What Will We All Do in a Post-Work Society?

Toiling away at the last job in the world. (Photo: Screen capture, 'The Last Job on Earth')

In 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2028, people would be working just three hours a day and filling the rest of their time with leisure activities. And he didn't anticipate the age of the computer and the smartphone; just yesterday, we described how even entry-level jobs like grocery clerks are disappearing.

In The Guardian, Paul Mason writes about how our society can survive if people aren't actually working for a living. He suggests that somehow income has to be separated from work, perhaps with something like a universal basic income. Really, if Mitt Romney thought that 47 percent of Americans were "takers instead of makers," what happens when that number hits 97 percent? Because that could be what we're talking about, with 3 percent of us with jobs being our yoga instructors and love counsellors.

In this lovely video that goes with the Guardian story, Alice has the last job on Earth. She also has a cute robot dog, a magic mirror that diagnoses a potential malady, and something they should invent right away, a sterilizer for your electric toothbrush. (Alas, the robotic pharmacy she encounters is no better than many of today's vending machines.) She then gets in a self-driving car for the trip to work.

30 is the new 60
30 is the new 65. (Photo: Screen capture, 'The Last Job on Earth')

I did love this part — how in the future, 30 is the new 65 with an "over 30s retirement home." Because all the retirement home marketers will tell you that you can take courses, do what you want, learn or read or bike or shoot pool, chasing your dreams. Mason refers to 19th century French philosopher Paul Fourier, who thought we should all live busy lives chasing our dreams. As Alain de Botton describes it:

In Fourier's ideal world, one might kick off with gardening in the morning, try some politics, shift on to art around lunchtime, spend the afternoon teaching and wind things up with a go at chemistry at dusk.

My hero Bucky Fuller said much the same thing, much later, in the 1960s:

We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in 10,000 of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

If you're a techno-utopian, then all of this technology will be so productive and spit out so much money that if it was distributed fairly, it could happily support everyone. If you're a dystopian, then the 1 percent just take it all and live like kings while everyone else starves. I tend to be in the former camp, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that it will all work out, but that's not how it seems to be what's happening in America right now.