Automation has always evoked fear in people and society. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Luddites smashed machinery they believed was responsible for taking away their jobs. Craftsmen and artisans who produced objects and tools from scratch found their work was now divided into dozens of separate steps – and in a factory, their job would be to attend to only one of those steps. The integration of a craft became the disintegration of life during the Industrial Revolution.
Nearly three hundred years later, the world is in the grip of the post-Industrial revolution; automation is set to make millions of jobs and callings redundant in the coming decades. Few are safe: with the rapid development of AI – look at the ChatGPT that can dash off a university essay with a few prompts – jobs we normally think of as professional, demanding years of study and a human being to perform, such as bookkeepers, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents, will be performed by computers.
Erik Gandini’s intelligent but disturbing look at how the world of work may look in the future, After Work, adds a new layer of fear for the future that is the salient feature of life today. As if climate change, income inequality and the threat of nuclear catastrophe associated with the war in Ukraine were not enough, we must now worry about what we shall do with our time in a world without work.
Automation has always evoked fear in people and society.
The first half of this elegantly made film (cinematography is by Fredrik Wenzel – who was DoP on Palme D’or winner Triangle of Sadness; the score comes from Söderberg and is arranged by Christoffer Berg from Ali Abbassis’ The Border and recorded at the Ennio Morricone studio in Rome) looks at where we are now.
We define ourselves by what we do, Gandini contends. The film’s opening statement gives you a clue to what he thinks this means for human beings:
They were stable while at war but began to fall once they had won because they did not understand how to be at leisure.
Aristol on the Spartans, 350BC
This is certainly true in two of the countries Gandini looks at: in America, every year, around 578 million hours – that amounts to nearly 66,000 years – of vacation time are not taken by workers. Those are paid days off that workaholic Americans won’t take. More than half of Americans give up on vacation days at the end of the year when they will expire unless taken.
A business consultant – introduced to a refrain of «I’m so busy, I’ve so many irons in so many fires, you just don’t know how busy I am» – identifies «work ethic» as the most important quality American employers look for in employees. Education is the least important quality. «Send me someone who will turn up on time, work with enthusiasm and pass a drug urine test – anyone – and I shall employ as many as you can send», one employer told the consultant.
Gallup, the international pollsters, reckons that of the 8 billion souls on earth, a billion are fortunate enough to have a regular, paid job. But only 15% of those are engaged – enthusiastic, emotionally connected and positive. The rest are either «not-engaged» – they turn up and do the job but have no connection to it, or «actively disengaged» – frustrated, angry and bent on undermining their «engaged» colleagues.
That is an awful lot of unhappiness
A delivery driver for Amazon talks about how much she loves her job but pushed a little, she admits that the constant in-cab surveillance makes her feel demeaned, and the job boils down to little more than actual slavery.
In South Korea, a daughter laments that her father works 16-hour days – turning up at the office at 7 am, leaving at 11 pm, and sleeping between 1 am and 6 am. He believes his hard work gained him a loving and successful family; she believes he has gained nothing from being tied too tightly to the rat race. A former Minister of Labour talks about the work culture in her country: South Korea has the world’s highest suicide rate and some of the highest rates of stomach cancer. Now, government campaigns to persuade people to work fewer hours (perhaps 50 hours a week rather than 60) even extend to automated shut-downs of computers at large firms at 6 pm.
So, where do we go from here? That is the focus of the second half of the film – which has been hinted at in the first, where the wealthy son of an aristocratic Italian who never worked a day in his life (devoting himself to passions: horses and beautiful women) described the satisfaction he gets from working as a simple gardener.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Gandini offers no clear answer to the question: «If you had money every month without working, what would you do?»
Some in the film ventures answers – we need to re-evaluate how we think about time; we need to think about how we intensify and deepen our humanity. Most asked the question give him a blank stare. Essentially, we need to understand how we can shift from human doers to human beings. Being, rather than doing seems to be the key, but as one Kuwaiti – who spent six years in a well-paid government job doing nothing – notes, some kind of Universal Basic Income risks creating what he observes in Kuwait: a generation of «spoilt, ignorant and irresponsible» people who will fall at the first hurdle when any challenge arises.
Gandini’s film also clearly understands that even as automation robs societies of jobs, in places like Italy or Kuwait – where there are large numbers of people classed as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) and generational wealth will take care of them, many low-grade jobs are performed by immigrants in conditions akin to slavery.
Globally, a host of factors are coalescing to create a cocktail of challenges to humanity. Thirty years ago, spiritual philosopher Peter Russell recognised this in his little-known but profoundly important book, The White Hole in Time. His contention was that it was spiralling toward a point of transition – where the choice lay between ascending to a life lived in the knowledge of our existence as spiritual beings on an earthly plane or falling to the bottom and starting from scratch – in some kind of post-apocalyptic pre-industrial age, where life would revert to the dog-eat-dog of pre-history.
Gandini’s film skates over the surface of this much deeper question.
After Work is a 2023 CPH:DOX World Premiere