The True Work of the 21st Century Will be Care Work

February 25, 2019

Of course, it remains to be seen how all this plays out. We know that new technologies can create new modes of employment, as well as destroying old ones. But it’s hard to see a way around the broad megatrend. As the Economist columnist Ryan Avent points out in The Wealth of Humans, we’re building economies in which ever-fewer people are needed to support ever-more stupendous output.

And that’s a problem, for a whole series of reasons. Not least: what are all those economically unnecessary people — billions of them — going to do? They could simply do nothing. But we’ve never lived in societies where millions of young and able people have no perceived social or economic value. The historian Yuval Harari has even predicted the emergence of a new and massive ‘useless class’, and consequent upheaval as social and political relevance drains away from the vast mass of people and clusters around a tiny new economic elite.

And besides the political implications, what kind of life would that be? What use would we be making of all that human potential Aging populations and automation both pose huge challenges. But if we put the two together, they start to look like two interlocking pieces of a larger puzzle.

Why? Because an army of young and middle-aged people with no role in the traditional economy could solve the elderly care crisis now fermenting in pretty much every industrialised nation. Liberated from the necessity of ordinary labour, they would be free to turn to the important work of caring — for their young children, for elderly parents or grandparents, and for friends who need them.

That kind of change — lets call it a turn back to one another — would constitute a true 21st-century, automation-fueled revolution. It would mean huge changes to the kinds of work we prioritize, the way we live, what we think life is ultimately for.

But for that revolution to take hold, we need a prior shift. That is, a shift in the kind of human activities we consider socially valuable. Capitalism has enmeshed us in ways of thinking that prioritize economic productivity above all else. To do that, it has sold us a vision of individual empowerment that is bound up in traditional career success and the acquisition of new objects and experiences.

And fine, those attitudes have fueled a stunning rise in living standards across the last several decades. But if we’re now about to build automated economies that for the first time in history can continue to scale the heights of productivity without the need for huge amounts of human input, can we start to rethink all that?


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