10 min read

Is a Post-Work Future a Good Thing?

Leisure is the Mother of Philosophy
- Thomas Hobbes

Last week I defined the relevant technology frontier for our ideal future world as being a post-work world enabled by ubiquitous, human-level artificial intelligence. Our goal for WFW? is to develop a shared vision of an ideal future for a world where nobody has to work. Technology has reached a point where one can employ a machine with all the capabilities of a human but at a fraction of a cost, leaving humans truly free to do as they choose.

We saw how in this world we also don't need to worry about income or access to resources. Redistribution of resources is inevitable - with no means of generating income through labor, at least 99% of the global population will be left with nothing, necessitating mass redistribution policies that will be obtained through democracy or force.

Here I will argue that a post-work future is inherently a good thing. The inevitable redistribution of resources is ideal alone. We can refocus purpose onto activities not considered work but that provide us with just as much, and possibly more, fulfilment that many fear we will lose without work. Finally, and primarily, the huge increase in mental bandwidth - our most valuable resource - will allow us to create our ideal future if we so choose.


Our ideal society ought to be fair and a tangible definition of fairness is a society with a largely equal distribution of resources. We use work and labor often to justify inequality, saying that individuals that either work harder, are smarter, or do more dangerous or unpleasant work ought to be paid more. We know, however, that our perception of 'fair' inequality is drastically different from the reality of our highly unequal world.

This is also true of status. In many cultures around the world, status is derived from work as it is from wealth and income. You only need to look to interactions between parents bragging not about the incomes their children earn or the wealth they have amassed, but rather that they are doctors or lawyers or professors.

A post-work world will leave virtually no justification for inequality. Nobody will work and we will have the technology necessary to invalidate any arguments put forth by those with power and resources suggesting that they are more deserving than anybody else. This will allow us to shift our belief of a 'fair' distribution of resources to be more equal and to give us the means of achieving it. The resources themselves would pull everyone out of poverty. If we redistributed all income today everyone would earn $12,000 per year, high enough to bring every one the almost 3.5bn people globally out of poverty. And it is safe to assume we'd have much greater resources available given the amount of time before we achieve this technology frontier and the significant increase to productivity from increasingly capable machines.

There could be an argument that those who further society through ideas - a concept I will leave intentionally broad - would deserve a greater share of the pie. I hypothesise that this argument will not even be made and would be swiftly rejected if it were. I believe that a world of mass redistribution brought about by the automation of work would necessarily bring with it a cultural shift towards equality as the norm and ideal. Ideas will become relatively abundant and anyone suggesting they 'deserve more' on any basis will be shunned and seen as misaligned with society.

At this point I should say that, as we reach the technological frontier, there is a risk that the ever-fewer number of people with power and resources will develop the ability to subdue the global population through technology and force. This could be done in a myriad ways but an extreme example could imagine the elite few controlling the global population through an army of surveillance drones and technologies, ensuring cooperation with their regime and preventing the organisation necessary to overthrow it. This outcome will be so far from our ideal future vision that it doesn't bear thinking about. If it occurs then our strategy has failed. I believe only these two outcomes are plausible - there will either be a dystopian regime or mass redistribution - so it behooves us to focus on the one that is ideal in that it is inherently fair.

This future may well be fair and just, but would a world without work not be unfulfilling?

Work and fulfilment

A positive association with work is so deeply engrained into our culture, personal identity, and sense of self-worth, that the notion of a world without work fills many with dread. In Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams state that “work has become central to our very self-conception – so much so that when presented with the idea of doing less work, many people ask, ‘But what would I do?’. The fact that so many people find it impossible to imagine a meaningful life outside of work demonstrates the extent to which the work ethic has infected our minds”. I have spoken on the potentially drastic negative health impact of job automation but this all speaks to our current perception of work, not our desired state.

