The myth of hard work

Looking at the pace at which technology is improving it seems that the only way in which humans would be able to survive acceptably over the next century and beyond is to relinquish a deep seated idea that has been ingrained in all of us. The idea that hard-work is a noble pursuit, while very seductive, is ultimately bullshit and I want to argue why that must be so. It might be a useful thing to do but there is nothing noble about it. It may not even remain very useful for long.

The fact that there is something noble about hard-work is immediately put in question when one considers that throughout history, the social classes which have been the most well off have not had to do much hard-work. This holds for the Western nobility classes up to the 18th century before the French revolution saw through the charade and it holds for the landowner classes in the East which led a good life not because they toiled hard on the fields but had others who did it for them. They led a good life because they owned property and not because they worked hard. In modern times the equivalents are owners of large companies who seem to get compensated wildly out of proportion for the amount of effort they put in. There is a certain amount of intelligence and hard-work which has gone into the makings of this super-rich class but their success appears more to do with who their parents were and which schools they could afford to go to. The idea that those who have had the short end of the stick have only to work harder in order to achieve the same kind of success is a great story that I would also cook up if I were to keep the general masses in line. I do believe that there are exceptions where hard-work and unusual talents do pay off but the idea itself is a myth on average. It is the same kind of myth which the nobility of morality is; just a carrot in front of the mule sufficient to keep it running ad-infinitum.

My thoughts on this topic were set in motion when I was watching a documentary on how Coca Cola makes its famous drinks. The amount of automation is absolutely breathtaking and there is no reason to think that the few people who still need to be on the factory floor will not be dispensed off in the future. Obviously this phenomenon is not just related to the Coke factory but we see this in all realms of life. We see that, generally speaking, increasing automation is resulting in fewer and fewer jobs where humans are required. While hundreds of people were required to till a few hectares in the past, one person can do it all by himself now. The army of people which were required to keep records in all sorts of companies and departments have been replaced by software. It appeared then that all jobs which did not require the application of the human brain and which were repetitive would eventually be replaced by automation and this is already seen to be true. However, what we did not realize that even jobs which required human brains will also be replaced by increasingly intelligent software. This is already seen to be true in the areas of publishing (software writing formulaic articles), surveillance, medical diagnosis and many more. I think it is a clear writing on the wall now that almost all jobs which currently require human input will eventually end up being automated and this includes both repetitive jobs and jobs which require, what we consider, creative inputs.

In such a society where opportunity does not exist, what does hard-work buy you? In the intervening time between now and then, there will always be people who would peddle the same moronic idea that they always have. They will point to the exceptions who make it and say with a smug smile, if only you worked harder. However, what they won't realize is that the kind of hard-work and talent which was enough to make it for them in an earlier time will not be enough to make it for future generations because the opportunities will be far fewer. Taken to the extreme then I am imagining a society where there exist very little to no opportunities for most people to work but which still produces an abundance of goods and services. That society would collectively generate much more than enough for everyone to live comfortably but these goods and services would would not be made available (or made only grudgingly available) to the masses. This ridiculous state of affairs will become a reality if we keep on believing that hard-work is a noble pursuit and that one needs to work in order to deserve something. In fact, it would not even make much economic sense to keep believing in these notions since the producers of the surplus goods and services will find it impossible to find people who buy and consume them because they will not be part of the economy. To circumvent this nightmarish scenario it appears more natural to keep in mind what the real goal of a society is. It is to produce enough to live comfortably. It is not to work hard or to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of anachronistic ideals. And hard-work, most certainly will be an anachronistic ideal in the vacuum which will come to pass in the absence of opportunity.

2 observations on “The myth of hard work
  1. Jose

    brilliant Ankit!
    Taken to an even further extreme, I believe that in this future society, greed of a few will be the doom of us all. They will effortlessly "create" goods and services for the masses that will be sold at whatever prices they want. Gap between classes will be widened ... the end of the world as we know it.

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