Tom Easton

Professor of Science (ret.)


When you meet someone, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to “What do you do?” In other words, who are you? And you say you are a lawyer, a student, a plumber, a Marine Lieutenant, an animal rights activist, or maybe a Patriots fan.  You get the idea. In general, it’s what you do for a living that you offer as your identity. It is, and has been for generations, what defines our worth to ourselves and others.

But is that really who you are? It’s what you do. It’s your role in an admittedly large portion of your life. And that can change, without really changing who you are. Can’t it?  Maybe not.

A friend of mine defined himself in terms of his academic profession. He also had a secondary gig that smacked of high adventure. As he approached retirement he lost both and felt that he had lost his self-definition and self-worth—in fact, his self—as well. The result was depression, which he still fights.

Losing a job or career for any reason can have a similar impact. So can getting divorced (one loses the identity of spouse), or losing a child (one loses the identity of parent). That is, we clearly have multiple roles in life. We also have other identity-defining factors, such as race, religion, and gender, which it is fair to say (I think) dominate when they make one into a target for discrimination and hate. They may also dominate when other identity-defining factors (such as jobs) play a lesser role.

Those other factors deserve discussions of their own. For now, let’s stick with jobs. We tend to have just one. It can change, and it often does. The self-definition—how you introduce yourself—then changes accordingly.  If we lose the job, for whatever reason—layoff, health, retirement—we may lose our sense of identity and worth. Others too may see us as without identity or worth. And “others” includes politicians, who often seem to regard the unemployed as worthless, and to treat them accordingly.

We put a lot of psychic energy into our self-definitions, and perhaps because they are achieved through years of training and experience, we put the most into our job-related self-definitions. It is thus no surprise that losing a job is traumatic, nor that the consequences can include mental illness.

So what do we do when the machines take all the jobs?

Well, they aren’t going to take them all.  But a number of recent studies project that by mid-century computers will be able to do something like 80 percent of all the jobs now held by human beings (Stuart W. Elliott, https://issues.org/byline/stuart-w-elliott/, “Anticipating a Luddite Revival,” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2014, and “Artificial Intelligence, Robots, and Work: Is This Time Different?” Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2018.) “Safe” jobs that demand more skills are in education, health care, science, engineering, and law, but even those may be matched within a few decades.  “In principle,” Elliott says, “there is no problem with imagining a transformation in the labor market that substitutes technology for workers for 80% of current jobs and then expands in the remaining 20% to absorb the entire labor force.  [But] We do not know how successful the nation can be in trying to prepare everyone in the labor force for jobs that require these higher skill levels. It is hard to imagine, for example, that most of the labor force will move into jobs in health care, education, science, engineering, and law. … At some point it will be too difficult for large numbers of displaced workers to move into jobs requiring capabilities that are difficult for most of them to carry out even if they have the time and resources for retraining. When that time comes, the nation will be forced to reconsider the role that paid employment plays in distributing economic goods and services and in providing a meaningful focus for many people’s daily lives.”

Marcus Wohlsen, in “When Robots Take All the Work, What’ll Be Left for Us to Do?” Wired (August 8, 2014) (http://www.wired.com/2014/08/when-robots-take-all-the-work-whatll-be-left-for-us-to-do/), says that “The scariest possibility of all is that [the loss of jobs means] that only then do we figure out what really makes us human is work.”  William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone, “What Happens to Society When Robots Replace Workers?” Harvard Business Review (December 10, 2014) (https://hbr.org/2014/12/what-happens-to-society-when-robots-replace-workers), reach a similar conclusion: “Ultimately, we need a new, individualized, cultural, approach to the meaning of work and the purpose of life.”

So who are you? Who will you be when the robots take over? It probably won’t be your job that defines you then. Most of you won’t have one. But will it be something internal, something self-generated, some ineffable sense of self, that does the job? I suspect Davidow and Malone are closer to the mark. However, though many commenters have suggested that in a jobless society everyone will be busy making “culture”—writing, singing, acting, sculpting, etc.—I think that is very unlikely. Most people will deal with that sort of culture by binge-watching it, just as far too many do today.

Culture isn’t just art. It’s what we do, what we think about, even how we identify ourselves. It surrounds us, and if we take jobs (mostly) out of the picture, we will recenter our identities in that, in fact in something that is already part of our identity. We will introduce ourselves as:


–A member of a particular religion or sect

–A member of a political party or a segment of one

–A follower of some person renowned for wisdom

–An adherent to an ideal

–A disbeliever in climate change or vaccines or…

–A member of a racial minority

–Somewhere on the LGBTQ rainbow

–An athlete

–A fan of a particular sport or team

–A writer, artist, musician, actor

–A fan of a literary genre such as science fiction, fantasy, romances, or mysteries

–A fan of a music group

–A fan of a film, a film genre, a director, a performer

–A volunteer organizer of conventions for all those fans

–And more


Will cultural factors be enough to fill the place now occupied by job? Social networks will thrive on them. Business will surely jump on them, since identity-based marketing is already a thing. There may be other opportunities as well. There will be more variations on the Comicon theme, for instance. Since the first two items on the list already identify a great many people, even to the near-exclusion of anything else, there will also be the potential for much more intense tribalism in public life. And changing tribe-based identities may, based on what we have seen in recent politics, be harder than changing employment-based identities. On the other hand, if history teaches us anything at all, it shows that political parties and religions are prone to schism, perhaps especially when people are most intensely involved in them.  Thus we can expect to see a proliferation of political parties, religions, sects, and mere factions. History also teaches us that defense of orthodoxy can turn extreme (think of the Cathar massacre or the Spanish Inquisition).

It will take a while to develop. For now, and for another generation at least, our jobs play and will play a very large part in defining us. But come the day…

May I predict that increased fragmentation of existing political parties and the formation of new ones will force the United States to move toward a parliamentary form of democracy, where multiple parties must form coalitions in order to govern? And there will be an enormous political brouhaha first. Let us hope that it does not turn bloody.



My next post will consider the meaning of “the nation will be forced to reconsider the role that paid employment plays in distributing economic goods and services.” Working title: “Maintaining a Consumer Economy.”


And after that, I will consider what the loss of paid employment implies for the future of higher education, much of which is explicitly vocational.

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