Why Everyone in the Future May Earn Less, and Be Happier, than People Today

Sigmund Freud said the two great protections we all had against inevitable human suffering were love and work. Will we lose work in the second machine age?

Sigmund Freud said the two great protections we all had against inevitable human suffering were love and work. Will we lose work in the second machine age, and thereby lose an important shield against life’s slings and arrows? We may lose the mind-numbing, soul-crushing stuff that robots should do anyway, but we might sink into the “real work” of our lives. We usually diminish this work by calling it a hobby, but deep down it’s the true crux of fulfillment.


Of course, a new culture of humanity's exploration and creative fulfillment may be merely utopian, when we consider the empirical data from the U. S. Department of Labor. Reading for pleasure only reaches its high point of one hour per day in Americans over 75 years old (while averaging only four minutes a day in 15- to 19-year-olds). By far, however, and in both labor and post-retirement demographic groups, the lion’s share of our leisure time — half of it in fact — is devoted to watching television (four hours a day for retirees). I’m not as horrified by this as some might be, since TV has gotten infinitely better and can be folded, in some cases, into the arts and humanities project. But as late-in-life painter Winston Churchill noted, “To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.”

However much we enjoy ribbing the hipsters, they are evidence that the American Protestant work ethic can be detached from careerist ambition and joined with hobbyist self-actualization. 

Today’s growing “craft movement” among the hipster set is evidence that Millennials and Gen Xers are willing to forgo profit for meaningful artisanal projects. Some of this, like indie music and art, is available online. But most of it is intentionally local — in my Chicago neighborhood alone, for example, I can get small-batch distillery booze; house-cured charcuterie products; handmade furniture, paper, jewelry; and endless other DIY products and skills — all of which strive for excellence, but none of which make the crafters any substantive profit. It is break-even craft culture, and often it turns on reciprocal bartering.

However much we enjoy ribbing the hipsters, they are evidence that the American Protestant work ethic can be detached from careerist ambition and joined with hobbyist self-actualization. We may need much more of this attitude when the robots come to take our jobs. 

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Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also Senior Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture. He is the author of ten books, including The Evolution of Mind and Against Fairness and writes regularly for The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Skeptic magazine. Asma is also a blues/jazz musician who has played onstage with many musical artists, including Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy. His website is www.stephenasma.com.

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