It is worth stating that purpose and fulfilment are inherently good. Research has shown that people who have a purpose in life is good for your mental health, physical health, longevity, and genes. People with a purpose even sleep better. It is also true that many people today find purpose and fulfilment in their work. Research by McKinsey found that 70% of American employees surveyed said that their sense of purpose was largely defined by their work. And this is increasing - millennials are even more likely to view their work as their life's calling. The same research also shows that "employees who get the purpose they want from their work report better outcomes at work -and in life - than their less-satisfied peers".

When purpose through work seems so unambiguously good, why would we want to get rid of it?

That's because lacking 'work' does not mean lacking 'purpose'. Work takes up so much of our lives that many have sought out purpose in work. The thought-process - often subconscious - goes something like: if I need to earn $X/year to survive, I'll likely need to work 2,000 hours/year, so I would be better off spending that time on an activity I can find meaning in. There are many examples of purpose-providing activities that we wouldn't consider 'work'. This can be building community, caring for family or friends, hobbies, advocacy, and any number of other activities that help us feel larger than ourselves. Because it is true that the benefits of purpose cited above have nothing to do with work, merely the existence of purpose in the activities one spends time on. How much more meaningful might it feel to have complete control over your time and spending it on only the most meaningful activities you can think of, with no need to worry about making a sufficient income?

The privilege of purpose

The whole notion of finding purpose in work is a privileged idea. Very few have the luxury of working for any level of purpose. For the majority of the global population work is simply a means to an end - a necessary use of time to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families. To these people, the idea that a world with guaranteed income and without work could be worse than our present state could be anywhere from laughable to disgusting. I don't believe this completely undermines the fear of losing purpose but I believe it serves as a healthy reminder that often people with relatively few resources often have a wisdom that people with many - those on the hedonic treadmill espoused by consumerism with arguably the greatest fear of losing work - have sadly lost.

Sliding into hedonism

There is a fear that with no work and with sufficient resources to be comfortable we will degenerate to a hedonistic dystopia. This stems from the notion that we won't be able to bridge the gap from finding purpose in work to finding it elsewhere and will therefore live as if permanently on vacation. Here I imagine the Pixar movie WALL-E. With no need to work, will we all just become lazy, consumer-driven slobs, spending our resources on the latest 'in thing' like the humans in WALL-E all using their credits to switch from red to blue jumpsuits when the media proposed that was the 'done thing'. You could also imagine Ready Player One or similar stories of humanity retreating into virtual reality and losing touch with reality. Without work to give us purpose and structure in our lives, why would we do anything that might constitute self-improvement?

I challenge these arguments with my theory of mental bandwidth.

Mental bandwidth

There's no single, standard definition of mental bandwidth, so I'll use my preferred definition, a person’s limited capacity to take in and process information and respond to their environment. Like time and physical energy, it is a finite resource that we all possess. Mental load depletes it, rest and recuperation increase it. The biggest mental loads in the world are stresses about making enough money to survive and be comfortable, followed by the mental load of work itself. It is clear that in eradicating these two, and a range of further mental stresses beyond them, our post-work future will free up a capacity of mental bandwidth in the global population never seen before. In fact, we have only ever observed a handful of people with 'maximal mental bandwidth' - those people sufficiently wealthy that they don't need to dedicate brainpower or time to income-generating work. What will it be like then to have a global population with maximal mental bandwidth? Here are my hypotheses:

We'll engage more with reality, not less

I believe that the truth requires more mental bandwidth to engage with than 'non-reality'. There is a greater mental load imposed by taking in and making sense of the real world than there is from disengaging. It takes much more work to critically engage a news article - for example - to determine whether it is true than to simply accept it as truth or lie before starting to read. In general it is much easier - lower bandwidth - to tune out from reality. For many it is therefore a form of rest. Scrolling on TikTok and Instagram are perfect examples of this in the modern era - mentally 'switching off' while appearing to engage. Having more mental bandwidth would therefore enable us to engage in reality more... but why would we?

