Richard Branson was reported to have wept for joy as his prototype SpaceShipTwo reached the edge of space last week, giving him first mover advantage in the space tourism industry. But in a tweet and a blog post which he published around the same time, his mind seemed to have been on something else altogether — the future of work or, to be specific, a workless future. Automation and artificial intelligence are going to remove jobs from the marketplace on an epic scale, and Branson anticipates longer weekends of up to four days, “which will end the nine-to-five”. People would have to learn to work more efficiently to make up, and be trained in new skills by the government in exchange for community service. This must have infuriated his rival Elon Musk, who has been telling everyone about how he practically lived in his production centre to get his rockets off the ground on schedule.
But indeed, community service has already attained professional status. Charity, once the sanctuary of women at a time when they were disqualified from formal employment, is now a valuable, professional industry whose project proposals are no less complicated than those for setting up a joint stock company, and its effects are measurably felt across society. But one could argue that like most participants in the debate over a workless future, Branson misses the main point, which the suggestion of community service actually draws attention to.
A century ago, women chose to engage in community service because work is not a trivial pursuit converting factors of production into finished goods and services. In modern society, where familial, feudal and nationalist identities are — or should be — redundant, work is the basis of identity. Until World War II, when women took on support roles in the military and paramilitary forces, and moved into roles in factories vacated by men who had been sent to the front, working in charity was the only means of securing an identity available to women.
The crisis in a workless world would be a crisis of identity, rather than a crisis of wages, which would be taken care of by a minimum assured wage, already a matter of public debate. Of course, this solution has its own problems. As Thorstein Veblen noted at the end of the 19th century, the human race has been reluctant to leave behind the social stratification of medieval times. In the industrial society, it was reformulated as the distinction between the middle class, which does most of the work, and the owners of factors of production, who mark themselves apart by conspicuous consumption and leisure.
A minimum assured wage may secure citizens the right to consumption that we have become accustomed to (Emo, ergo sum), but it fails to address the problem of class, which is measured by the differential between consuming bhel puri at Chawpatti and flying in Beluga caviar to go with the nice Chilean white you picked up at JFK. How is this metric to be maintained, after the need to work — and to excel at work for substantial gain — have become meaningless?
The debate on worklessness has nothing substantial to offer on this question, which has huge implications for our competitive species. What will we do, when we have more leisure, to escape the dreariness of a minimum wage, and what shall we use to compete as we used to, to be admired, to win partners, and to feel fulfilled? Shall we return to the pre-industrial age and joust, or sing, or curry favour with each other, or go to war for inscrutable ends? There must be a better way.
But first, the fundamental question of identity, without which competition is meaningless. Numerous identities have already cropped up which have nothing much to do with personal productivity. Celebrities were the frontrunners, celebrated on account of being celebrated. They confer value by applying their brand value, usually acquired from the entertainment industry, to other brands, and are seen on television selling mobile phones and bug spray. But for an identity on a much narrower band, consider video game players. They can sell nothing but video games, and yet they prosper. How many ports of the Doom engine can be turned to commercial advantage? But players who have mastered the ecosystem of that engine do well for themselves. It is inexplicable, but it appears to make financial sense.
We were born in a social matrix where profession is the primary definer. “Hello, I’m, X. I’m an accountant.” Or, “Hey there, I’m Y, a Prolog programmer.” But recently, I was accosted thus: “Hi, I’m Z. I’m a lesbian.” Not a formal, paying profession, but definitely an identity. In the future, we shall, perhaps, see many more such identities which are divorced from the traditional base of shekels and minas. It could be liberating, but there will be a hardscrabble period as we search for new points of reference and new ways to gauge if they measure up to the standards we inherited from our ancestors.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.