“We will have to think seriously about leisure”: Daniel Susskind, the economist who predicts a world without work

For economist Daniel Susskind, author ofA world without workit is urgent to prepare for the future, where we will enjoy more free time. Pako Mera / opale.photo

Technological advances free up more and more tasks and professions. This is not necessarily good news, warns economist Daniel Susskind. “How else can you make a living? And give it (another) meaning?” asks the author, who calls for urgent preparation for this coming world.

Awakened by the pension reform, the prospect, distressing for many, of having to work longer raises the question again. What would a life free from toil look like? Or, put another way, “what will people do if they don’t have to work for a living?” asks economist Daniel Susskind, professor at Oxford and King’s College, in his fascinating essay A world without work (ed. Flammarion). “Will do”, and not “would do” because – he demonstrates – by dint of technological advances, work will become rare. Replaced in ever more tasks and professions, the working people will find themselves pushed towards the exit.

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It remains to be seen what they will live on, while others will see their fortunes grow thanks to the machines. This is indeed the crux of the problem. According to Daniel Susskind, this future increased wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. He advocates a strong state, capable of redistributing this wealth via a conditional basic income – and not universal – which would allow everyone to be remunerated for their commitment to the service of society. “The technological threat is real, he writes: the link between work and income risks breaking. But work is not only an economic question, a job cannot be reduced to a salary. It is about the meaning of life, its purpose and the fulfillment of each one.

The fear of emptiness

Days to fill, a course to define and a meaning to construct oneself. Faced with what could seem like a paradise, we are suddenly overcome with vertigo, unable to project ourselves into the void. “We have been trained for too long to exert and not to enjoy,” wrote economist John Maynard Keynes, quoted by Daniel Susskind. The fault with the evolutions of the company, become at best paradoxical, at worst, an absurd world. Modern management has both rationalized work by means of process and of bullshit jobs and imposed an injunction to joy, even to happiness. In addition to their skills, employees are now asked to mobilize their emotions, their personality and their intimacy. Clearly, to give a hundred times more to receive less – less recognition, social or community ties, fewer borders protecting personal life… But in the name of what?

In search of lost meaning

Of our intrinsic need to work, answer great minds of the last centuries, up to Sigmund Freud. Work allows us to regulate our impulses, to flourish or to transcend ourselves, they say. Better: it protects us from perdition, according to the Austrian social psychologist Marie Jahoda, author of a long investigation on villagers made unemployed by the closing of a factory in the 1930s. Result? “Increased apathy, loss of meaning in life and growing malevolence towards each other,” reports Daniel Susskind. Unemployed, the inhabitants wander, walk slowly, stop, disoriented. It’s like reading the synopsis of an apocalyptic film. “For Marie Jahoda, work was a structure, a direction in life.”

Except that the compass no longer indicates the North, even less since the pandemic, an opportunity for an unprecedented, but unfinished step back. Questions emerge – about the meaning of work, the quality of life, the search for meaning – without finding deep, lasting answers. As if we still had to dispel the fog. “And if work was our new opium?, wonders even Daniel Susskind. Like drugs, it gives some people a feeling of fullness and pleasure. At the same time, it intoxicates and disorients, and entertains us by preventing us from looking for meaning elsewhere.

New values

But where ? Supporter of this famous conditional basic income, Daniel Susskind defends a new collective order, no longer only nourished by work but also by other activities, useful to all, that the State would encourage and for which it would reward us. It remains to define which ones. “Different societies will be brought to different conclusions. But all of them will be obliged to explain what they consider to be of value or of no value,” he underlines. Some may encourage the practice of the arts, such as the ancient Greeks, political engagement, volunteering or the creation of associations. Still others, Susskind hopes, will revalue the activities and professions of care and education – stay-at-home parents, caregivers, nurses, teachers… – so precious and yet little, or not, paid. As if the all-powerful market logic were too narrow to recognize their value. A world without work, if it does not promise Eden, will at least have the merit, according to Susskind, of stopping this system out of breath. To, perhaps, imagine another, more virtuous one.

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