The Future of Work (Work #7)

Welcome to the final piece in our season three series on the philosophy of work. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been putting work under the philosophical microscope, and exploring why it plays such an important part in our lives.

In this final article, we’re going to go back over the territory we have covered, to see if we can now throw more light on the complex roles played by work in human life. And then we’re going to ask some questions about the future of work.


We started out by looking at what work is, and where it comes from. At a fundamental level, work is about acting on the world so that it meets our necessities — or beyond mere necessities, so that it accords more closely with our desires. This means that work is always tied up with the idea of the future. We work because are concerned with what will happen tomorrow (or next week, or next month, or next year, or ten years down the line).

In the jargon of the philosophers, one reason we work is because work brings us various external goods — various good or desirable things like food on the table, or clean drinking water. But work also involves internal goods: perhaps it gives us satisfaction, or meets a need we have to feel part of a community, and so on. But whether we are talking about external or internal goods, work has a future-facing aspect: we care about food, about status, about being liked and so on not just in the immediate term, but also because we want to secure our existence in the longer term.

However, our present-day concerns with work are relatively new to human life. We saw in the first article how our ancestors may have had a very different relationship with work. For much of the human past, work was a more sporadic thing. And the history of our present ways of thinking about work can be traced back to the dawn of agriculture, where we can see the beginnings of the complicated relationship between work, hierarchy and the division of labour.

This relationship can also be seen in the early philosophical traditions of both Greece and China. The philosophers Aristotle and Mencius, for example, both saw hierarchy and the division of labour as essential to the functioning of society.

Labour, Work and Action

But “work” can refer to many kinds of activities. So in an attempt to give our discussion of work a more nuanced philosophical underpinning, in the second piece, we dived into the work of Hannah Arendt, and into her account of the vita activa, or the “active life.”

You can divide the things human beings do into two broad categories—doing stuff and thinking about stuff, or activity and contemplation. For Aristotle, the highest kind of life was the life of contemplation. Thinking about stuff was, to put it bluntly, better than doing stuff. In the 19th Century, Karl Marx reversed this hierarchy, arguing that contemplation, in isolation from actively intervening in the world, was largely useless. The point isn’t to just sit and think about the world, but instead to change it.

Arendt attempts to arbitrate in this squabble between thinkers and doers. For Arendt, both of these things matter: she wants to see human life whole. She cares deeply about the vita contemplativa, or the life of contemplation. But she also cares about the vita activa, the life of activity. A complete account of human life should encompass both contemplation and action.

Arendt’s book, The Human Condition, is about the vita activa (later on in her life, she started to work on a book about the vita contemplativa, to be called The Life of the Mind, but the book was unfinished on her death).

In The Human Condition, Arendt divides the life of activity into three. Labour is about meeting our basic needs. It is the unending and circular activity of attending to the things that we need for survival. In labour, Arendt argues, we are unfree, because we are bound to these fundamental biological needs. Work is about creating new things in the world that give us a degree of freedom (tables, chairs, houses, cunning irrigation systems, apps). And the third kind of activity Arendt calls action. This is about intervening in the order of our shared world to transform the structures of which we are a part. Action is about creatively reimagining our shared world, and it is where we are at our most free.

There are overlaps between all three kinds of activity, but it is a useful way of thinking about the role of work in our lives. Some of what we are doing when we are “working” is labouring to meet our needs. Some is trying to creatively reimagine our shared world. And some of what we are doing is creating new things that might help give us a degree of freedom within the constraints of the world to which we belong.

Work as a Virtue

In the third piece, we moved on to the idea that there is something inherently good about work. There are obviously many ways in which work can be good and useful. It can bring us all kinds of internal and external goods. It can help us meet our needs. It can be a way of producing useful stuff. And it can help us refashion our shared world. But in this class, we asked the question: is there something about work, simply by virtue of it being work, that makes it good and virtuous?

So in this article, we looked at the long tradition that sees work as a path to virtue, or—even more than this—as a path to our salvation. And we explored that idea that work is, as Thomas Carlyle suggested, a “purifying fire” that can help burn up all of our afflictions and our woes.

Aristotle thought that work was a mug’s game, and that no self-respecting philosopher should be found working. But an increasingly strident tradition of Western thought stressed the spiritual value of work. One early proponent of this idea was the monk Benedict of Nursia, for whom work was a necessary part of the monastic vocation, and idleness one of the greatest spiritual risks. But we also saw how, after the Reformation, there was a universalisation of the idea of vocation. And this contributed to the coming of what is often referred to as the “Protestant work ethic”—the ethical and spiritual demand that we should work as a way of cultivating virtue; and the idea that we should all live as if our work was a vocation, and this vocation was the road to our salvation.

