The End of Work: An Essay on the Dawning of the Post-work World

“The progress of civilization can be measured by how many people are available to not do any work. The trend has been that of an increasing number of (as well as a larger percentage of) people that don’t have to work. The lower the percentage of people in it that work, the better off the civilization.”

The Dawning of the Post-Work World

All progress in human affairs results from the actions of people who do not work.

Progress does not arise from work. Here I define work as things that have to be done and in which there isn’t much choice whether to do them or not. All progress arises from actions that don’t have to be done.

In the present condition of the world, most people do things out of necessity. Which is another way of saying that most people work. At the individual level, if a person did not work, he will not be able to survive. Collectively if most people did not work, human society would collapse. This situation is changing and will change very fast.

The progress of civilization can be measured by how many people are available to not do any work. The trend has been that of an increasing number of (as well as a larger percentage of) people that don’t have to work. The smaller the percentage of people in it that work, the better off the civilization.

In primitive hunter-gatherer societies, everyone worked. All actions were in aid of survival. What they did was get food, seek shelter, fight off predators, procreate – all of which was work because they had to do these things and could not get by otherwise.

In the future, perhaps in a hundred years or so, no one will have to work.

Along the continuum of everyone working to no one working, we are by my estimate about 10 percent of the way to the no one working end. I mean, about 10 percent of the people don’t work. They do things that are not work. The rest have to work.

Work is not a good thing. It is a necessary thing but not a good thing. Work is not a good thing precisely because it is a necessary thing. The most trivial reason follows from how I have defined it as something that you don’t have any choice about. Anything that is done out of compulsion not a good thing.

The most important reason is that work does not lead to progress. All progress arises from the freedom from work.

As human civilization progresses, more and more people will attain freedom from work. And the more the number of people that are free from work, the faster will civilization progress. It’s a positive feedback loop.

Most people in poor societies work. The richer the society, the fewer the people who work.

We are at a boundary. We are witnessing the dawning of the post-work world. We have witnessed other transitions before. There was the transition from the hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture. That was followed by the transition to the industrial from the agricultural. The post-industrial world is going on but will be over in a few decades.

Though distinct in their detailed features, all the previous stages – hunter-gatherer, agriculture, industrial, post-industrial – can be clubbed together into what can be called the Work World, or WW. They all share the broad feature that majority of people living in them were engaged in work.

What will follow is the Post-Work World, PWW, in which no one will work.

What will People do in a Post-Work World

What many people will do in a Post-Work World is what people who didn’t work have always done: do things that lead to progress.

Work does not lead to progress. Non-work is that which does not have to be done and in which one has a choice about doing or not. All progress arises from non-work.

Some specific examples of progress arising from non-work would be in order here. Since all progress arises from non-work, and there have been thousands of instances of progress, finding examples is trivial.

Let me start off with a man I admire very much in the field of science. Albert Einstein was a great physicist. He worked as a patent examiner (3rd class) in the Swiss Patent Office in Berne. He had to examine patents to earn a living. Fortunately, his work did not occupy him full time. So in his spare time he did what was absolutely unnecessary and therefore cannot be considered work. He worked figured out the theories of relativity, among other unnecessary things like the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion.

Imagine now if he had to work full time. Of course, eventually all scientific advancements that Einstein made would have been made by other people. But it would not have been him because all work all the time means that there is no time for doing things that lead to progress.

Another man I admire mightily in the field of fundamental philosophical questions went by the name of Gautama who later went on become “the Buddha”. Born in a royal family, he did not work much. But he had a wife and a son. That involved work. Also, he had to rule his little kingdom. That was also work. He wanted to do stuff that did not need to be done. Such as, figure out the cause of the suffering in the world and therefore find a solution.

So Gautama left everything behind. He gave up all work. So he had all the time in the world to do non-work. He wandered around thinking. To keep body and soul together, he worked only a tiny bit. His work was that of a bhikshu, a mendicant. Since his needs were simple, he had to beg for sustenance for only a little bit of his time. The rest he used in non-work. Eventually he became awakened.

If Gautama had to work, he would never have become a buddha. And the world would have had to wait for another person of his intellectual capacity but free from work to figure out the answers.

All great discoveries in every field of human endeavor were made by people who did not have to do them. There was never a trivial matter of survival for them. It was pure play. Work and play are antithetical to each other.

All creativity arises from play. Indeed, the universe – the ultimate expression of creativity – according to the Hindu conception is simply a play that the mind of the ultimate consciousness dreams up. It does not have to create a universe. It just creates a universe just for the heck of it, without any compulsion. It did not do any work and therefore it could not be tired and therefore did not have to “rest on the 7th day.” It created the universe in play and in the end will uncreate it, also out of pure play.

The universe is not work, it is play. That’s why it is perfect.

