The Future of Work and Leisure
Why Creativity and Empathy will be the Key Skills in an AI-Driven Future
For most of human history the notion of work was essentially equivalent to manual labor. First on fields and farms, and later in factories.
At the beginning of the 20th century the average factory worker worked for more than ten hours a day, six days a week.
This all changed in 1926, when Henry Ford introduced the eight-hour workday and five-day workweek (while simultaneously significantly raising salary above industry standards).
Why did Ford do this? It was not because he was simply a nice guy. He might have been, I don’t know, but his reasons for doing this were much more practical and business-driven.
First of all, he recognized that if he offered better working conditions than anyone else, he could easily attract the best talent. And this is exactly what happened. The most skilled workers left his competitors and lined up to work at his factories. And if someone wasn’t performing, he was simply let go. There were more than enough people willing to take over the position.
Second, he figured that if people have no free time or are too exhausted to use their free time, they won’t spend any money on leisure activities.
“People who have more leisure must have more clothes. They eat a greater variety of food. They require more transportation in vehicles. […] Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”
It was purely economical.
By giving his workers more leisure (and more money to spend on leisure), the same workers would finally be able and incentivized to buy the very products they were producing. More free time would not harm, but boost the economy!
Finally, and most relevant for the point I want to make here, he realized that his workers would simply be able to do a better job on less hours, for two distinct reasons.
The restrictions on time would lead to more innovation and better methods. People would actually think about how to work rather than just grinding things out.
“We can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six, and we shall probably get a greater, for the pressure will bring better methods.”
— Henry Ford
Besides, more rested workers are in general more effective, motivated, and make fewer costly mistakes.
In essence, Ford saw that even for manual labor, equating busyness with productivity only worked up to a certain point.
In 1936, shortly after Ford shortened the working time in his factories with repercussions that we still feel today, philosopher Bertrand Russel published his wonderful essay “In Praise of Idleness”.
In this essay Russel noted that historically it was not work, but rather the celebration of leisure that allowed us to accomplish many of the things we now consider the biggest achievements of civilisation.
“In the past there was a small leisure class and a large working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice […] It contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.”
When talking about leisure, Russell meant a particular kind of high quality leisure, such as reflection, contemplation and learning, not endlessly scrolling down our Facebook feed. Way ahead of his time, he saw the popularity of such “passive and vapid amusements” as a consequence of people being too exhausted from excessive work to engage in more active and meaningful leisure activities.
He argued that the way forward is to re-discover our appreciation for true leisure and time off.
And to have everyone join the leisure class, not just a select few.
“Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was rendered possible only by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technic it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.
I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
— Bertrand Russel
Given this trend of some of the leading industrialists and thinkers supporting and promoting leisure in the early 20th century we should now be living in a culture which, similar to say Ancient Greece and Rome, values leisure highly and sees busyness actually as a form of laziness and lack of time management and deep reflective thought.
Yet the opposite seems to be true. We find ourselves in a culture that all too often wears busyness, stress and overwork as a badge of honor, a sign of accomplishment and pride. Someone who leaves work on time and takes ample breaks during the day can’t possibly be as productive as someone who grinds out long hours of overwork day after day and barely ever leaves their desk, right?
The problem is that even though we have largely shifted from manual labor to knowledge work, workers still suffer from the intellectual equivalent of factory work mentality!
To a small extent this may be justified, there currently still remains a (unnecessarily) large residue of the intellectual equivalent of factory work. This is the kind of work where more time put in actually does largely correlate with more output generated (at least up to a certain extent, as Ford realized).
It’s the kind of work that genuinely justifies long hours and sacrificing time off. But this is also the least valuable kind of work. And this value is further diminishing all the time. Rapidly. These are exactly the kind of tasks that are ripe for disruption, and ultimately replacement, by AI and other productivity and automation tools. Their days are almost numbered.
In my previous job I was leading the development of an AI powered tool that helped financial analysts search through large amounts of news data and generate insights from these texts. With this tool, analysts managed to cut the time it took to search for relevant information and generate certain reports for their managers by up to 90%! That’s 90% less time wasted on a routine task that can now be reinvested in work that actually matters and truly utilizes their skill and creativity.
Or alternatively, it can be invested into time off. And this is a worthwhile investment.
Similarly think of medical professionals or lawyers as some stereotypical examples of “expert professions”. How much of their time is wasted on administrative work or tedious search tasks, and how little time actually used applying the skills that makes them experts, such as spending time with individual patients, or deeply understanding a client and their case.
A modern hospital can at times feel like a factory, with patients treated as standardised units being sent, as if on a conveyor belt, from one station to the next to receive a quick glance to make sure they fall within a certain tolerance window and then move on.
Now imagine what this could look like if AI allowed these doctors to spend 90% less time on all the routine tasks, and reinvest this into face-to-face time with their patients (or simply to get some sleep rather than pulling 30 hour shifts).
AI will not take away our jobs, nor will it threaten or weaken our human values. My friend and co-author John Fitch and I would argue that the opposite will be true. Yes, AI will disrupt the job landscape, but the kind of jobs that will remain, as well as newly created, will be centered around human skills such as creativity and empathy.
And these skills are highly non-linear with respect to time. More time in does absolutely not correspond to a better or higher output. In fact, it is very easy to put in too much time, to ignore the balancing and nourishing effects of rest, and as a result to diminish one’s output.
In the future of work, time off will not be something that is considered a “nice to have” or an enticing benefit that a generous employer provides to attract and retain talent.
Instead, the deliberate practice of time off will be one of the key skills and competitive advantages. In addition to our work ethic, we should seriously start thinking about our “rest ethic”.
John and I are so excited about this future that we are currently working a book on the topic of Time Off.
Time Off Book - Rediscover one of humanity's greatest practices
Relearn the lost art of achieving your purpose without burning out.
We hope to encourage more people to re-discover this ancient art that seems to have been largely forgotten, and give very practical tips for how to cultivate and use high quality leisure, as well as share incredible stories from both history and present times about amazing people who have harnessed the power of time off.
We believe that already, companies and individuals that focus on placing empathy and creativity, and the practices and habits of leisure that support them, at the core of their corporate or personal philosophy will thrive.
And soon, it might be the only viable option.
Busywork is easy to automate, and no one, no matter how many hours they put in and how much of their life they sacrifice, is going to outwork AI on these tasks.
Creativity and empathy on the other hand will remain distinctly human for a long time to come.
Those who understand these skills as well as the new tools will embrace AI not as an obstacle or adversary, but as an enabling technology to take their humanity to the next level.
What will empower them to do so will be a healthy approach to the rhythm of work and leisure, and the deliberate practice of time off.
So we might as well start practicing now!
[Note: This article was adapted from a much longer piece about AI and art.]