Finding Meaning in a Future of Less Work

A key topic of debate in last week’s Democratic presidential debate was the perennial question of how technological progress is impacting workers and what should be done to protect them. Candidates argued about whether international trade or automation was to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs. Both are important drivers. But concerns about automation, in particular, have become deep-rooted and widespread in political debates and popular culture alike.

A quick Google search yields dozens of articles with titles like “A World Without Work,” and “Your Job Will be Automated.” It seems a whole industry is now devoted to predicting what will happen to human workers, and when, exactly, their jobs will be automated. The renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, technology would allow us to be so productive that most people would not need to work more than a few hours a day. Keynes made that prediction nearly a century ago, yet today most of us work far more than Keynes predicted.

After the Industrial Revolution, the average worker’s weekly hours worked declined significantly. In 1890, the average full-time worker in the US worked 60 hours per week. By 1950, that number was only 42 hours per week, and by 1960 the average was right around 40 hours per week.

But technological advances since the 1970s have not resulted in Americans working less. They worked slightly more in 1990 than they did in 1980, and more still in 2000. Why didn’t higher productivity and better technology lead to a shorter workweek, as Keynes and others have predicted? While there are many factors at play here, one key reason that people don’t work less (even when they could get by without the extra income) is that work can be an essential source of meaning.

Work as a source of meaning
It turns out that many people not only like their job but also view it as one of the primary sources of purpose in life. The Pew Research Center asked Americans what provides them with a sense of meaning. The most common answer — given by 69 percent of respondents — was family. The second-most-common response, offered by 34 percent of respondents, was a person’s career.

Finding meaning at work is so important that people would be willing to give up significant income for a job that is more meaningful. In a survey of professionals across the US, 9 out of 10 employees said they would be willing to accept lower pay for a job that gave them greater meaning at work. Respondents were willing to give up 23 percent of their lifetime earnings, on average, for a meaningful career. That is a significant share of a person’s total income and suggests that finding meaning is vital to human happiness.

Employers also benefit when their employees find their work meaningful. Researchers found that workers who see their job meaningful are 69 percent less likely to plan on quitting in the near future. They also tend to stick with their current employer an average of 7.4 months longer than those who don’t find their work meaningful. All of that translates into massive reductions in turnover costs for employers.

Finding meaning in a post-work future?
If work is such an essential source of meaning in our lives, how will we adapt to a future that may involve less of it? As technology continues to develop and more of the tasks now done by human beings are automated, people like Andrew Yang are worried that robots will soon do some of the most common jobs in America. He noted:

“I have been talking to Americans around the country about automation… They are smart. They see what’s happening around them. The stores are closing. They see a self-serve kiosk in every grocery store, every CVS. Driving a truck is the most common job in 29 states; 3.5 million truck drivers in this country. My friends are piloting self-driving trucks. What does that mean for the 3.5 million truckers or seven million Americans who work in truck stops, motels, and diners that rely upon the truckers getting out and having a meal?”

Yang’s answer to the massive job displacement due to automation is to implement a universal basic income (UBI). Yang calls his proposed version of UBI a “freedom dividend,” but many have written about the idea as a way to provide a social safety net for those displaced by technology. If UBI were enacted, every American would get a guaranteed payment every month (Yang’s plan would provide $1,000 per month) — no questions asked.

Proponents of UBI argue that it would provide a version of a financial safety net that better respects people’s autonomy and preferences. That’s because each person could use the money; however, they see fit, without complicated restrictions or qualifications like other welfare programs often have. As University of Richmond professor Jessica Flanigan has written:

“A significant benefit of a UBI, in contrast to other recent entitlement reforms such as student loan forgiveness and universal healthcare, is that it doesn’t tell people how to spend it. People have different values, but in-kind benefits assume that all people have the same interest in healthcare or being debt-free …. A basic income is more respectful of people’s freedom, more sensitive to recipients’ values, and better suited for a rapidly changing economy.”

Some worry that UBI will make it even harder for us to find meaning in the future by further removing the incentive to work. But a $1,000 per month payment is unlikely to deter most people from working. Instead, it would help free them up to pursue continuing education or allow them to start the business they’ve always dreamed of.

Some people may work less as a result of a guaranteed basic income, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a future where some people work less, we may find that society begins to place a higher value on work that is currently unpaid. More people may choose to stay home to care for children or elderly parents — work that is vital to our society but is not currently counted toward GDP.

And, thankfully, our jobs are not the only source of meaning in life. In fact, they may not even be among the top sources of meaning for most people. Also, the Pew survey found many people get a great deal of meaning from their careers, but other aspects of life may play an even more significant role. For example, more people said that spending time with family and friends, being outdoors, caring for pets, listening to music, reading, and religion were important sources of meaning for them than those that noted their jobs or careers.

Although we may not be working in the same kinds of job arrangements we have today, the future will likely have plenty of work to go around. In a future of less work, we may have more time to devote to lifting people out of poverty, curing chronic illnesses, improving the education system, and caring for the environment. Despite advances in technology, there are still myriad improvements that could be made to human life. Fortunately, human ingenuity and our drive to continually improve the world around us are virtually limitless. Regardless of the rate of automation, we aren’t likely to run out of meaningful work to do any time soon.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.