On Work, Money and PURPOSE, Part 2

Employment, WORK and p-work are very different things…

On Work, Money and PURPOSE, Part 2 /img/useless-work.jpg

(this post is part of a longer essay I wrote in May 2020. Please also read the rest and, if you find it useful, thanks in advance for supporting this and my other work, through donations or in other ways, as described here.

Index of the full essay:

Chapter 2: Employment and innovation in the 21st century

This acknowledgment of the nature of WORK has direct impacts on employment, and innovation, especially in the current state of the world. Talking of workers can be just as limiting and reductive as talking of consumers. Let’s call “employment” the sum of “jobs” and p-work. Full employment still is the most common, if not the only solution proposed to fill both meta-needs for the majority of people, on the almost explicit condition that individuals can and should change their true nature to make that activity, whatever it is and as is, also become their SERVICE.

Even ignoring this crucial problem, today technology and other factors make increasingly hard for full employment to make sense, or just to remain possible, but open other doors to WORK.

The fear that “robots will steal all jobs” looms large in people’s minds, but speaking of robots it is important to realize three things. First, speaking of robots is misleading. What cancels jobs at paces, scopes and scales never seen before is software.

Robots are just one of the countless use cases of software: the one where software directly controls an object that, for whatever purpose, resembles a human body, or one of its parts. Even “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) still is, more often than not, just software that merely categorizes huge amounts of data at flash speeds. In general, software is huge, but still is just a tool, not a “being”, and must remain so.

The second thing is that we are already living with extremely powerful, practically immortal robots that take jobs away from humans, that is corporations in their present form. Concerns and studies about robot personhood, rights or role in society should be much closer to the same concerns and studies for corporations.

Third, if a mere machine, or software, can indeed do something that is really necessary for society, better than a human being could… maybe that activity should be left to a machine, because it can hardly continue to “ennoble”. As employment, that is.

Regardless of software, too much of today’s employment fuels, because it has to, “unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness” [LS, 219], and unsustainable lifestyles that “can only precipitate catastrophes” [LS, 161]. But even if this were false, in the (very) near future, full employment, or even as much employment as today, would be unsustainable at too many levels. For brevity, employment as it is today already is, or is about to become soon:

Politically dangerous, because physically impossible. In spite of many optimizations, current policies leave no alternative but to consume more and more physical resources such as water, fertile soil, sand for cement, fossil fuels, rare earths and so on every year, and this can only increase geopolitical instability:

“Worldwide material consumption has expanded rapidly, as has material footprint per capita (almost 12 tons of resources were extracted per person in 2015), seriously jeopardizing the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 12, and the Goals more broadly. (Source: UN Sustainable Goals progress in 2019, and IPBES Report, 2019). “All extant model-based projections have found that permanent absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use cannot be accomplished” (Hickel, 2018).

Financially impossible: finance and consumerism require increasing levels of debt that half cause, half need periodical, always harmful reboots. On this front, the COVID19 pandemic has only anticipated, taking the blame for it, a serious recession that was due anyway, in 2020 or soon after it. Most of the reasons why the 2020s may be “a Decade of (Greater) Depression” were “already looming large before COVID19”.

The poster child of this impossibility may very well be what “fuels”, directly or through plastics, almost every other sector. The fossil fuels industry saw some prices briefly go below zero in April 2020 because of COVID19, but even without that it had, and has, serious problems due to diminishing results, divestment and competitions by other energy sources.

Demographically and culturally impossible for the current generations. One way or another, the challenges above, or the countermeasures to face them, will eliminate huge amounts of employment in the next 2/3 decades.

Let’s assume that, in that same period of accelerating aging for many countries, this disruption will create as much p-work opportunities (not useless jobs!) as it destroys, but without forcing the majority of population to manual labor in the fields as centuries ago. It is a pious illusion to believe that those opportunities will be usable by the same people they left without income, before so many of those same people go homeless that serious social unrest ensues.

A significant part of the p-work left will likely have, in its description, terms like “manager”, “coordinator”, “expert”…All roles, that is, that are by definition needed in small numbers, or are not even remotely as distributable among people, for full employment, as purely physical labour is.

Any task that is really creative in one way or another takes not just more money, but also more time, once the number of contributors passes a usually small threshold.

But even if the work opportunities were as many as the displaced people, it is another pious illusion to believe that more than a small minority of those same people could catch those p-work opportunities through training. While everybody may (and should) learn the principles of coding, coding well enough to make a living is not for everybody, regardless of training.

Not in the workforce of today and our near future for sure, and there is nothing wrong with that. The same applies to any sophisticated skill, from wood turning to nursing. In general, training can make visible, and develop, the “soft skills” that are most valuable and less endangered in the foreseable future, but very seldom can training “download” those skills from scratch where they were absent.

Humanly impossible: the last problem with “work” and employment as proposed today is serious enough to justify rebooting them on that basis alone, because it comes straight from confusion over meta-needs and the role of “work” in life, before looking at economic systems or any other factor. Employment today is much less p-work than it is jobs, and in both cases leaves no concrete possibility to practice SERVICE.

In some cases, the real total costs (human, social and others) of paying people to stay unemployed may simply be less than doing the opposite, even if it were certain that some of those people would spend all their time on hobbies, not SERVICE.

This is why employment as today generates, or increases, too much inequality and sickness, in the most general sense, from opioids addictions to overparenting (that is, for short, managing childhood as if it were a career), distruction of family (for any definition of family) and actual mental health issues: “Depression is… the leading cause of disability worldwide, [but] the number one mental health concern people face is anxiety” (World Economic Forum, 2019)".

In such conditions, full employment is very hard to accept as a necessary part of the path to Common Good, even if it were materially sustainable. Maximizing WORK (with priority to SERVICE) is feasible, necessary and good, maximising employment isn’t.

Similar considerations apply to “innovation”. It would be irresponsible to not use technology to face the challenges of our time, but real innovation, or in any case the innovation that society most urgently needs in these times is humanly and socially responsible and, rather than creating needs, solves real problems, than more often than not are more social than technological (healthcare, sanitation, renewable energies, efficient public transportation…).

Much of what is idolized today as innovation, instead, distracting huge amounts of resources from other activities, is applications of raw tech, and nothing else, of questionable value: the beneficial potential of digital technologies is huge, but too much of it still wasted, only to trap investors, in products that are hardly useful, or useful but deliberately designed for quick obsolescence, or deliberately addictive. Examples include most consumer-level IoT gadgets, smartphones, and communication platforms that need to increase polarization, ending up with too much power to control free speech and generally influence the public discourse.

Too little of all this is WORK, or generates or supports it.