But let’s examine more down to earth and contemporary examples of people not working.

The best people in every field of human creativity don’t work. Which is not to say that they don’t get paid or that they are unemployed; often enough they are employed and get paid for what they do. But what they get paid for is not work for them.

Tilling the field is work. Assembling cars in a factory is work. Writing code for a corporation is work. All essential for getting things done. This is maintenance.

Maintenance involves work. Creation involves non-work.

A maestro exploring a raga is not work. Writing a great novel is not work. Figuring out the laws of motion or the laws of electrodynamics is not work. Understanding the mechanism which explains the near infinite variety of life on earth is not work. None of these – and countless other activities – have nothing to do with the preservation of civilization. It is pure play. But they all form the foundation upon which all human progress is built.

The End of Work

The ultimate aim of humanity is the elimination of work. The freedom from work is the real freedom that will eventually happen.

In the early days of human history all had to work, as I noted before. Production was limited and therefore everything went into consumption. There was no surplus. Then with settled agriculture came a bit of surplus. That allowed a very small segment of the population to not work. That was the foundation of the subsequent progress. That foundation was built by people who did not work and upon which rested the industrial revolution.

The industrial society did not eliminate agriculture. People need food. What happened was the industrial revolution made agriculture more productive. Only a small segment of the labor had to be in agriculture to provide food for all. The rest of the labor went into industry. More stuff was produced and more surplus resulted. That meant society could afford more people not to work. Once again, more progress happened because of these people not working.

Automation in agriculture and industry kept increasing labor productivity – fewer people were required to work – and at the same time increasing production. So even more people did not have to work. Some went into services – making movies, providing haircuts, doing tax returns, building social networks on the internet, etc – that helped to increase the production of stuff.

So this story has a predictable end: the end of work.

The day will come when the people who are currently working in agriculture, manufacturing, and services will no longer be required to work. All production will be done by machines. Machines work because they are not capable of creativity.

People will be free from work. Of the billions of people, there will be some who will do things of such incredible beauty and creativity that we cannot even begin to imagine.

The rest of humanity will do things that keep them busy and out of trouble. They may end up playing video games, socialising or building social networks or tweeting (or whatever the equivalent of those things would be in a post-work world.)

It’s possible to imagine that some people even in the Post-work World would be pathologically trying to destroy civilization, as they do today, due to ideology. They are trying to drag civilization back to the 7th century CE. In many areas of the world such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc., they have indeed been partially successful. They want to remake the world into a homogenized global version of a particularly barbaric 7th century desert culture. But perhaps by then evil ideologies would have disappeared because all people would have had the opportunity to get an education and ignorance would not be an issue.

The Implications

I have laid out an outlandish theory. But I am fairly convinced that that is where it is all headed.

The first implication is that the obsession with employment has to be buried. Employment is not the goal of civilization. It is merely a means for getting stuff made. If one can get the same amount of stuff made using less labor, it means that on average there is less work involved without having to sacrifice the standard of living. Or by using the same amount of labor if more stuff gets produced, it means that it will allow more people to not work and still have higher living standards for all at the same time.

The second implication is that society should generate surplus so that it can support more non-working people. Take educational institutions. In the best educational institutions around the world, you will find many non-working people. What these non-working people create is valuable for society. They generally create what economists call “public goods” (as opposed to private goods.) Everyone gains from public goods.

[This was first posted to my blog “Life is a Random Draw” on Nov 5th, 2009.]

Author: Atanu Dey


15 thoughts on “The End of Work: An Essay on the Dawning of the Post-work World”

  1. Atanu,

    This is a very interesting article. Thanks for publishing. I have previously read that people in Hunter Gatherer societies worked on average 10 to 20 hours per week and anthropologists are now saying cultural advancements resulted in people working more, not less (one such article: Maybe this is the trend:

    1) Hunter Gatherer Societies: High Supply of stuff and not many materialistic needs – people chill out and work less

    2) Settled Agricultural Society: Specialized farmers, house builders (essential-needs workers) etc enable less people to work, creating a ruling class who demand luxuries, which “non essential-needs” workers create (music, art, science etc). – some people work more (working class), some people work less (ruling class)

    3) Industrial Society: Democracy spreads, population and materialistic needs/wants increased, supply of stuff decreases – so people work more

    4) With innovation and automation, supply of stuff increases again – Powowo, people don’t need to work. (Can’t wait for this to happen!)

    Or..maybe I should stop smoking this Joint and get back to work….


  2. Though, this is looking like the general trend and people will eventually figure out how to do this efficiently, we are certainly far from there. The main reason is how to support non-working people. For every one innovative non-worker who does something great, there are many idle non-workers who really just pass time. And as in times of recession, when there is not enough money going around, it is even difficult.


