A World Without Work

Sunday, February 9, 2020
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 24, 2017

What is it

Work: a lot lot of people do it, and a lot of people don’t seem to like it very much. But as computers and artificial intelligence get increasingly sophisticated, more and more of our workers will lose their jobs to technology. Should we view this inevitability with hope or with despair? Without the order and purpose that meaningful work provides in our lives, would we end up bored and restless? What obligations does government have to deal with these changes? What about providing all citizens with a basic income? The Philosophers work hard with Juliana Bidadanure from Stanford University, Faculty Director of the Stanford Basic Income Lab.

Listening Notes

Debra and Ken begin debating whether the rapid growth of robot capabilities is something to look forward to or something to fear. Will robots take our jobs and free us of daily drudgery? Or will they deprive us of one of our major sources of meaning? How far-fetched are any of these futures anyway? Is it just a matter of technological advancement, or can politics and government feasibly regulate how these technologies are implemented?

Stanford Professor Juliana Bidadanure joins the show and begins talking about how her upbringing got her interested in issues of employment and income. Juliana expresses some skepticism that automation will be able to replace all human labor. Still, Juliana acknowledges how much of the workforce is prone to automation. Debra and Ken go back and forth about the role of government in shaping how these technologies will affect society. Could the state play a bigger role in directing technologies to socially important goals? Well perhaps it’s possible, but is that really going to happen?

Ken asks Juliana whether people would struggle to find meaning in life without work. Juliana isn’t convinced that work would ever go away—jobs may be eliminated, but communities and societies will always need work to be done. The conversation turns toward how a universal basic income may provide a necessary social safety net, especially given how demeaning some jobs can be and how many jobs automation could eliminate. A listener calls in and asks about how little democracy and communal decision making goes into what work we want to be seen done. The conversation explores this rich intersection of questions.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 3:29): Liza Veale discusses cultural depictions of advanced artificial intelligence and robots doing all of our work. The movies Elysium and Things To Come serve as two examples.
  • PT Goes to the Movies: Ken and film blogger #FranciscOnFilm (aka Leslie Francis, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah) find unconventional heroism in some of the movies of summer 2017.

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 8, 2017 -- 11:47 AM

Work is something that keep

Work is something that keep us from doing something more interesting, or that prevents us from finding an activity having more purpose. There are a few lines of work-related endeavors which, by their nature, afford purpose as their primary reward. Most of us who have had to earn the money to give us a better-than-subsistence existence have been consumed by activity, the object of which was grounded in meaningless, capitalism (label that: for-profit). There appears to be a correlation between working and longevity. Even with the inner knowledge that their labors are essentially worthless, those who have been well-conditioned in the work-ethic tend to live longer. This must have some genetic and/or memetic basis. And so even if our walks of life are as divergent as our choices of leisure, the fact that many of us enthusiastically but into them transforms meaningless drivel into a raison d'etre.. If we believe we are important to those we love; to the nation in which we live; to a way of living; and to a shared consciousness, we are able to overlook the mundane aspects of wealth acquisition. I think automation, robotics and other influences will alter the paradigm. My notion is that rather than living longer lives in abundant leisure, we will die younger, be plagued boredom and a sense of unfulfilled lives. Hope I am wrong.

Lightsteal's picture


Wednesday, September 13, 2017 -- 12:54 AM

Religious Connection to an End to Work

I first wanted to say that I recently discovered your show and have been listening to all of the old Podcasts. I really loved listening to John's grounded outlooks and how they balanced Ken's inquisitive force.

My comment/question for your guest is:

Jews have believed for thousands of years in the concept of the Shabbas which represents the infinite future time where humanity will have eliminated the need for work.
"Keeping" the Shabbas, for a Jew, is refraining from work in order to understand its purpose.

Also, Adam's original curse for eating from the tree of knowledge was work.

But like all concepts of the "world to come" in Judaism they are not attainable, just approachable as time continues its course to infinity.

The amount of work required to sustain and advance humanity will go down, but never reach zero.

Does your guest think an end to work is attainable or just approachable?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 20, 2020 -- 11:24 AM

The brute force of

The brute force of sledgehammer scheduling may deliver deadline timeliness, but it is not, a fortiori, conducive to productive outcomes: promises are as ephemeral as the emptiness in which they are made.


Juliana Uhuru Bidadanure, Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University


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