The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Essays

When Work and Meaning Part Ways

Jonathan Malesic

Morning Lift (detail), 2018, by Peter Ravn; courtesy of the artist.

A jobless future isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The American work ethic is built on a promise: Work hard, and you’ll earn more than just money. You’ll earn social dignity, moral character, even spiritual purpose. In short, you’ll live the good life. For centuries, Americans have believed that work is indispensable to human flourishing. It’s been a useful belief. In absolute terms, American society is rich: American companies dominate their industries. American workers are productive.

There are only two problems with the work ethic today: Work doesn’t reliably deliver the social, moral, and spiritual goods it promises, and artificial intelligence is about to render the work ethic moot. Its central promise is like rickety scaffolding that doesn’t reach high enough. People fall off of it all the time as they climb in pursuit of the prize supposedly awaiting them at the top. At the same time, the whole structure stands over an unstable geological fault; sooner or later, a quake will reduce it to matchwood. Even so, we insist that the structure is sound. Anyone who gets off is deemed lazy and earns derision.

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