I believe that reality is more desirable to engage with than non-reality and that with greater bandwidth we will see greater engagement with reality and truth. This may be hard to believe in our current times where so many choose to live in non-reality, most poignantly in the QANON-following Trump supporters in the US. My hypothesis is that these people lack the mental bandwidth necessary to critically engage with these ideas - they are exhausted from figuring out how to put food on the table in often-neglected parts of the country. One basis for this is the research showing that a lack of mental bandwidth may be a leading driver of poverty. They posit that poverty is such a drain on mental bandwidth that individuals often behave in low-bandwidth ways, such as making bad choices (see below) or disengaging with reality.

The truth is that reality hits at some point - it is only possible to live outside of it for so long - and often the pain of reengaging is a function of how long you disengaged. One prominent form of reality hitting home is that reproduction requires it. It is virtually impossible to reproduce without engaging in the real world. As much as we're in a post-evolutionary society, this drive to reproduce makes us prehistorically wired to want to engage in the real world. A predilection for 'opting-out' - as full submersion in virtual reality could become known - would be significantly marginalised or eradicated within a few generations given the lack of reproduction. I believe that virtual reality as 'rest' will likely not go away fully but we will have the time such that three hours a day spent outside of reality to rest still leaves plenty of time to engage in the real world - more than most of us do today. I take this as inherently a good thing, but hopefully it is clear how greater engagement in reality would lead to stronger relationships, less misinformation and miscommunication, and greater empathy.

We'll make better choices

When we run low on mental bandwidth our unconscious systems make our choices, not our executive function. The psychology classic Thinking Fast and Slow describes an experiment that proves this. One set of subjects was asked to remember a 2-digit number and the other set was asked to remember a 7-digit number, all while seated in a waiting room with a bowl of fruit and slices of cake. They were told that they could consume whatever snacks were available while waiting. The individuals who had to remember the 7-digit number chose the cake 50 percent more often. They show how mental load pushes the brain to deploy unconscious decision making which generally leads to choices that are not as aligned with the goals and objectives we hold in our executive function - AKA bad choices. We buy fast food after a long day of work when we don't have the mental bandwidth to decide what to cook. Few would suggest that scrolling on Instagram or Tiktok for hours is the best choice they could make - they just didn't have the bandwidth to make a better one. That often slight feeling of regret after such activities is our executive function reminding us that we've made a sub-optimal choice.

It's hopefully also clear how better society would be if we were capable of making better choices. This suggests that we wouldn't become the gluttonous, chair-bound humans of WALL-E but rather have the bandwidth necessary to have healthier diets and find exercise regimes that we enjoy. It will be easier to kick bad habits and progress towards challenging personal goals without the 'moments of weakness' - often just moments of low mental bandwidth - where we sabotage our progress. We can actively fight disinformation as we can critically analyse everything we are presented with.

Ultimately we will have the bandwidth to choose to be better people...and I believe that we will.

We'll have better ideas

A highly-cited experiment from Harvard showed that while people believe they are more creative when they are under pressure, the reverse is actually true. When we have the time to think deeply we have better ideas. Yes, some ideas occur in the shower and others when you are intently focused on a topic, but both are functions of having maximal mental bandwidth.

In a future where we won't have any to contribute in execution - the machines will do that work - ideas will be worth a premium. It could well be true that the artificial intelligence we develop will surpass human intelligence so completely that it literally has already thought of any idea a human can think of. It's impossible to say whether this scenario is likely but I think there's good reason to think that if we solve AI governance there will still be a role in the future for human ideas. In this scenario they will be so valuable that increasing the quantity and quality of ideas produced is very important.

I've argued that a post-work future is unambiguously a good thing, despite how engrained work is with our concepts of purpose and fulfilment. As long as we learn to find meaning in other pursuits, the inevitable redistribution of resources and the huge increase in mental bandwidth it will afford make a post-work world inherently 'ideal'.

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