  3. Hi, Dey

    After reading this piece, I am once again reminded of what B R Ambedkar said something like this: “the purpose of creation of machine is to make people get more leisure”.


  4. Superb,

    Seen in this work, Government-Scientists work, they do not Create/Innovate. How true?
    It also explains why Politicians can rarely become visionaries or am I stretching the argument too long.

    Phases of human life are well-etched.


  5. “In primitive hunter-gatherer societies, everyone worked.

    The author was present then meticulously recording the activities of ‘primitive’ ‘hunter-gatherer societies’. He has his meticulous records to prove it all, how ‘primitive’, undeveloped, ‘unintelligent’ the people were then, who then ‘evolved’ into the ‘intelligent’ people who developed the ability to ‘think’ about things, to reason out things and to learn ‘economics’.

    The ‘primitive’ ‘hunter-gatherers’, who were child-like in their intellectual development, were only concerned with survival issues, to eat, sleep, have sex and fight, which were, all combined, called ‘work’; unlike the present day intellectual giants who merely meditate in universities, doing no such ‘work’ and produce the vedas by the dozen.

    In the future, perhaps in a hundred years or so, the way this ‘evolution’ thing is going, no one will have to ‘work’, because they would all have realised themselves as brahma. See, the tremendous development human society would have achieved then, from being ‘primitive’ ‘hunter-getherers’, who had no clue about brahma, to saying aham brahmasmi in the future! Wowo!
    can’t wait to be there.

    ‘Most people in poor societies work. The richer the society, the fewer the people who work’. They merely live off the work done by the poor people. How smart is that! isn’t it ? That is what is ‘evolution’.

    ‘There was the transition from the ‘hunter-gatherer’ to settled agriculture’. That must be the time the tails dropped off.

    The fellows who were intellectually deprived- they couldn’t even read or write, who were always out ‘hunting’ and ‘gathering’ when they were not busy sleeping, fighting or having sex, ‘settled down’ to ‘agriculture’.

    ‘That was followed by the transition to the industrial from the agricultural’. It was then that they manufactured the iron pillar at Mehrauli that does not rust. See the ‘evolutionary’ progress ?

    ‘If Gautama had to work, he would never have become a buddha. And the world would have had to wait for another person of his intellectual capacity but free from work to figure out the answers.’ Imagine, poor Dalai then would have had to wait his whole life for another such person ‘of his intellectual capacity‘ to become buddha, like he is waiting currently for the Chinese to get off Tibet.

    I remember the Buddha specifically told people that only people of ‘ his intellectual capacity‘ can ever reach buddhahood. So he discouraged all people from trying to become buddhas. His strong advise was ‘Don’t be your own light‘.
    Good that Atanuji reminded us.

    ‘But perhaps by then evil ideologies would have disappeared because all people would have had the opportunity to get an education and ignorance would not be an issue.’
    Oh Yes, Osama would have learnt to read and write by then. And the illiterate pakistanis in London also would have done so. So would have Afzal Guru and Headley and the fellows in Jamia Milia.
    Imagine, George Bush being educated. What about Manmohan, Teesta, Shabana, Sardesai, Vir Sanghvi, Shekhar Gupta, Romila Thapar ?
    Macaulay would be a proud man that day.

    ‘I have laid out an outlandish theory’.
    Just like the ‘Aryan’ ‘Invasion’ ‘Theory’, which has now shortened into just ‘theory’, it being almost established that there were no ‘aryans’ and there was no ‘invasion’.

    Ultimately, Atanuji may figure out that people, depending upon their talents and inclinations, should engage in activities suited to their nature. For example, a person who finds joy in the act of tending to trees and plants and contributing to the act of creating a flower or fruit should engage in that activity, and of the crop that he thus cultivates, that which is beyond his needs, he should contribute to the community basket. Similarly, a person who finds joy in working with his hands or using machines or robots to produce stuff which may be a toy or gadget or painting or furniture should engage in such activity, and of his products, that are surplus to his requirements he should contribute to the society basket. Similarly, a person who likes to figure out why things work the way they do, should engage in that activity, and figure out the relationships between physical objects and the laws that affect their working, and thus help find new ways to produce better crops, to manufacture things in better way, to find relief to physical ailments. A person who likes to see to it that righteousness is upheld in every sphere of life in society should engage in that activity, upholding dharma at any cost. A person who like to emulate others, who draws happiness in learning things by working with others, helping them produce things, crops, helping in administering society, helping in upholding righteousness , helping in figuring out the natural laws, should thus engage in working with those others who may guide him in such activity.
    Likewise, a person who likes to engage in realisation of brahma should do so, and also help other similar aspirants as well, besides also advising the rest regarding finer points about themselves.

    People have diverse tastes. All may not be interested in figuring out laws of gravity. Not all would be interested in thinking up economic theories.
    Some may be interested in cultivating, some in manufacturing, some in arts and music, some in entertaining others, some in research, some in policing and military, some in realization of brahma. And some in merely helping others in these different pursuits.

