The end of work

Every indicator points to the rise of a post-work, post-scarcity economy, such as the rise of AI, or discussions of 4-day workweeks, which are being tentatively rolled-out or experimented, along with some cities implementing small-scale UBI programs. Low-paying retail work, in particular restaurants, are increasingly and chronically understaffed. Or an increasing number of holidays. This week is 4th of July; 2 weeks ago was Juneteenth.

Society valorized work during the post-war era from 1945-1970s, as manpower was scarce and work was seen as a gateway to opportunity, to now work being equated with slavery or low status. Just as there is an uncanny valley in terms of animation or robotics, there is an uncanny valley of success. If you are really successful like Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, Tom Brady, or Sam Altman society will worship you. But if you are somewhere in the middle, it tends to be the opposite, and those in the 70-99% are dismissed or denigrated with such labels as ‘strivers’, ‘try-hards’, or ‘corporate drones/cogs’ or identify as such.

You cannot just be ‘good enough’ and competent: instead you must occupy one of these two extremes on either side of the valley. So basically, you’re stuck having to be super-successful or famous, which is extremely improbable and mostly luck-dependent, or ‘down and out’ but maybe an intellectual like a poet. Commiserating over student loan debt has become a collective form of catharsis among many millennials or other young people, as if being poor is the new bonding experience.

The rise of NEET culture is evidence of this. A growing percentage of young people are disengaging from the economy. Perhaps having to comply with onerous pre-employment screening, political correctness, an emasculating work environment, and bad bosses and bad customers is not worth the low pay. Alluding to above, a ‘go big or go home’ mentality also explains it: Unless you can make millions, there is no point of trying. No one wants to be stuck in the valley of mediocrity if they can help it. Also, there are many alternatives to traditional salaried work that decades ago did not exist, such as gig work (e.g. Uber Eats or DoorDash), content creation (e.g. Patreon), or social media (e.g. promoting products on Instagram).

Work is viewed as necessary for self-sufficiency and individual economic well-being. But in an economy dominated by trillion-dollar tech companies and surging private sector/household wealth overall, such as real estate or stocks, makes work uncessary. As the annual rate of private wealth growth (10-30% yearly returns in stock prices and home prices) vastly surpasses population growth (1%) or inflation (2-5%) for decades, everyone becomes collectively wealthier. Eventually, the probability that someone knows someone (e.g. a family member or friend) who is wealthy, like with Nvidia or some other investment, approaches 100%. So instead of going to work, you can live with your friend whose uncle is a tech millionaire. The top of the Forbes 400 list is dominated by tech billionaires, with a combined personal wealth of over a trillion dollars for the top 10; that wealth has to go somewhere. Dubai and other oil-producing nation-states are microcosms or case-studies of this phenomenon, but with oil instead of tech stocks. Large percentages of the Emirati native population does not work, due to trickle-down oil profits making everyone collectively wealthier.

Same for huge inheritances and other forms of trickle-down wealth. In what has been called ‘the great wealth transfer’ Boomers stand to bequeath over $90 trillion to their children over the next few decades.

This is not to say all work will go away. Many professions will remain impervious to automation or outsourcing, such as service-sector work and hospitality industries, even despite a lot of people not working or staff shortages. Much of work is about dealing with all the shortcomings or limitations of technology when confronted with the complexity and unpredictability of how humans use it. Despite online vacation booking and online banking, employees are still needed for customer service.

But at the same time, the concept of people aspiring to vocations or careers is dated. Except for high-status millionaires, like in law or business, who never seem to retire, in which work provides socialization and the job title confers status for those people, for everyone else work is something that is avoided or as last resort.