This article was based on the TED Salon: Zebra Technologies Talk, “What Is the Meaning of Work?” by Roy Bahat and Bryn Freedman:
AI and the Future of Work
As artificial intelligence becomes more of a reality in our daily lives, there is growing concern about how it will impact the future of work and employment. Roy Bahat and his company partnered with a nonpartisan think tank NGO, called New America, to study this issue. They brought together a group of people, including an AI technology expert, a video game designer, a heartland conservative, a Wall Street investor, and a socialist magazine editor.
The goal for the group was to determine what effect technology would have on work in the next 10 to 20 years. To do this, they had to imagine alternate possible futures using a scenario-planning exercise. They imagined cases where no job was safe and cases where every job was safe.
The Future Is Now
The surprising result was that when you think through those future scenarios the answers about what we should do actually turn out to be the same, no matter what happens. The irony of looking out 10 to 20 years into the future was that the things they wanted to act on were actually already happening. The group realised that automation is right now; the future is right now.
Understanding the Problem
This means that the first thing we need to do in this moment is to understand the problem. As the economy becomes more productive and individual workers become more productive, their wages haven’t risen. If you look at the proportion of prime working-age men, in the United States at least, who work now versus in 1960, we have three times as many men not working. As Bahat began talking to people about this, there were two themes that came out loud and clear.
The first one was that people are more concerned about finding stable work less than looking for more money or fear of robots taking their jobs. They want something predictable. In surveys, people who made less than $150,000 a year reported that what they wanted out of work was stability and a secure income over earning more money.
The second theme that became apparent is that workers want dignity. This concept of self-worth through work emerged again and again, but in order to have dignity, you need stability first. We need to understand what it is about work that gives people dignity, so they can live the lives that they want to live.
Dignity is essential. If you study the word “dignity,” it’s one of the oldest words in the English language. It has two meanings: one is self-worth, and the other is that something is suitable, it’s fitting, meaning that you are part of something greater than yourself, and it connects to some broader whole. In other words, that you’re needed.
This understanding has created a shift in thinking. CEOs and boardrooms used to ask, “What do we do about introducing automation?” Now they’re asking, “What do we do about self-worth?” They know that dignity is essential to an employee’s ability to do their job.
Need and Connections
What we need is the experience of needing one another and being connected to each other. Maybe that’s the answer to how we all fit as a society. If you were to go back 100 years and have people — your grandparents, great-grandparents, a tailor, a mine worker — look at what all of us do for a living today, they would say, “That’s not work.” We sit there and type and talk, and there’s no danger of getting hurt. If you were to imagine 100 years from now, we’ll still be doing things for each other. We’ll still need one another, and we will just think of it as work.
Dignity should not just be about having a job. If you say you need a job to have dignity, you are saying to all the parents and all the teachers and all the caregivers that all of a sudden, because they’re not being paid for what they’re doing, it somehow lacks this essential human quality. This leads to the great puzzle of our time which is, can we figure out how to provide that stability throughout life, and then can we figure out how to create racial, gender, and multigenerational inclusive ways of understanding how we can be needed by one another?