BY: JESSICA BURDE
In the distant future, no one needs to work.
Energy is available wherever people can set up a solar panel, windmill, or hydro-turbine. A.I. Wish units, distant descendants of today’s 3D printers, are capable of producing anything a person can program into them. Just by asking, anyone can have anything they want. People trade energy credits or donate energy to projects that interest them. Interest-vector, the all-important measure of how interested people are in what you are doing, determines the amount of those donations.
This is the post-labour economy imagined by Ryk Spoor in his sci-fi series, the Arenaverse.
Science fiction has been speculating on what post-labour economies might look like for more than 100 years, with futures that range from the near-utopia of the Arenaverse to the extremely dystopian The Machine Stops, a short story written in 1909. In a post-labour economy, people don’t need to work in order to live or access goods. In fact, work has nothing to do with wealth or value.
But sci-fi authors are no longer the only ones interested in the post-labour economy. Recently, economists and political theorists have been debating what shape the system might take and grappling with the challenges that it will present. They need to find answers quickly—the post-labour economy is almost here.
Machines have been steadily replacing human workers for hundreds of years. The spinning jenny made it possible for one person to do the work of ten before factory automation put the power of a hundred workers in the hands of a few. Now, menus on tablets are replacing restaurant wait staff and, in China, where houses are being built with 3D printers, even construction is falling before automation.
Automation is now established in virtually every sector, from manufacturing and service to entertainment and mining. As automation crept into one sector, workers moved into another, first from manufacturing to service, from service to technology, from technology to…what’s next? What happens when there is no next? When the work of a few meets the needs of all?
That’s when we’ll have fully entered the post-labour economy.
No one really knows how it will work.
How will people get what they need in a world where they don’t work? Only one viable option has been proposed: a basic living stipend. In a world where work is only available for a small percentage of the population—until and unless A.I. Wish units actually exist—some kind of stipend will be necessary, allowing people without work to access the food, housing, and other necessities that our automated tools create.
How will society change when work is no longer a driving force of society? Given the emphasis today’s society places on work, the problems are obvious.
“The decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag,” writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.”
We live in a world where a person’s value is tied to the value of their labour. Taking away that labour could be a road to social disaster.
But what if we could learn to see people as valuable in and of themselves? What about a new ethic—one based not on paid work, but on striving to make a difference in the world?
“I’ve met several people who do the ‘living simply’ thing,” writes commenter Sage on the Debate Politics forum. “They pare down their expenses to the point they don’t need a high-stress full-time job, then almost universally end up spending more time ‘working’ than they used to. Only now they volunteer or do music or art or something else they love during those hours they used to be working. Some of the happiest people I have ever met.”
As we inch closer to a post-labour economy, it will be up to us to create the world we want. We will have to decide whether we are worth more than what we earn, or if human value is just an extension of the number written on our paycheques.