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Work as we know is already under threat. Two mainstream ideologies may end work much before high-achieving machines conquer the labour market. Prof. Dieter Thomä invites you to challenge the motto “work hard, play hard”, on the one hand. On the other, he provides intriguing insights on the much applauded concept “work-life balance”. If life ends when work starts, is work comparable to death?

End Work As We Know It?

Prof. Dr Dieter Thomä

1. Abolition by automation

An old acronym introduced by the Clinton administration in the U.S. read EWAKI: “End Welfare As We Know It.” This acronym stemming from the 1990s can be adapted to „End Work As We Know It.” We are told that this new kind of EWAKI will be a by-product of digitalization and the rise of the robots. Accordingly, “work” in the traditional sense is doomed to be the task of natural-born losers. Self-appointed experts say that many industries and service providers are targets already shot and wounded by the weapons of new technologies. Who will suffer? Carmakers, insurance companies, logistics and transportation, asset management, parts of the health sector, etc. etc.

Some of these economic players are supposed to rise from the ashes. They will look different then. Most of the workers formerly employed in these sectors will be gone. Barely anyone will possibly miss the human factor as humans are famously flawed, fragile, slow, and suboptimal. But what will all those humans replaced by robots and digital devices do all day long? Maybe they will become philosophers or drunkards. This sounds really scary.

Many commentators are obsessed with the new EWAKI – with the idea of the end of work. Yet we do not know whether a development with such a large-scale impact will actually take place. Let me remind you of the fact that the old EWAKI – “End Welfare As We Know It” – was a prime example of political rhetoric. It came with great expectations and had little effect. As of yet, the prognostic value and reliability of the new EWAKI is up in the air. It shares this uncertainty with a long list of other bold scenarios predicting the future. Handling them with caution is highly recommended. Most of those scenarios that were the talk of the town once turned out to be plainly wrong. Predictions, megatrends, utopian or dystopian scenarios are conspicuously unreliable. In retrospect, most of them appear ridiculously narrow-minded.

(Just to give an example from a different context: I am still flabbergasted by the career of Germany’s most successful futurologist who once predicted a so-called megatrend: the ultimate rise to power of a new class of professional overachievers called NEGOs [“Nice Egocentrics”]. The futurologist himself was a proud member of this new class, boasted about living in the inner city, being happily childless, working hard and playing hard. A couple of years later, the same guy came up with a new megatrend. It aimed at living in an eco-friendly environment, slowing down, doing home office, caring for the partner and the kids. He was once again taking himself as a role model. Meanwhile, he had moved to the outskirts, built a house, and founded a family. How come people still take him seriously?)

The scenario of the abolition of work by automation and digitalization is based on far-reaching speculations about future developments. Have we learnt the lesson that most such prognoses go astray? Yes and no.

Yes, we have learnt a lesson. It concerns all those prognoses that predict a change for the better. They have suffered from a steep decline of credibility. We have grown suspicious when it comes to scenarios of progress, liberation, and the “bettering of mankind.” The business of bashing utopias is thriving. Disillusionment is the mind-set of the hour.

No, we haven’t properly learnt the lesson of being wary of futurology. Optimistic scenarios have a hard time, but negative scenarios still thrive. Cassandra’s devoted followers find acclaim. The play on fear works well. We are strangely perceptive and credulous when somebody makes us believe that things get worse. Yet it is irrational to limit scepticism to favourable prognoses only. It should be all over the place. Nobody knows whether automation and digitalization will lead to mass unemployment.

Here is my humble suggestion: Instead of being obsessed with an uncanny future, we should use our judgment for analysing the present. The hype about automation deflects our attention from what’s going on at the moment. Two developments already seriously affect our attitude towards work or what we may call our working definition of work. They truly deserve our attention. Work is currently threatened by what I perceive as a deadly embrace and attempted murder.

2. A deadly embrace

Technically speaking, we should not talk about the end of work, but about the end of labour. Work is not limited to professional, contractually defined activities. We talk about garden work, housework, community work, volunteer work, even family work, and we may consider a workout as a particular kind of work as well. These kinds of work are altogether unconcerned by the new EWAKI. Those arguing for an unconditional basic income, for instance, do not mean to imply that those benefitting from such an allowance would be lazy all day long. They could get involved in those other kinds of work.

The threat of the new EWAKI is directed at a particular set of jobs and specific kinds of labour. Labour in this sense is under siege anyway – but in a sense not discussed so far. Instead of further musing about its future abolition, we should account for the ideological devaluation of work or labour which is already underway.

