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 (6)

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.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 22, 2020 -- 11:25 AM

If there comes the time when

If there comes the time when work, as we know it, is abolished, what will we do that might give us the determination and purpose necessary for longevity and a life-well-lived? There have been several science fiction notions of how this might look, but none of them I have seen have a ring of plausibility to them. There would need to be some activity(ies) that would remain intellectually and physically challenging, otherwise ennui would soon replace novelty; inactivity, both in the physical and mental world leads to decay. We can, I think, imagine boredom with the greatest art, as well as with like-visioned music. Humans are endowed with a need for action-- even adversity can bring out our best when it is overcome. Seems to me, a work-less world would most readily equate with a worthless one. I think we would need nothing less than a genetic re-wiring of some sort to prepare us for the loss of and/or need for work of one sort or another---such re-wiring would have to be a result of evolutionary change or some kind of AI augmentation. More science fiction? Maybe so, maybe not...

qhardy's picture


Tuesday, February 11, 2020 -- 12:38 PM

In the intro, Debra Satz said

In the intro, Debra Satz said technology will wipe out "good middle class jobs like...cashiers." That sounded odd, so I checked.
Pew Research says middle class for a family of four is $46,960 to $140,900 per year (( https://money.cnn.com/infographic/economy/what-is-middle-class-anyway/in... )).
Indeed.com puts the national wage for a cashier at $10.75/hr, which works out to $21,500 a year. If both parents are cashiers, they still don't get to the lowest rung.
One can argue about whether tech is wiping out jobs -- an interesting topic we are focused on at a time of record unemployment -- but one should wield the correct facts in our arguments.

To the main point: The issue here doesn't seem to be work, but a sense of having purpose or meaning associated with this one life on Earth we know. To posit this can for most people only be fulfilled by work for pay is a sad thing, though perhaps evidence that in our time the Market has taken the place of religion as a central organizing principle.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 7, 2020 -- 11:21 AM

Good research, Hardy. Nothing

Good research, Hardy. Nothing like keeping them honest. I would not have imagined that cashiering would have been considered middle-class either(unless, of course, we are including those in food and beverage who are making good tips. Sometimes they are borderline-middle-class; sometimes, not so much...)This is the interesting thing about information now. In an era of 'transparency' and scrutinous fact checking, it appears there are evermore people and groups who try to 'push the envelope' in one way or another. I suppose the fact that there are so many liars in important places, the compulsion to truth-say is losing impetus. Belief is not what it used to be, if, in fact, it ever was.