Really, the End of Work? Will Robots Raise Our Children? 

By Audrey Kingstrom

I find discussions about the “end of work” due to artificial intelligence and automation just a tad overstated and dire. But then, by my sights, it’s mostly men who are sounding the alarm. Perhaps that’s because men have been defining work for far too long. “Real work” is done by men; “women’s work” is not highly valued and typically doesn’t register in economic models and calculations. Hence, so much essential activity for human flourishing and social functioning has been overlooked as the future of work is being pondered.

In the past century, of course, women have broken down so many barriers and now populate the world of traditional “men’s work” in significant numbers. That development, however, has not relieved women of all the other responsibilities we have been saddled with for centuries that are, quite frankly, essential to human survival. More often than not, women “get” to work two shifts, whether we are paid for the second one or not.

Despite the growth of the commercial food industry, electric appliances, running water, automatic washers and dryers, and a whole host of other modern conveniences that have made “women’s work” much less onerous, attending to basic personal and household needs comprises a fair amount of time and effort for almost all women – and increasingly so for men.

Future automation may further ease the burdens of running a household, attending to our own personal self-care and providing care to those for whom we are responsible, but it is just as likely that more service workers will assist us in meeting these needs. The social-emotional nature of our humanity demands it; or will we really robotically clone ourselves out of existence?

No doubt some of you are thinking that I am too readily blurring the lines between personal care activities with employable “work.” Think again. Household chores and “care work” – once the unpaid responsibility of women everywhere – have increasingly become monetized in the last century - especially as women have entered the workforce. And as our ethical standards have risen in how we treat the vulnerable in our society (i.e., the young, old, disabled, addicted, physically or mentally ill), we have increased the workforce for a more “caring economy” even here in the United States. Our current administration notwithstanding, the genie is out of the bottle and “care work” will continue to grow.

Of course, the wealthy have always depended on service workers to feed, clothe, and bathe them, let alone perform more grueling household tasks, but increasingly middle-class folks rely on outside help to ease their busy lives. For example, as fewer people cook for themselves, the fast-food industry has grown exponentially. But now that we realize the bad side effects of those eating patterns, more labor-intensive food systems are reemerging to produce and prepare healthier food options for time-strapped people – or for those who just never learned to cook. Feeding ourselves and the world in sustainable, healthy ways is going to continue to take a lot of work for a lot of people for a long time to come.

And who will raise our children? R2D2 and C3PO? Love them as I do, it’s only because they are thoroughly anthropomorphized robot movie stars. Will we create more and better models of them to nurture and educate our young? Will they change diapers and feed babies, teach kids how to ride a bike, swim, or make cookies? Again, as traditional “women’s work,” childrearing has been so undervalued and underpaid in modern society. While computers and more sophisticated technologies hold great promise for some aspects of education, who will provide the life-long learning to think critically and ethically, to foster understanding, compassion, and tolerance for others, to cultivate civic and social engagement in our communities? Will there truly be no work in these domains for humans to do? If not, what will it mean to be human?

Today we highly value the work of doctors, surgeons, specialists, and the like, but it is the nurses, assistants, therapists, home-health aides, and care-givers attending to all of us in varying degrees throughout our lives who will not easily be replaced by automation. With better diagnosis and medical interventions (even if these come by advances in artificial intelligence), health “care” jobs may be in greater demand and more highly valued as longevity increases throughout the entire population. Have the geeky futurists thought about what kind of elder-care they might want and need some day? Health care has been a growing industry for decades now. It is unlikely to slow down any time soon especially as we seek to make good care available to all.

Even if artificial intelligence surpasses the cognitive capacities of humans in the future, things will still need to get done. Who will fix my faucet, my bike, or my computer? Or any other super-duper gadget that I can’t even imagine now? Will we replace everything that is out of date or dysfunctional? Never. Resources are limited. We’ll need to be relearning how to reuse, repair, and repurpose all our stuff. Maybe we will need to go “back to the future” to sustain our lives. Back when people (read “men”) knew how to repair lamps and clocks and motors and leaking pipes. When people (read “women”) knew how to mend clothes, reupholster a chair, and sew their own creations. Much of that “work” was never monetized, but someday it may need to be.

And finally, who will make us laugh? Entertain us with great music? Delight us with wacky or beautiful art? Tell us stories and inspire us to dream of incredible new worlds? Perhaps I lack the imagination to see all the promise and peril in the brave new world of artificial intelligence and automation we are supposedly hurtling toward. (Or I don’t watch enough sci-fi movies.) But I firmly believe we still have the capacity as humans to create the world we want to live in. Unless we disengage, give up or let some elite class of people or institutions maintain control of everything, we can help create the future we want.

Will work be redefined in the future? Of course. It’s been redefined before and it will be again – and again. Might there be a shorter work-week in the future with livable wages? Hopefully, yes. Those changes are not inconsistent with our goals – a world where all can have their physical needs met and then to flourish, find meaning, and live with purpose. There has seldom ever been remuneration for the work of creating the world we want. But in the words of singer-songwriter Charlie King – whose music inspired me as a young adult so many years ago: “Our lives are more than our work, and our work is more than our jobs.” Indeed. As humanists, we have much work to do -- making the world a better place, now, and for future generations. Let’s keep at it.

Audrey Kingstrom is president of Humanists of Minnesota.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash.