Do we want to eliminate work?

I came across a quote recently, by author Arthur C. Clarke: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play”. It challenges the essential premise of this blog, the idea that work is something to be celebrated. When someone smart says something at odds with what I believe, it generally pays to think through it – there’s usually a synthesis that is more sensible than either opposing view. So here goes…

In my initial reading, I took the quote to be arguing two things: that work and play are mutually exclusive, and that a good world would be one in which we solely played (and never worked).

It’s hard to say whether work excludes play without a view on what constitutes work, and what constitutes play.

One fairly common view defines work as:

  • things which you are paid to do
  • things which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t paid to
  • things which someone else tells you to do
  • things which bring you no pleasure

On the other hand, I prefer to think of work as anything we do with an expectation of adding value (say to ourselves, to someone else, to a company or to the community).

That first view does seem pretty inconsistent with most definitions of play I can think of.

The second, on the other hand, seems like it could allow play, for example to entertain or to be creative.

I can agree that the first view is negative, but I believe the second kind of work is good. So rather than choosing between getting rid of work, or celebrating it, a better approach would be to find strategies that favour the good kinds of work over the bad kinds. For example:

  • helping people find work that brings them pleasure
  • helping people have autonomy in their work
  • empowering people to add value
  • embracing the part of play and creativity within work
  • breaking the link between income and work

I should point out that in the Arthur C. Clarke quote, he actually refers to ‘employment’ rather than ‘work’. I suppose this could well suggest that he was focussing on the first view of work: being paid by someone to do something not of your choosing. I’d be far more comfortable with a world without this kind of work, as long we replaced it with mechanisms to allow more positive manners of work, and not just play.

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