Earlier this month, a report warned that over 6 million workers in the UK fear losing their jobs as a result of developments in automation. The Bank of England has gone further: its own study in 2015 estimated that 15 million British jobs could be at risk; more recently Mark Carney, the bank’s governor, suggested job losses caused by the technological revolution could re-create conditions seen after the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The response to these warnings has been a flurry of comments in national newspapers, coloured by talk of catastrophe. But really now, robots taking over human jobs – never heard that one before? How is any of this news?
After all, such predictions have always been proven wrong in the past. Jobs lost to automation have unfailingly been substituted by alternative trades, as new types of economic activity come into existence or become more fashionable.
When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), however, opinions are split. While some experts believe the cycle will repeat once more and new jobs will outnumber those lost, others point out how past technological advances only mechanised the body, whereas AI will render human work superfluous at an ever-increasing level of cognitive complexity.
Certainly, some people are scared. It is not only that the nature of work itself is changing. The fear is that work could disappear altogether. With some studies claiming automation and artificial intelligence could eliminate half of all jobs, calls to defend work as we know it rise up from across the globe.
But maybe it’s time to indulge in a refreshing take: work does not deserve our love. Like a failing marriage we do not or cannot walk away from, we are clinging to the memory of a “golden age”, rather than looking forward to a better reality. We long for (or imagine) a time when work ennobled us, gave us meaning, a reason to live – a passion, a fire.
Whether that memory is real or a delusion, we seem to collectively believe that the world is changing and we panic, sensing with fear the void created by a life without work. In abusive relationships between individuals we can, despite everything, dread the thought of losing our cruel, yet familiar caitiff. We should not do the same when it comes to our relationship with work. People change, and so did capitalism. After all, didn’t Citizens United in their famous court case in the US aver corporations are people?