As World Gets More Automated, We Have A Bigger Problem Than Losing Our Jobs

Published in Online Spin, January 6th, 2017

I attended a funeral today.
I knew him casually. We frequented many of the same social and business circles, and had had more than one good chat about our social and political environment. But we had never graduated to the category of close friendship.

So it was wonderful to hear from his father, from his sister, from his daughter, from his childhood friends. Over an hour and a half, I got to know him better. I got to know how successful he was. How loved and respected he was. How tortured he was.

He had taken his own life. He was 44 years old.

At the reception, I spoke with people who knew him better about what drove him. “He was always in search of meaning,” one person said. “He always thought if he could make one more contribution, achieve one more goal, then maybe he would ‘get there.’”

“Yes,” said another. “It’s the great tragedy of our age. We have everything we need, and yet we face more depression, more addiction, more suicide. And that’s what it comes down to: a lack of meaning.”

Please note: I’m not saying that an inability to find meaning is the sole cause of suicide. Suicide is an incredibly complex phenomenon, with factors like mental health, financial status, and quality of relationships playing a role. But whether or not you’re inclined to take your own life, it sucks to feel that your life is meaningless.

Ironically, while “meaning” is a pretty esoteric concept, it becomes harder to find the more abstract your work becomes. If you’re a hunter-gatherer, spending your time finding food to survive, there’s little question your life has meaning: every day’s work is literally life or death. But if you’re a truck driver or an accountant, it’s a lot easier to find yourself asking, “What’s it all for?”

Please note: I’m not saying these jobs are meaningless. I’m saying the meaning in these jobs is not as tangible, and so can be harder to grasp.

And if this problem is getting worse, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. As technology continues to accelerate, our jobs will become more and more abstract. We’ll go from the satisfaction of driving a truck to the boredom of babysitting a robot truck driver. We’ll go from the satisfaction of balancing the books to the boredom of clicking a button for the books to reconcile automatically.

Of course, those are only issues if you have a job. There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about technological unemployment. Last week, The Verge reported that the Foxconn factory in China plans to replace almost every human worker with robots. Foxconn employs 1.2 million people.

Optimists say that as technology eradicates jobs, new ones get created, and that the jobs that get wiped out are often boring, repetitive and meaningless, while the new ones are full of creativity.

True. For some people. For others, as technology advances, the job opportunities -- those that remain -- become more soulless, more disconnected, less gratifying.

We may be able to solve the financial problems associated with technological unemployment through a universal basic income. In an age of abundance, there’s no reason we can’t materially provide for people.

But humans need more than money. We need more than a job. We need to feel connected, to feel a sense of purpose, to believe our lives have meaning.

This is the challenge facing us in an age of abundance. It’s not whether we can have everything. It’s whether having everything… means anything at all.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please seek help. Call your doctor — or, in the United States, call 911 or the toll-free 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

Kaila Colbin