The End of Work

An essay by Atanu Dey

Posted: Nov 5th 2009

The Dawning of the Post-Work World

All progress in human affairs results from the actions of people who do not work.

Progress does not arise from work. Here I define work as things that have to be done and in which there isn’t much choice whether to do them or not. All progress arises from actions that don’t have to be done.

In the present condition of the world, most people do things out of necessity. Which is another way of saying that most people work. At the individual level, if a person did not work, he will not be able to survive. Collectively if most people did not work, human society would collapse. This situation is changing and will change very fast.

The progress of civilization can be measured by how many people are available to not do any work. The trend has been that of an increasing number of (as well as a larger percentage of) people that don’t have to work. The smaller the percentage of people in it that work, the better off the civilization.

In primitive hunter-gatherer societies, everyone worked. All actions were in aid of survival. What they did was get food, seek shelter, fight off predators, procreate – all of which was work because they had to do these things and could not get by otherwise.

In the future, perhaps in a hundred years or so, no one will have to work.[1]

(NOTE: These are endnotes. The links are not working. You will have to scroll down to the end to read them.)

Along the continuum of everyone working to no one working, we are by my estimate about 10 percent of the way to the no one working end. I mean, about 10 percent of the people don’t work. They do things that are not work. The rest have to work.

Work is not a good thing. It is a necessary thing but not a good thing. Or rather, work is not a good thing precisely because it is a necessary thing. It’s not a good thing for many reasons. The most trivial reason follows from how I have defined it as something that you don’t have any choice about. But the most important reason is that work does not lead to progress.

All progress arises from the freedom from work.

As human civilization progresses, more and more people will attain freedom from work. And the more the number of people that are free from work, the faster will civilization progress. It’s a positive feedback loop.

Most people in poor societies work. The richer the society, the fewer the people who work.

We are at a boundary. We are witnessing the dawning of the post-work world. We have witnessed other transitions before. There was the transition from the hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture. That was followed by the transition to the industrial from the agricultural. The post-industrial world is going on but will be over in a few decades.

Though distinct in their detailed features, all the previous stages – hunter-gatherer, agriculture, industrial, post-industrial – can be clubbed together into what can be called the Work World[2]. They all share the broad feature that majority of people living in them were engaged in work.

What will follow is the Post-Work World[3] in which no one will work.

What will People do in a Post-Work World

What many people will do in a Post-Work World is what people who didn’t work have always done: do things that lead to progress.

Work does not lead to progress. Non-work – defined conversely to the definition of work – is that which does not have to be done and in which one has a choice about doing or not. All progress arises from non-work.[4]

Some specific examples of progress arising from non-work would be in order here. Since all progress arises from non-work, and there have been thousands of instances of progress, finding examples is trivial. So I hope that I am not abusing the reader’s intelligence by citing a few examples.

Let me start off with a man I admire very much in the field of science. Albert Einstein was a great physicist. He worked as a patent examiner (3rd class) in the Swiss Patent Office in Berne. He had to examine patents to earn a living. Fortunately, his work did not occupy him full time. So in his spare time he did what was absolutely unnecessary and therefore cannot be considered work. He worked figured out the theories of relativity, among other unnecessary things like the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion.

Imagine now if he had to work full time. Of course, eventually all scientific advancements that Einstein made would have been made by other people. But it would not have been him because all work all the time means that there is no time for doing things that lead to progress.

Another man I admire mightily in the field of fundamental philosophical questions went by the name of Gautama who later went on become “the Buddha”. Born in a royal family, he did not work much. But he had a wife and a son. That involved work. Also, he had to rule his little kingdom. That was also work. He wanted to do stuff that did not need to be done. Such as, figure out the cause of the suffering in the world and therefore find a solution.

So Gautama left everything behind. He gave up all work. So he had all the time in the world to do non-work. He wandered around thinking. To keep body and soul together, he worked only a tiny bit. His work was that of a bhikshu, a mendicant. Since his needs were simple, he had to beg for sustenance for only a little bit of his time. The rest he used in non-work. Eventually he became awakened.

If Gautama had to work, he would never have become a buddha. And the world would have had to wait for another person of his intellectual capacity but free from work to figure out the answers.

All great discoveries in every field of human endeavour were made by people who did not have to do them. There was never a trivial matter of survival for them. It was pure play. Work and play are antithetical to each other.

