Bankers don’t attract much sympathy these days, but imagine belonging to an industry that has been blamed for eight years of austerity and for triggering political turmoil on a worldwide scale.
Imagine further you're an ordinary bank teller who has seen your traditional responsibilities taken over by machines: ATMs, online portals and phone apps. Now imagine that your sector will lose another 30 per cent of its jobs by 2025, according to one industry estimate, through further automation.
There is, says the philosopher and therapist Stephen J Costello, a “crisis of meaning” in the workplace, and banks are just one example. “Many in the corporate world – and I spoke to hundreds of Bank of Ireland employees last summer touring the country, giving ‘meaning and work’ seminars – seem to me to be looking for something more . . . for meaning.”
Across the labour market, he says, people are both anxious and bored at work. The anxiety comes from having too much to do, the boredom from having too little. “But there are also longer hours, complicated technology, endless meetings, pointless regulations, and massive administration that people are being swamped by and have no strategies to deal with, and which are strangling the spirit and creativity of employees . . . Many people are being confronted with the perceived pointlessness of these daily dreary demands and distractions.”
At one level these are timeless complaints. Ever since Sisyphus pushed his first boulder up a hill, human labourers have asked, "What's the point?" Or, in the immortal words of a New Yorker cartoon character, depicted gazing out on a lake at sunset, "But if I'm not a senior collateral analyst for a high-volume global marketing corporation . . . who am I?"
Yet there is something different about workers’ current predicament, as the labour market undergoes the twin upheavals of rising job insecurity and technological displacement. The two are related, and they affect the value we place on our employment. If your job won’t be around for long then why invest your energies in it? And if computers will ultimately displace all but a few humans from the labour market then what will the rest of us do?
John Danaher of NUI Galway, who has published widely on the ethical and legal implications of emerging technologies, says there are two main schools of thought among academics. According to the first, there will be huge job losses as automation takes over more and more human roles. The second, articulated by the US economist David Autor, is that technological progress will create a more polarised workforce, comprising a small number of well-rewarded professionals and the remaining "precariat" – workers without security.
“Creative workers have benefited most from advances,” Danaher points out. “As an academic, the benefits from network technology have made my job easier.”
Although there has been a slew of books on this topic in recent years, “the debate has tended to fixate on one class of problem: inequality, or loss of income”, which, as Danaher points out, might be resolved through income redistribution. (Futurologists commonly advocate the introduction of a basic income.)
The question of how “meaningful work” will be realised in future is missing from the analysis, Danaher says. “A lot of people get a sense of good, status and meaning from work.” So if work, in the form of paid labour, disappears then we may start to see our lives as less purposeful.
Running to stand still
Already there's a clear threat to our peace of mind. Danaher describes the ever-increasing demand on workers to reskill, in order to keep up with or stay ahead of technology, as a form of cruelty. It reminds him of the Red Queen's race in Through the Looking-Glass. "That kind of running to stand still can be quite psychologically disturbing and creates a lot of anxiety."
He also cites research by the Swedish philosopher Anders Sandberg, who says that each of us has a “change budget”: we can reinvent ourselves only a finite number of times in life. This isn’t just an emotional claim; it’s an existential one: if we keep changing we lose all sense of self.
So how can workers navigate the future? Danaher says, “I think part of the solution is not strictly technological but shifting perceptions or attitudes.” This includes recognising that much of what we value in work can be obtained outside of it. Danaher notes that four goods associated with employment – mastery of a skill, collaboration with others, making a contribution to society and gaining social status – can be achieved outside work.
A useful starting point, he suggests, is to immerse yourself in "anti-work" tracts, from the late Bertrand Russell's In Praise of Idleness to the sociologist David Freyne's recent The Refusal of Work.
“I think the anti-work critique gets you to see the possibility of meaning outside of the traditional workplace. It makes you aware of false necessities in your life.”
Similarly, Costello advocates drawing on wisdom from Greek philosophy through to Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning.
One finds meaning not by “capitulating to fear or fury”, he says, but by “contributing constructively and creatively” to work and life.“It’s about planning rather than provisionalism, and focusing, as the Stoics teach, on what is in our power to control and change rather than what is outside it.”
One thing that may need to change is the expectations of school-leavers and graduates. A survey published by KPMG last November found that third-level students in Ireland were "driven by a 'profit with purpose' mentality – they want to do worthwhile work and be rewarded well for their contribution to society".