The Badness of Work

And yet, for all those who say that work is our salvation, there are others who claim that work is something we’d be better off without. In the fourth article, we looked at the spiritual damage caused by work. And we focussed in on three kinds of harm: the harms of overwork, the harms of what David Graeber has called “bullshit jobs”, and the harms of unemployment.

The harms of overwork are well documented. In exploring these harms, we also looked at how we might mitigate them. Here we saw some insights from the Daoist tradition on how we can optimally minimise work.

But work harms us in other, more subtle ways. Part of what makes work valuable for us is that we are beings who want to have an effect on the world. A meaningful life is one in which we actively shape the world of which we are a part. And this is what makes Graeber’s so-called “bullshit jobs” so damaging: they are jobs that do not feed this need we have to shape and remake the world. They are jobs that, however well-rewarded they may be, are overwhelming in their futility.

Finally, we looked at unemployment. Many of the arguments in favour of work argue on the basis that unemployment is clearly bad for us. But unemployment, like work, can mean many things, and only some kinds of unemployment may be harmful to our flourishing. So we also explored the idea of whether there might be “good” and “bad” kinds of unemployment, just as there are “good” and “bad” kinds of work. And we asked what it would be to rethink our cultures of work so that both work and unemployment were conducive to human flourishing.

Idleness and Play

Having explored the benefits and harms of work, we changed tack to ask about some of those things that we consider to be “non-work”. Like everything else, we understand work partly in terms of what it is not. So we explored two kinds of non-work in more depth: idleness and play.

Idleness is different from rest. When we are resting, we are not working so that we can return to work with a renewed energy. Rest is non-work for the sake of work. But idleness is a kind of non-work that isn’t defined by work at all. This is why Benedict of Nursia saw idleness as a gateway of vice and sin. But for precisely this reason, thinking through idleness might be a way of reimagining our lives, by stepping outside the ways in which we usually frame questions about human purpose and meaning. As the philosopher Brian O’Connor argues, thinking through idleness challenges us to rethink human freedom. Taking idleness seriously is also a way of taking seriously the idea that we might find meaning and significance entirely outside our concerns with work—and this opens up all kinds of interesting questions about human life.

In the piece after, we moved on to look at play. Here we circled back to Arendt’s account of human activity to ask what Arendt missed in her exploration of the vita activa. A lot of what we human beings (and other animals) spend our time doing is playing. So in this piece, we looked at finite and infinite games. We explored games where the stakes are high, and games where the point is just the playing itself. And we asked how it might be possible to rethink philosophy itself as a kind of play (so the next time you meet a philosopher, instead of asking them “what are you working on?”, maybe you could ask them “what are you playing with?”).

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This is a sketch map of the territory we have covered over the previous weeks. It feels that we have come a long way, but as always with philosophy, it also feels as if we have only just started to scratch the surface. There’s a lot more we could have said about all of these topics—work, labour, salvation, activity and contemplation, idleness, play. But one thing is clear: there is nothing fixed or unchanging about the ways in which we work, or the ways in which we think about work.

This means that we can always rethink our assumptions about work, what it is, and why it matters. And we can also always find ways of working differently (or not-working differently) in the light of this.

So what does the future hold for work? Are we heading for an automated future where—as people have been predicting for decades—more and more of us are freed up for leisure? Will the robots dutifully take over all aspects of human drudgery, leaving us all free to enjoy Aristotle’s life of leisure? And if so, is this a good thing? If the ways in which we work are changing, how fairly are the benefits and harms of these changes distributed? How should meet the basic needs we all have, within the complex societies of which we are a part, if there are not enough jobs to go around? What about universal basic income? Is it a pathway to unlocking vast resources of human creativity and ingenuity, a way of mitigating endless economic and social hardship? Or is it a slippery slope to lassitude and spiritual decay?

All these questions are beyond the scope of this short course. But by now, it should be clear that the more you pick at the threads of our ideas about work, the more our everyday assumptions begin to unravel.

So instead of asking “is work good or bad for us?”, perhaps we should be asking more complicated and subtle questions. We should be asking what makes work good or bad, what else matters in human life, and how we can shape our cultures of work and non-work, to maximise human flourishing, and to ensure that this flourishing is evenly distributed.


  1. What do you think the future of work is? And what should it be?
  2. If in the future, Arendt’s labour was no longer an issue—if the basic needs of everybody could be met through automation—what would be the ideal form of life? Would it involve work, leisure, play, idleness, contemplation, or some combination of these things?
  3. How long have you been working? And how has the pattern of work changed for you over this period? How do you see it changing in the future?
  4. Can philosophy help you navigate the future of work (and non-work) better? If so, how?

More further reading

Books and articles

For a recent, scholarly collection of essays on the future of work, try Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber’s edited collection The Future of Work, Technology, and Basic Income (Routledge 2019).

And here’s a piece from the Conversation about how robots won’t put an end to work, because work is a part of what makes us human.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Children’s Games. 1560. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sign up to my newsletter