Can the end of ‘bullshit jobs’ spark a renaissance in meaningful work?

First they came for farmers. Then they came for factory workers. But now the professional class is feeling the pain, as automation and outsourcing displaces legions of bankers, accountants, lawyers, tax advisors and managers (and, dare we say, journalists). By 2030 or so, automation could replace between 45 and 55 percent of current U.S. and European jobs.

Seize the moment, argues Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of “Utopia for Realists,” which was published in English last month. As the need for workers to grow food and make things fell, society created what he terms “bullshit jobs” that even their holders don’t find satisfying. (That’s a technical term, by the way: about half of all professionals describe their work that way, according to a 2013 survey by the Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project.) If robots can take over those roles, he says, we can seize the opportunity to make meaning, not pay, the center of our lives.

“Historically, society has been able to afford more bullshit jobs precisely because our robots kept getting better,” Bregman writes. “Anybody who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new bullshit jobs.”

The opportunity now is to radically rethink our definition of ‘work’ and reap therewards of technological advances, he argues. Bregman is a proponent of a universal basic income, which is being tested in San Francisco, Finland, Kenya and elsewhere. But rather than simply mitigating automation-driven unemployment, Bregman says universal basic income strategies should prioritize meaningful activity and social connection.

“I believe in a future where the value of your work is not determined by the size of your paycheck, but by the amount of happiness you spread and the amount of meaning you give. I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived. I believe in a future where “jobs are for robots and life is for people.”

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