecological destruction. As I see it, at this point in time, there is nothing more meaningful than doing what is necessary to set this right. But, mostly, we’re not doing it.

By analogy, if a group of people were in a house and a fire broke out, the rational, intelligent response to this situation would be to:

  1. Accurately assess the nature of the problem
  2. Alert everyone to the problem
  3. Organise everyone to solve the problem, by combining each person’s unique capabilities to maximum effect.

I think that possibly the most interesting question in the world right now is Why are we not doing this?

Further reading

There isn’t time in a ten-minute talk to lay out the detailed thinking that underlies these topics, but some of it is covered in these articles:

A framework for understanding exploitative societies

Ending the legacy of divide and rule

The effects of emotional hurt

Central Ideas

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