A History of Work in Six Words


Throughout history, work was simply a means of survival and sustaining life, with little emphasis on career advancement or fulfillment. People engaged in tasks that were necessary for their livelihood, such as farming, construction, or sewing. However, as technology progressed in the 19th century, companies had to adapt to keep up with faster communication and transportation. This led to the rise of managerial positions and the formation of bureaucracies within large corporations. From there, the concept of a career with regular upward mobility and success became more prominent, a journey towards earning coveted titles like VP, SVP, or CEO. While many still engage in mundane or unsatisfying work, others strive to find meaning and purpose in their careers.

The 20th century witnessed a decline in organized religion and societal integration, leaving many Americans without any sense of spiritual fulfillment. In its place, work has become a driving force for some individuals, particularly those in the white-collar economy. While some employees genuinely enjoy their job, there are many who have succumbed to a cult of productivity and achievement that views finding one's vocational calling as crucial to living a fulfilling life. This has spawned a new religion that prioritizes work, career, and achievement over everything else, leading many to feel overzealous and a bit unhinged. Dubbed "works," this phenomenon is complex, rooted in the belief that work can offer the same benefits historically associated with organized religion: a sense of community, meaning, and self-realization. Paradoxically, in an era when trust is eroding in many institutions, workers expect more than ever from their employers, and the workplace has become the only community for many. This may explain why companies now feel compelled to engage in political and cultural matters.

The belief that work should be the defining characteristic of one's life has quietly influenced various aspects of modern society. This emphasis on career achievement has led to an excessive focus on education among children and parents, resulting in widespread anxiety. Among adults, it often leads to overwork at the expense of personal relationships and hobbies. The adoration of work can sometimes result in neglecting other important values and connections that contribute to a healthy life and community. However, in a society where meaningful relationships are increasingly scarce, career and work remain widespread virtues. While some surveys suggest that traditional values such as patriotism, marriage, and community are on the decline, the recognition of hard work remains strong. We seem to be on the cusp of a fourth revolution in work, and in 20 years, the history of work might be summed up in eight words, from jobs to careers to callings to... though we currently are not sure what the eighth word should be.

The world of work is currently experiencing two major changes: the rise of remote work and the emergence of generative AI. The shift to telecommuting is revolutionizing the way people work, the types of companies they start, and where they live. The consequences are far-reaching, from decreased public transit revenue to increased suburban housing prices, and may even lead to higher fertility rates among female remote workers. The rise of generative AI, such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, brings both exciting and concerning possibilities for white-collar industries, as machines become more creative and intelligent than previously thought possible. Predicting the future of these technologies is difficult, but it is likely that generative AI will become a popular consumer technology before it becomes widely used in production. As such, it may initially be used for creating content for social media and group chats before being integrated into workplaces. Overall, the changes brought about by remote work and generative AI are fascinating and unpredictable, with both positive and negative outcomes.

The future of work is expected to enter a new chimerical age, where humans and machines will co-produce work in almost every economic domain. As people become more fluent in the language and faculties of AI tools, it will be commonplace for architects, illustrators, consultants, writers, and even home buyers to use text-to-image AI to create and develop their ideas. Software engineers will consider AI co-programmers to be as fundamental to their work as computer keyboards. This AI-inflected work will become so ubiquitous that refusing to use such tools will seem as arbitrary as never using search engines. However, as with any technology, there may be a backlash culture and a niche market for bespoke, explicitly anti-AI products. 

But while AI has immense potential to revolutionize the workforce, it's important to acknowledge the shadow ledger of pain that often accompanies technological advancements. The steam engine shortened lives during the industrial revolution, and nuclear technology has both powered energy reactors and created atomic bombs. Similarly, the internet has made us both productive and unproductive, delighted and miserable, informed and deluded. The future of work, like everything else, will be messy, but there is hope that a chimerical age of work can coexist with a responsible and ethical approach toward technology.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post