All creativity arises from play. Indeed, the universe – the ultimate expression of creativity – according to the Hindu conception is simply a play that the mind of the ultimate consciousness dreams up. It does not have to create a universe. It just creates a universe just for the heck of it, without any compulsion.[5] It created the universe in play and in the end will uncreate it also out of pure play. The universe is not work, it is play. That’s why it is perfect.

But let’s examine more down to earth and contemporary examples of people not working.

The best people in every field of human creativity don’t work. Which is not to say that they don’t get paid or that they are unemployed; often enough they are employed and get paid for what they do. But what they get paid for is not work for them.

Tilling the field is work. Assembling cars in a factory is work. Writing code for a corporation is work. All essential for getting things done. This is maintenance.

Maintenance involves work. Creation involves non-work.

A maestro exploring a raga is not work. Writing a great novel is not work. Figuring out the laws of motion or the laws of electrodynamics is not work. Understanding the mechanism which explains the near infinite variety of life on earth is not work. None of these – and countless other activities – have nothing to do with the preservation of civilization. It is pure play. But they all form the foundation upon which all human progress is built.

The End of Work

The ultimate aim of humanity is the elimination of work. The freedom from work is the real freedom that will eventually happen.

In the early days of human history all had to work, as I noted before. Production was limited and therefore everything went into consumption. There was no surplus. Then with settled agriculture came a bit of surplus. That allowed a very small segment of the population to not work. That was the foundation of the subsequent progress. That foundation was built by people who did not work and upon which rested the industrial revolution.

The industrial society did not eliminate agriculture. People need food. What happened was the industrial revolution made agriculture more productive. Only a small segment of the labor had to be in agriculture to provide food for all. The rest of the labor went into industry. More stuff was produced and more surplus resulted. That meant society could afford more people not to work. Once again, more progress happened because of these people not working.

Automation in agriculture and industry kept increasing labor productivity – fewer people were required to work – and at the same time increasing production. So even more people did not have to work. Some went into services – making movies, providing haircuts, doing tax returns, building social networks on the internet, etc – that helped to increase the production of stuff.

So this story has a predictable end: the end of work.

The day will come when the people who are currently working in agriculture, manufacturing, and services will no longer be required to work. All production will be done by machines. Machines work because they are not capable of creativity.

People will be free from work. Of the billions of people, there will be some who will do things of such incredible beauty and creativity that we cannot even begin to imagine.

The rest of humanity will do things that keep them busy and out of trouble. They may end up playing video games, socialising or building social networks or tweeting (or whatever the equivalent of those things would be in a post-work world.)

It’s possible to imagine that some people even in the Post-work World would be pathologically trying to destroy civilization, as they do today, due to ideology.[6] But perhaps by then evil ideologies would have disappeared because all people would have had the opportunity to get an education and ignorance would not be an issue.

The Implications

I have laid out an outlandish theory. But I am fairly convinced that that is where it is all headed.

The first implication is that the obsession with employment has to be buried. Employment is not the goal of civilization. It is merely a means for getting stuff made. If one can get the same amount of stuff made using less labor, it means that on average there is less work involved without having to sacrifice the standard of living. Or by using the same amount of labor if more stuff gets produced, it means that it will allow more people to not work and still have higher living standards for all at the same time.

The second implication is that society should generate surplus so that it can support more non-working people. Take educational institutions. In the best educational institutions around the world, you will find many non-working people. What these non-working people create is valuable for society. They generally create what economists call “public goods” (as opposed to private goods.) Everyone gains from public goods.

[To be continued.]

End Notes

[1] Unfortunately for me, though. I was born too soon.

[2] Work World or Wowo.

[3] Post-work World or Powowo.

[4] All progress arises from non-work but all non-work does not lead to progress. Non-work is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for progress.

[5] It did not do any work and therefore it could not be tired and therefore did not have to “rest on the 7th day.”

[6] They are trying to drag civilization back to the 7th century CE. In many areas of the world such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc., they have indeed been partially successful. They want to remake the world into a homogenized global version of a particularly barbaric 7th century desert culture.


8 Responses to “The End of Work”

  1. Hi Atanu,

    It’s a very interesting thought, ending work or rather ending the dependence on work.

