to save the world’s minds, we need to kill the nine to five job

Futurists once dreamed of an automated, leisurely utopia. Our failure to live up to their visions is taking a massive toll on our health and politics.
retrofuturistic pop art
Illustration by Simon Nyhus

Back at the turn of the previous century there were two jobs that needed to be done to keep factory workers on schedule and informed. The first was the knocker up, a person paid to come to one’s house at a certain hour and tap on the windows to wake everyone up for work. The second was a lector, someone paid to read news on a factory floor. By the 1930s, they were replaced by alarm clocks and radios, respectively. Technology was simply more efficient and effective, not to mention cost much less, and those jobs were completely phased out. But imagine that we held on to knocker ups and lectors, and sent them to check that alarm clocks were ringing and radios were playing the news.

It would be absurd, wouldn’t it? And it would be even more absurd to constantly push them to extend their hours and the number of devices they checked, basing their pay on the number of reports they turned it at the end of the day while tracking their every movement with GPS. Why the only possible way to get more absurd than that would be to keep laying them off without trying to teach them new skills while still pushing them to work long days, doing a thankless job that’s already being actively done by machines, and having politicians campaigning on empty, ridiculous promises to make reading the news out loud and knocking on people’s windows in demand careers once again. Who would do something like that and why?

Well, we would actually, and we can see it in the grim state of the global workforce. Some 9 in 10 of the world’s workers are burnt out, depressed, or otherwise disengaged. While the exact statistics are different from country to country, the overall picture is getting worse, and even bright spots of engagement like the United States hover around 30% or so. Meanwhile, just 16% of Canadians are engaged at work and barely 6% of Japanese workers are tuned in. These numbers are dismal to put it mildly, a klaxon signaling the breakdown of work as we know it since the vast majority of employees are just going through the motions. They’re not creating, innovating, or contributing above the bare minimum because they don’t think it will amount to anything, or it really doesn’t matter if they try in the grand scheme of things.

why we’re beholden to the ass-in-chair-metric

A good portion of this disengagement would certainly have to do with naked and yawning income inequality. Workers who haven’t seen an inflation-adjusted raise in decades are often stuck on a corporate treadmill while being encouraged to work not for the sake of achieving something but for the sake of work itself in a neo-feudal environment. The owners of their companies are getting rich. They’re getting, well, hopefully not laid off. It’s very difficult to remain engaged while getting seemingly nowhere for all your trouble. Bad management also plays a huge role as bosses effectively hold employees’ fates in their hands more often than not and have their own engagement, communication, and interpersonal issues.

And with those bad bosses, pushing their subordinates into needless, harmful, and financially questionable overwork is often one of the top problems, as illustrated in living color by Marissa Meyer, the ex-CEO of Yahoo whose only accomplishments at the fallen tech giant were to put in a lot of hours in the office while insisting everyone does the same, then selling the company in a short sale to Verizon. Why do so many bosses still do this? First and foremost, the Western idea that work in and of itself is noble, simply working is an accomplishment in and of itself, and that those who don’t work or don’t work as hard are lesser people. Secondly, the inability and lack of imagination and will to question whether we still need to work a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week to be considered productive, full time employees.

Over the decades, we managed to automate a tremendous amount of work and are continuing to automate it with wild abandon, so much so that many people are now asking why their jobs even exist, much less demand all their time and cognitive effort. Why have we relegated so many of the developed world’s workers to become paper pushers and middlemen while we’re also busy automating their jobs away with AI? The most common answer will more or less boil down to “because we needed people to work what were once factory hours since that’s the way it’s been for the last century, otherwise what would these people do?” We’ve ended up with growth for the sake of growth and work for the sake of work, and we and our bosses all know it because we’re trapped in a hamster wheel of exhausting nonsense.

how the nine to five turned into a dead end

According to anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote a book about this phenomenon and coined the term “bullshit job” to describe artificially manufactured careers for the sake of giving people jobs with familiar factory hours for management, our working efforts naturally follow a slack-and-cram cycle. We work long hours when we really need to get something done for our clients or a problem has to be urgently fixed to keep things running, and we slack when there’s not much going wrong or we’re still trying to nail down what we want to do and why. The rest of the time is filled with email, paperwork, meetings, random tedium, and ideas for projects with requirements as easy to nail down as Jell-O.

So why do we need to need all of those time-wasting charades, much less demand people participate in them in order to get paid? Because upper management and macroeconomists still think of every business as a different type of factory making different types of widgets? Because they’re afraid to pay people for anything other than seeing them sitting at the office or responding to IMs and emails, knowing how to pay per hour or per output, but not for access to knowledge and expertise? Unlike counting documents processed, lines of code written, or tasks marked as completed, knowledge isn’t easily quantified, and its most useful application is often to reduce work instead of creating more of it.

They’re not fooling their workers who watch themselves doing work they know is extraneous and wasteful and see automation coming in to simplify and eliminate this work, counting down the hours between their morning coffee and lunch, then lunch and quitting time, all the while asking themselves what they’re doing with their lives every day and if there’s anything more to existence. Instead of inventing new jobs meant to move societies forward, we ended up just gluing together random tasks about which few people were enthusiastic, putting up to half of the workforce in them, and sticking that workforce in environments which are almost purpose built to make them less productive, sicker, more anxious, and more depressed, or gigs which offer no security or advancement with a bait and switch recruitment pitch.

we need to decide our future sooner rather than later

No wonder so many people around the post-industrial world are lashing out, fueling populist uprisings and rebelling against the politicians they put into office only months earlier. They’re angry, stuck, frustrated, and in search of meaning and fulfillment, and their leaders’ one and only message for them is “get back to work peons and be thankful you have a soul-crushing job to put food on your table, we’ll create more of those by giving rich people more money.” And then, the politicians and the millionaire pundits who attend cocktail parties with them wonder why they can’t seem to put out fires by dousing them with gallons of kerosene, citing positive overall macroeconomic statistics like confused wizards mumbling defensive incantations.

The bottom line here is simple. We have to forget the farms, factories, and mines. Those are more or less lost to machines, and the parts of them that haven’t, soon will be. You’ll be able to say the same thing about administrative and middle management positions soon as they’ll be taken over by artificial intelligence. But that’s a good thing. Our future lies in what humans do best: curiosity and purpose-driven research and development. Instead of 40 and 50 hour work weeks for the sake of putting in face time at the office, we should work when we have to and either give our minds a break or learn new skills when things are running smoothly, creating new jobs as they’re needed to solve problems with everything from space exploration to clean energy development.

What happens over the next century is entirely up to us. We could refuse to recognize that we can’t keep solving 21st century problems with 19th century ideas, keep people working in jobs they know are on their way out while offering nothing else and letting comfortable, wealthy media personalities wonder why so many are lashing out in desperation and flirting with far left and far right ideologies. Or we could embrace our past as explorers, wanderers, tinkerers, and inventors, fuse our minds with AI, and dedicate our efforts to making amazing ideas possible or ruling out impossible flights of fancy in labs. The real question is why are we allowing so many demagogues to wrap themselves around societies’ necks like anchors and drag us down into the former path while demonizing and shit-talking the latter one.

# tech // automation / futurism / work


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