Millennium Post

The opium of the masses

It's been over a year since I forayed into the startup space. Being an entrepreneur is infinitely different from holding onto a cushy job. The pay cheques dropping into my bank account on the last day of the month rung in a certain amount of security, the kind that jobs ensured. But a fascinating article on the future of jobs got me thinking that in another 30 years, humans are likely to lose their secure jobs, not to cheaper labour from emerging markets, but rather to robots. Automation is poised to render many of us, even smug, white-collared individuals, jobless.

A report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) last year held climate change, the rise of the middle class, ageing populations, and evolving aspirations of women as key drivers of change in the global labour market. With super smart machines completing our work faster with more efficiency, it will come as no surprise that experts predict further shrinkage of the job market by 2050. Closer home, Delhi-based civil society group, PRAHAR, says as many as 7 million jobs will disappear in India by 2050. Given that we aren't producing a sufficient number of jobs in the first place (550 jobs vanish every day) India will find it challenging to keep her population suitably occupied.
Let's first try to understand why work makes us well-rounded individuals. You can have all the wealth in the world but it won't make you feel 'useful'. Endless parties, flippant relationships, and all the gadgets and 'stuff', don't satiate us until we feel we are doing something meaningful. Now since not all of us are geniuses making inventions that are disrupting the world, we 'go to work'. When we spend those few, mandated hours at work, we feel that we have made a meaningful contribution to society, our country, and thus, our own lives.
We work to secure our future along with that of our families. It's this cause of building a life that we find worthy. Research suggests that doing something meaningful leads to real happiness. Take away this purpose from us and our life goes into a tizzy. We experience a lack of balance when we lose a job or when work is not yielding positive results. We sink into depression, and in more extreme cases, joblessness attracts destructive behaviour, substance abuse, inability to forge genuine human relationships and so on. People, who find it impossible to cope with life's vagaries, have often harmed themselves or committed suicide. Life without work doesn't seem much of a party then.
We need purpose and for millions of people, who are not special in any way, work proffers just that. Now take away these jobs and we will have nothing to do! Sounds like Utopia, right? But it's hardly that. Take for instance, when we are on holiday. It's fun to be travelling to exotic places or meeting friends, catching up on reading, relaxing at a spa etc. At first, it will seem like heaven but once you've had your fill, and trust me you will, boredom will set in. An idle mind is a devil's workshop.
In the near future, bots will man factory floors while Artificial Intelligence will do everything else. Only highly skilled humans will be able to upskill themselves enough to hold onto one of the new jobs. Futurist Morris Miselowski predicts that jobs such as Memory Augmentation Surgeons, Gene Programmers, and Transhumanist Designers will be the new rage. While the younger generation may be educated for these jobs, I'm certain that a journalist and amateur entrepreneur like me would not be a shoo-in.
Governments, obviously, will take care of most of us. Political parties in India are already discussing doles, a part of western economies. With the help of doles, our basic needs will be taken care of. But what will we do with our time?
I predict that we will be addicted -- to our smartphones, to virtual reality, to life-like video games. And if you don't agree with me, you're not looking around you at this very moment. Kids have deserted playgrounds and would rather go catch a Pokémon or participate in the Blue Whale Challenge. Human relationships will further deteriorate with dolls sitting in for real people (Japanese men are already in relationships with silicone sex dolls). And the masses, which are already hooked on gutkha, pan masala and alcohol, will find solace in other kinds of contraband (weed is already legal in the US). If that's not the future we want, then the only chance we have is to stick to the simple pleasures of life -- a good book, tossing the ball in the park, and fostering genuine loving human bonds.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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