What happens when we, as a species, “win” work? One of the primary goals of creativity and innovation since the dawn of time has been to make life easier for people, to allow us to accomplish the everyday tasks of existence–procuring food, providing shelter–with greater ease and efficiency. Up until now, no matter how efficient our tools and technologies have made us, there has still been plenty of work to go around and keep everyone on the planet busy. However, it is now becoming abundantly clear that this is not going to last. It is only a matter of time before huge swaths of the global population are rendered “obsolete” by machines. As college professors, it is becoming increasingly important for us to ask the question: How should we prepare students to exist in a world without work?
This is a question that has been on my radar for a long time. As an undergrad, back in 1995, I was struck one day when my professor, Joanne Ciulla (who wrote a book about it), said to my class:
The only logical conclusion is that the purpose of a higher education is to help the upper class better enjoy their leisure time.
What did she just say?!?! Even now I remember how provocative that question was for me, and on some level, the question of what constitutes a meaningful education, has been on a background thread in my mind ever since. It was one of those formative moments that has led me to encourage students to eschew the common wisdom on how and why they should do college.
Already, places like Sweden are shifting to a 6-hour work day, and places like Finland are experimenting with basic income. As manufacturers like Foxconn in China replace 60,000 workers with robots, they are sending the message that it is now more cost effective to install robots than it is to pay employees less than $5/hour. Automation threatens skilled labor and professions as much as it does low-skilled labor. How can we honestly tell our students that the best way to prepare for their future is to start their adult lives out in massive debt to acquire an “education” that may only be loosely related to supporting their futures?
I think the writing is on the wall for colleges and universities. “To get a good job” is an argument that is rapidly losing strength as the main reason to go to college. That being said, I still believe that universities provide an invaluable service. Encouraging people to spend a series of months and years asking vital questions, without pressure to produce something, creates a space where our young people can really think about how they want to approach life. Giving them the opportunity to ask things like:
- What am I good at? What could I be good at?
- What do I like doing?
- What is my element? Where is the intersection of what I like and what I’m good at?
- How can I employ my gifts in service to the world?
These questions need to be decoupled from the common wisdom of the economic models that are crumbling before our eyes.
Below is a very abbreviated list of (quasi) recent resources that prompted my thoughts above.
Articles/Videos on Obsolescence of Work
David Brooks: What Machines Can’t Do
CGP Grey: Humans Need Not Apply
Articles on Negative Income Tax/Basic Income
Books on New Economic Models
Charles Eisenstein: Sacred Economics
Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee: The Second Machine Age–Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies