Professor Daniel Susskind says we’re heading towards a world without work and we’re not ready for it.
In January 2020, a few weeks before COVID-19 sent shockwaves through global labour markets, a young British academic released a book that foretold a revolution in the way work would be conducted.
The book, A World Without Work, by Daniel Susskind, details how machines and artificial intelligence are increasingly mastering tasks and activities that, until recently, humans thought they alone could undertake, from diagnosing medical conditions and designing skyscrapers to composing music and reporting the news.
Susskind, an Oxford University academic, argues that technology is taking over existing jobs faster than humans can create new ones, and that soon we will work a lot less, if at all. It’s a topic he will unpack as a keynote speaker at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August.
He believes most of us will welcome the rise of machines, at least initially. The pandemic has offered us a glimpse of how this might play out.
“The past year has demonstrated that many so-called face-to-face jobs – those of lawyers, doctors and teachers – can actually be undertaken in concert with machines,” Susskind told HRM.
“Overnight, things like telemedicine, virtual courts and online education became the norm. And people are, by-and-large, happy with machines playing a larger role.”
A world without work might seem desirable in the abstract, but Susskind believes a utopian outcome is far from guaranteed.
“I wrote the book because I don’t think we are thinking seriously enough about the sorts of transformations these technologies are likely to bring about,” he says. “The implications for society are significant.”
How can we ensure a fair and harmonious society if only a small number of people are employed? And how would a lifetime of non-employment affect our mental health and sense of purpose?
As Susskind writes in his book: “We will be forced to consider what it really means to live a meaningful life.”
Going against the grain
Susskind is not the first economist to address the impact of new technology on employment rates. In a 1930 essay, John Maynard Keynes suggested that mechanical advances in the fields of mining, agriculture and manufacturing were creating widespread ‘technological unemployment’, contributing to the Great Depression.
In 1980, The New York Times ran the headline ‘A Robot Is After Your Job’ and warned that “the robot is only one part of a larger computerisation that is affecting virtually every productive activity in society from the office to the machine shop”.
In recent years, however, most economists have concluded that technological unemployment doesn’t lead to a permanent net loss of jobs in capitalist societies. Instead, it frees up the workforce to take on new tasks, improving overall productivity and increasing our prosperity.
This is where Susskind’s views differ from his peers. He believes it’s a mistake to draw conclusions about the future of work based on what has happened in the past. In the era of artificial intelligence, he says, many long-held assumptions are no longer valid.
During his 2017 TED talk Susskind challenges one such assumption: that technology will never be able to outperform humans in certain areas because machines lack qualities such as intuition and judgment.
He says in the talk: “Researchers at Stanford [University] announced they’d developed a system which can tell you whether or not a freckle is cancerous as accurately as leading dermatologists. How does it work? It’s not trying to copy the judgment or the intuition of a doctor. It knows or understands nothing about medicine at all.
“Instead, it’s running a pattern-recognition algorithm through 129,450 past cases, hunting for similarities between those cases and the particular lesion in question. It’s performing these tasks in an un-human way, based on the analysis of more possible cases than any doctor could hope to review in their lifetime.”
Susskind also takes issue with the argument that many jobs rely on human emotions such as empathy and compassion.
“It’s not to say that things like empathy and the personal touch aren’t valuable and important,” he says. “It’s to say that we might have overemphasised their importance in particular professions.”
Susskind hears the so-called ‘empathy argument’ regularly.
“I was once talking to a group of tax accountants. At one point, a particularly boisterous tax account stood up and said to me, ‘Look, you don’t understand. My clients come to me because they want me to look them in the eye and tell them how to best manage their tax affairs. They want that personal touch. They want that empathetic interaction.’
“I said to him, ‘I don’t think that’s why your clients come to you. I think they come to you because they want their taxes done efficiently and effectively. And if they can find a way to do it that’s more affordable and more accessible than coming and sitting down with you, I think they’ll probably do that.’”
Susskind concedes that some roles are unlikely to ever become automated.
End-of-life care, for instance, is the sort of work that demands interaction between human beings. Barristers who deliver arguments to juries could also be tricky to replace.
However, in almost every other setting, he believes consumers want their problems solved efficiently and effectively – whether the solution comes from a human or a robot.
“I think professionals who make arguments about the personal touch and the importance of interpersonal interaction are soon going to find themselves flat-footed.”
Hear more from Daniel about a world without work at this year’s AHRI convention TRANSFORM 2021, and discover how you can help shape your workforce for the future.
How can we prepare?
If Susskind is correct, significant societal upheaval is just around the corner – and the transition from employment as we currently know it to a largely ‘post-work’ existence is unlikely to be quick or painless. What, then, should workers be doing now to prepare?
“There are two strategies,” he says. “Either you learn to be good at the sorts of things these systems and machines cannot do, or you try to build them.”
It’s a daunting prospect. But Susskind insists his new book provides reasons to be hopeful.
“There is a feeling today that the traditional professions are creaking. That not enough people have access to a good healthcare system, don’t know what their legal entitlements are, don’t have access to good advice on how to manage their financial affairs, and so on.
“The promise of a lot of these technologies is the liberation of expertise that has, until now, been locked up in the heads of professionals and has been inaccessible and unaffordable to most people. For consumers, that’s quite exciting,” says Susskind.
“I don’t think we are thinking seriously enough about the sorts of transformations that these technologies are likely to bring about… the implications for society are significant.” – Daniel Susskind, Oxford University professor.
A World Without Work explores various scenarios that could help us adapt to a society in which most of us don’t earn wages.
One idea that is already gaining traction in Europe is the implementation of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to help address economic inequality. But Susskind is not entirely convinced it will work without tweaks.
“I have less of a problem with the ‘B’ and the ‘I’ because I can see how a basic income helps you share out income in society if you can’t rely upon the world of work to do it.
“My concern is with the ‘U’ – the universality, that everyone gets it with no strings attached.
That universality, to me, offends or undermines the sense of social solidarity that exists in society because of a feeling that everybody is pulling their economic weight through the work they do and the taxes they pay.”
Instead, he is in favour of a ‘Conditional Basic Income’ that requires everyone to contribute to society in some way. How such a system might be implemented is explored in his new book.
Susskind does not claim to have all the answers. Instead, A World Without Work maps out several possible policy responses to the changes he believes will soon take place. Importantly, the book also begins a conversation about how we might adapt to a world in which employment is less central to our existence.
In his closing chapter, he explores the idea that work is not simply a means of generating income, but also a source of meaning and purpose.
“If technology does indeed hollow out the labour market, it might also hollow out the sense of direction and fulfilment many people have in their lives, says Susskind. “That’s the real challenge.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the June 2021 edition of HRM magazine.