    Such inclinations and interests are not genetically transmitted. A person who likes to administer society may well have a daughter who likes to grow fruits, and a son who likes to help out the woodsmith. Best is if they pursue their own interests.

    Indians used to call it actualisation of karma.
    And it used to be not theory, but practice. Until ‘Aryan’ ‘invasion’ happened and Macaulay started his ‘education’ on ‘evolution theory’.



  6. Nice article. Excellent and insight or visionary thoughts. This is happening in developed nations. I think it will take a few hundred years for the developing nations to come to grip.


  7. Excellent article Atanu sir!! One of your best I have ever read..

    I have a few questions though –

    1) Can everyone (afford to) be non-working? I mean, if a few do some creative research and come up with some innovative product or service, to implement the same, ten or more people have to “work” in a factory or an office isn’t it?

    2) If people don’t work and indulge in art, R&D or creative writing etc, who will feed them and take care of their expenses? (I am not sure if you have already addressed this somewhere, but I missed it)

    3) Are you sure this change would happen so soon, as in a hundred or 200 years? What hasn’t happened for the past 5000 years, why do you think it might happen so soon in future?

    If there is something I can do to advance this Powowo, I would be more than happy to do the same 😉 😛


  8. INTERESTING MIX OF FACT AND FICTION. Civilization does stand for non-work. It stands for EFFICIENT-WORK. Machines, programs, management make the system more productive. Work is just not drudgery; it is an art of doing things like a play. Therefore, the real funda is to enjoy your work like you play. Relaxation for seekers like Budha, Einstein et al., was not non-work. These are not idlers, they are genuine seekers of truth in their own chosen path. Otherwise all lazy idlers would have contributed like Budha, Mahatma Gandhi and Einstein. That is why the universe is claimed to be a God’s play as creator, maintainer and destroyer (Bahagwat Gita). Here, God is REAL DOER, without having to do anything. Work is inherent in the universe like all electrons are constantly moving to maintain identity of atoms,all molecules inside us are working in highly programmed and yet dynamic ways, galaxies too are on constant move,and so on. We all like living instruments to work so as to evolve further. I like your orginality though. Keep thinking. Affectionatly:Dr. R.C. YashRoy


  9. Well it’s interesting to note that those who only did what was merely “useful” were usually at the bottom end of society in all traditional cultures ((precisely because they did notthing but the “useful” (speaking of utilitarian considerations), until modern times with the ascendancy “the economic” point of view–and hence the ascendancy of the “merchant” class….Perhaps justifying everything from the point of view of “economics” is just another modern shortsightedness?


  10. very interesting atanu.I think for a post-work world to really come into existence there has to be a limitless source of energy. I guess a limitless source of energy will solve most of the human problems and will begin an era of human prosperity in true sense ,an environment which will encourage free thinking. But it wont eradicate the problems which are born out of our incapability of making any sense out of life.
    Religion, politics ,ideological division will/may prevail and create misery.Human tendency of seeking pleasure and our egocentric approach in understanding this world will/may land us nowhere .It is very hard to extrapolate the future of a post-work world, but indeed that will be much better world than now.


  11. Very interesting nice article. It is, however, a view point every body may not agree with. Atanu has given a very narrow definition of work. According to him only physical work is work and mental work is no work. Mental work is really a higher category of work compared to physical work. It also tires people, some times more than physical work.


  12. “Obsession with employment has to be buried.” This is the sentence which I liked most. I agree that people should be provided with leisure period to unleash their creativity.

    People, after reading this article would come across N number of negative thoughts like “Idle mind is devil’s workshop”. But this will not happen just because of “empowerment in EDUCATION”. Everyone in the future will be in pursuit of EDUCATION as we see in the current world.

    Ministry of Human Development, India planned to achieve 80% of literacy by 2020. Currently literacy rate of India is 64%. For the endeavour, Public & Private sector would be setting up 40000 higher education institutes in India by 2020.

    I think you guys remember of “Chernobyl Disaster”, “Hiroshima Nagasaki Disaster”. “I dont know with what weapons 3rd WORLD WAR would be, but i’m sure that 4th WORLD WAR will be fought with sticks & stones”. So consciousness is growing among the people about the possible evil acts. Now world is witnessing a growing consensus for reduction of nuclear weapons.

    There are many potential resources foreseen to us. If people are free from their obsessions, there is a high probability that these resources will be harvested successfully. Ex: Harvesting abundant solar energy using photo voltaic cells, nuclear fusion etc…

    Routine works need to be done by machines which usually don’t have creativity. Lets hope that we shouldn’t be one among crores of machines. We have high IQ among all the living beings. Lets unleash it positively.

    ~ Sunil


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