    Reminds me of the dialogue between Suka and his father Veda-Vyasa on the paths of Pravratti and Nivratti as expounded by the Vedas.

    Bear with me, I’m just trying to explore the possibility of an equivalence here: What you are calling work may be equivalent to what Vyasa is referring to as the “path of actions” which he says will keep men bound because they feel that the purpose in life is to do work. On the other hand, the non-work you are referring to might be what Vyasa calls “path of knowledge” which liberates men. Vyasa puts nicely saying:

    “One class of persons that are however of little intelligence, applaud acts. In consequence of this they have to assume bodies (one after another) ceaselessly. Those men whose perceptions are keen in respect of duties and who have attained to that high understanding (which leads to knowledge), never applaud acts even as persons that depend for their drinking water upon the supply of streams never applaud wells and tanks.”

  2. Thanks for posting these thoughts Atanu Dey. I have not read it, will read it today!


  3. 4 Ravi

    You seem to have completely left out the possibility of the technological singularity. Since, you are a computer scientist by profession, I would really like to know your thoughts on the tech singularity such as described by Ray Kurzweil.

    • Ravi:

      The essay is not finished. I am coming to the singularity and indeed the work of SI and Ray Kurzweil. I did refer to his work recently in a post.

  4. Wow!

    You are so right. Of the many stories I know this non-work is critical. I always wondered when I was in India in my teens how anybody could afford to discover or invent anything when we were struggling to eat.

    With poverty everywhere it was difficult to understand for me how anybody would have the time to sit and think.

    But now I understand better. You are right. The audacious statement “All progress in human affairs results from the actions of people who do not work.” is correct.

    Looking forward to the rest of the essay.

    You seem to be on roll here. You are doing a lot of non-work!


  5. what is said in mahAbhArata has to be understood in proper context. the “act” or “karma” there is selfish act “sa-kaama” karma. that binds. but niShkaama karma liberates.

    as said by vyAsa himself through kRiShNa that you can never be without karma, for even thoughts are karma. and the force of rajas guNa (action orientedness) will take over sooner or later, we can’t be without action. what we can strive is for unselfish karma.

    buddha didn’t leave karma. he chose to find solutions for the society’s problems and then spread his findings. einstien didn’t leave karma. he did more than his paid job asked for.

    you are confusing paid work for livelihood and “action” in general.
    the world won’t go much further if people stopped doing. mere thought without action is burden. einstien’s thoughts would be of no use, if technologists didn’t make devices with them.

    in mahAbhArata itself, vidur says that the wise engages with purpose, not desire. when we work only for salary, we are working for desire, but what if we have a purpose that is useful to the society and society decides to sponsor us (e.g. a company hires you for your thoughts, and subsequent actions)!

    your assumption that all progress happens through non-work is false to start with. it is action alone that changes anything for the mortal society. the action is guided by thoughts of wise people, whose action is to think far and wise.

    if you chose to be a sanyaasi – which means you have stopped any expectation from society, only then you have no duties to society. else all we do in our lives is because of others’ works. buddha got fed by people who worked and cooked. if he chose to eat only kanda-moola-phala (stem-root-fruits) then he won’t need progress at all.

    animals in the animal world have nothing to do. nature provides and they survive. one day they die of old age, lion attack or disease. from the point of view of the universe no one is working or not working. life starts as an ant and ends as an ant. but just like an ant thinks it has a long and meaningful life, so do many humans 🙂 🙂

  6. You could have written this a hundred years ago (with minor modifications), and it would still have made sense. So why haven’t we got to the post-work world yet, and what prevents us from getting there in another hundred years?

    The answer, in my opinion, lies in Keynesian economics that has guided government policy throughout most of the world in the 20th century and continues to do so today. The goal of the Keynesians is to achieve “full employment” (read full slavery). They keep trying to achieve this goal over and over again through various monetary and fiscal measures like wasteful government projects, big bailouts, stimulus packages and whatnot through excessive borrowing and printing of money. At the crux of this is the notion that the populace must be “kept busy” to avoid any sort of instability (i.e. revolutionary ideas that lead to progress) in the country.

    The goal of an economy, as you point out, should be to achieve zero employment — not full employment! I believe we can get there, but first we must take a hundred and eighty degrees turn from the direction we’re headed.

    I’ve love to know if you have any thoughts on India returning to sound money, either based on a gold/silver standard, or by some other means.

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