We are spending the largest amount of our lives on this Earth by working. The current norm is that we must do this for at least 5 consecutive days, putting in 8 hours each day, then rest for the following 2 days. There are quite a few variations around these numbers, but, overwhelmingly, that’s how it plays out all over the world.
Mind you, it wasn’t always like this.
Just a few thousands years ago, humanity didn’t have this concept of trading fixed hours for survival. There was a bigger diversity in how castes and tribes were organized, but, at least during the hunting-gathering period of our history, humans didn’t work. They did strive to survive by hunting and gathering (!), but they didn’t have this very fixed structure that we have today.
My hunch is that work (as we know it) became predominant in the agricultural era, 8-10,000 years ago. Farmers needed much more presence around their crops, in a more rhythmic and repeatable way than hunter-gatherers. And then the industrial revolution cemented the ritual in the form we’re performing it today.
The Inflection Point
We are at a point in history where we basically solved the survival problem. We have both the knowledge and the resources to make survival a done deal. Of course, there is still a lot of inequality in the distribution of this knowledge and resources, but in absolute terms, we nailed it. Barring any still incurable illnesses, and accidents, humans are living today more than in any other period of their existence.
Automation and space-expansion (read: resource gathering from space) will accelerate this process to the point work will become optional. We had a small taste of this during the initial phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. A large part of the population basically stopped working (or switched to remote working) and things were more or less manageable. Of course, there are still consequences to that, like the huge amount of printed money that is starting to manifest as inflation, but we had a taste of how a world without what we used to call “work” will look like.
I don’t expect this to happen linearly, or even very fast. But I do see it happening in the next 40-50 years. We will reach a point where work will stop being the predominant activity in our lives.
What Would We Do?
That’s the question that I am trying to find an answer to. How would we derive meaning? How we will identify ourselves?
Instead o saying “I’m a programmer”, we may say: “I’m a human”. Hmm, unlikely.
One of the trends that is starting to creep in is something broadly called “activism”. For what is worth, I don’t think this will stick in, but nevertheless, it’s a good example of what the world could become in search of alternative, non-work based life meanings. The activist is a person who complains about micro-problems, in a macro-style, while still enjoying an incredibly comfortable lifestyle. Once we solved our survival problems, what’s left? Well, we should obviously switch to change the climate. Or protect the world from viruses (which is a statement that always makes me laugh, because the world is made, partly, from viruses).
Finding meaning outside work may look like a good problem to have, but it really isn’t. Our lack of meaning can push us, as species, into oblivion, simply because we don’t have any motivation to perform activities. We may become sedentary, Netflix-sedated populations with the only purpose of being upset, signing endless petitions for lowering planet temperature with 1 degree Celsius, or introducing carefully crafted pronouns.
It sounds utopian, but we’re already living in an utopia, compared with just 50 years ago.