But what if these two goals are incompatible? Arguably, the most meaningful work in society is unpaid.
Man and machine
But is a deeper crisis for humanity looming, one that no change in perspective can solve: a power shift between man and machine?
Incrementally, artificial intelligence is calling the shots. Office workers are responding to email alerts and other technological signalling like Pavlov’s dogs. Journalists are changing the words they use to appease online search engines. Even scientists are becoming mere functionaries of the tools they are developing.
As Danaher points out, “science is increasingly a ‘big data’ enterprise, reliant on algorithmic and other forms of automated assistance to process large data sets and make useful inferences from those data sets. Humans are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the process of discovery.”
He stresses, however, that “you need to be wary of technological determinism”. Humans can still make choices, and we can resist certain outcomes individually or collectively.
Last month, for example, taxi drivers in New York began a campaign to ban self-driving cars from the city for at least 50 years. “That is the kind of thing you will probably see more of,” Danaher says. “But often it won’t be expressed baldly in terms of saving jobs; it will be phrased in terms of the dangers of technology.”
President Trump’s pledge to create more blue-collar jobs might be seen as part of the same process: an attempt to beat back the joint march of technology and globalisation. The sort of protectionism he is advocating might have a short-term effect, but in the long run many blue-collar jobs may be seen as pointless if the same work could be done more cheaply and more effectively using automation, whether in the United States or overseas.
“If you don’t have a job that is relevant any more, people might not respond well” to efforts to save it, Danaher says. “People will only retain those jobs they feel are still valuable.”
The writer and museum curator William Myers, whose exhibition Humans Need Not Apply, about the impact of robots on the labour market, opens at Science Gallery in Dublin on Friday, believes that this will become an increasingly important public-policy matter. There are "very real costs" from technological displacement "to which people must push their governments to respond".
Better protections for freelance workers and those working in the “gig economy” – which is to say living from job to job or from day’s work to day’s work – are among the measures needed, he says, along with a review of education and taxation policies.
But can the technological forces ultimately be contained? And where is the end point for humanity? One vision articulated by the US academic Tim Wu is that we're heading "toward not a singularity but a 'sofalarity' ": future humans will be like the characters in Wall-E who spend their day sitting on sofas, stimulated by robots.
“Technology has become an agent, and humans are becoming increasingly patient-like,” Danaher says. Although he admits to having an intuitive resistance to the idea, he believes that many of us will find future meaning in playing computer games.
“If we have no real relevance in the real world we have to retreat to the virtual world. I think the kind of activities you engage with in the virtual world could be quite rich, and involve highly cognitive abilities, but they would not have any real-world effect.”
Costello is sceptical of the idea that people will find endless screen time a valuable way to spend life. “Humans have always retreated from the real into fantasy in order to deal with harsh blows of fate; that is the definition of neurosis, and we’re all a bit f**ked up.”
He suggests that although technology will change the way we phrase the question we won’t stop asking it: what’s the point?
“Sisyphus’s brave struggle up the hill, pushing the boulder, is still our one. There is much misery, but there is also meaning, not wanting but waiting to be found and fulfilled.”
Drawing on Frankl for inspiration, a man whose existence lay in the hands not of technology but of the Nazi war machine, Costello says, “Our lives are put in order in our orientation to what holds the greatest possible meaning: to the true, the good and the beautiful, to nature, culture and art. In this respect we may still be saved.”
FIVE WAYS TO MAKE WORK MORE MEANINGFUL
1: The job matters, but the attitude you adopt to it matters more.
2: A job is what you do; work is who you are. Fulfilment and flourishing lie in finding and following your passion.
3: Salary, the bottom line and the take-home pay packet are all vitally important – but not at the expense of an ethics of integrity and service.
4: Don’t aim at success or wealth too directly. Money comes from meaning; profits accrue from purpose. Real success resides in contribution, not recognition.
5: Strike the balance between work and life, ease and enterprise, leisure and labour, but never let livelihood overshadow life.
Tips by Stephen J Costello, director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland (viktorfranklireland.com); his book The Philosophy Clinic: Practical Wisdom at Work is published this month
Humans Need Not Apply is at Science Gallery, Dublin 2, from Friday, February 10th, until Sunday, May 14th