Work as labour, as an activity securing our self-preservation, takes place under certain constraints: We count the hours, deal with more or less agreeable superiors and colleagues, meet ends, etc. The classical counter image to this kind of work is “play.” Ever since German poet Friedrich Schiller coined the phrase “Man is only quite a man when he plays,” playing has been hailed as the homestead of human freedom and well-being. Now it is quite improbable that we could turn play into a full-time activity. What we could do instead though, is alter the character of work or labour in such a way that it resembles play or becomes a playful activity itself. The old saying “Work hard, play hard” would then obtain a new meaning: Working hard would become a hard play in its own right. This is exactly what’s going on right now. The clichés taken as an endorsement for this revaluation are easy at hand. Digital influencers are busy while having a drink or taking a sunbath, Google employees can’t tell the difference between work and leisure, members of the “creative class” are expected to think out of the box. Management consultants learn from their gurus that rule no. 1 reads, “There are no rules.” When you are asked how you feel at work, the designated answer is, “It’s fun!” All these findings speak the same language. Work becomes playful, play becomes lucrative. You work always or never. You embrace work, love what you do, are obsessed with it, indulge in it. This is what I call the deadly embrace of work. In the course of this embrace, work gets distorted. It is mistaken as an altogether playful, creative activity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am fond of playing. (My grown-up kids actually say that I’m not a grown-up but a kid myself, always in for playing a game or being foolish.) However, there is a difference between looking for opportunities to brighten up the grey zone of life and mistaking work for a game. When we do this, we commit the crime of a deadly embrace. Not only does this playful deformation conceal the constraints of work, it also gives a distorted picture of its potential and its particular value. Work is marked by circumstances constricting, regulating, and framing our behaviour. This is still true for contexts in which work is marketed as playtime. Yet work is different from play for another good reason as well. By working – not by playing! –, we change things and have an impact on others. If we are lucky, we do something that makes the world a better place. We are proudly serious about what we are doing. This dimension of purpose gets lost when people identify work and play, or even life and play. 

 “End work as we know it:” According to version one of the new EWAKI, work is transformed into play. Whether this attempt is guided by good or cruel intentions, it leads to a deadly embrace either way. It is guilty of distorting and flattening our understanding of work. Moreover, when you hear the call for creativity over and over again, it loses much of its appeal. The whole idea of having fun all day long turns into a chore.

3. Attempted murder

Version two of EWAKI today does not consist in a deadly embrace but in attempted murder. It chooses a path altogether different from version one – a path equally damaging for our understanding work. The battle cry for this second version of EWAKI is the mantra of self-appointed humanists and champions of self-help: “work-life balance.” This slogan is popular – and poisoned. It is based on a misleading presupposition.

when you hear the call for creativity over and over again, it loses much of its appeal. The whole idea of having fun all day long turns into a chore

“Work-life balance” – what does it mean? When taking this phrase seriously, we are invited to handle a balance – one of those old-fashioned balances with two trays. On the one side, we have a tray loaded with “life”, on the other, a tray loaded with “work.” The idea is that we try to balance the two, which under the given circumstances means: Don’t forget life over work.

This seemingly benevolent recommendation is based on a malicious assumption. By balancing with two trays, we are forced to think that work is the opposite of life and that life begins when you are done with work. This setting is obviously altogether different from the one put forward by version one of EWAKI. Now we don’t deal with a seemingly friendly embrace taking a deadly twist at the very end. We deal with a straightforward case of attempted murder.

we are forced to think that work is the opposite of life and that life begins when you are done with work

The image of work faces another serious blow. Its potential of providing opportunities for self-assertion, its energizing effect is wiped out. We are forced to think of work as the counterpart of life, as belonging to the kingdom of death. We are invited to escape from this premature death or from being dead while still alive by leaving work behind and starting to live. This is an altogether misleading, hapless and hopeless idea – not just for a workaholic like me.

You are alive when working, and you are alive when not working. Creating an opposition between life and work is a dangerous, ideological move. It may appeal to some brainchildren of the consumer society, but “work-life balance” is just the wrong word for renewing and reimagining our self-image in late modernity. While version one of the new EWAKI damages the idea of work by transforming it into a fun fact, version two of the new EWAKI destroys the idea of work by burying it.

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The future of work does not just depend on our ability to come to grips with upcoming challenges like automation and digitalization. First and foremost, the future of work depends on our ability to fight the all-too present ideological developments described above: the two threats labelled as a deadly embrace and attempted murder. These threats are about to destroy our self-image as self-reliant, active, and accountable human beings. If we don’t face those threats, the “end of work” possibly induced by automation and digitalization will, at best, be the killing of a dead body.

First and foremost, the future of work depends on our ability to fight the all-too present ideological developments