Machines are taking over human labor and millions of jobs are disappearing. On the one hand that can lead to a promised land of ultimate freedom to do whatever you want, on the other hand to a loss of meaning and means of existence.

Great thinkers have reflected on this dilemma over the ages. Karl Marx predicted that ‘das Reich der Freiheit’ (realm of freedom) would conquer ‘das Reich der Notwendigkeit’ (realm of necessity). The great economist J.M. Keynes feared that “our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor” might outrun “the pace at which we can find new uses for labor”.

In the current Fourth Industrial Revolution technology substitutes for labor again with great speed and on a large scale. McKinsey Global Institute research indicates that, while only 5% of occupations are fully automatable based on currently available technologies, close to 60% of current jobs have at least 30% of tasks that can be performed by computers today.  On the other hand new jobs are created, even completely new professions and businesses, such as app developer and game designer. Since human needs and desire are infinite, the process of supplying them through new products and services might be infinite too. The question is what the net effect will be of job destruction and creation, both in timing and extent. The danger seems to be most acute for professionals who are in their fifties and whose job involves sitting in front of a screen and manipulating information.

The big question is if we can shape a world in which the negative impact of job losses can be minimized (basic income?) while simultaneously exploiting the positive impact of using the additional freedom wisely. This will require fundamental rethinking about the role of paid labor in shaping our individual purpose. Why would you need a job anyway?

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