This is the first of a series of posts that has been in the works for quite some time. It was inspired by Iain M. Banks, a writer who, in a small number of wonderful books, imagined “The Culture”: a society where technology had taken over, creating an extraordinary utopia for its inhabitants. Iain Banks died from cancer today, at the age of 59. The likes of him we may never see again.
Imagine living five hundred years from now. Looking back on our age, perhaps they will be be appalled and morbidly fascinated by the power of something most of us take for granted today: money.
Many of us spend a huge percentage of our lives working or chasing job opportunities, with one prime objective in mind: to earn as much money as we possibly can. We do it to build a future for ourselves and our families. It’s a trade-off that we make in order to live our lives. If you want nice things, if you want a tolerable retirement, then you have to work for it.
The bargain we make ensures that many of us spend the healthiest and most exciting times of our lives in an office 8 am to 6 pm, 5 to 6 days a week. Instead of being with our family and friends, we are obliged to while away the hours with people, most of whom we would not ordinarily choose to spend our free time with. We miss out on the special occasions, the children growing up, the rich friendships, the time spent with our parents as they grow older. We forsake our interests and hobbies, following instead the financial interests of strangers who are wealthier and more powerful than we could ever hope to be. While providing many benefits, work is a leading cause of stress and fatigue. Important relationships breakdown and families split apart because of it. When you think about it, it’s a strange way to live out our best years.
The ultimate objective of all this work is retirement: spending the last few years of our life without the pressures of clock-in times, deadlines or demanding bosses. By this age, however, infirmity, ill-health or bereavement may have paid a prolonged house-call. For many, retirement comes too far too late.
A fortunate few are able to retire early, in good health, with many years left to run on the clock. For many, “retirement” does not mean hours of boredom, daytime TV and too much time on the golf course. Plenty of people still lead busy lives, with one crucial difference: what they do, they do it for themselves. Freed from the need to constantly worry about money, they can spend time following pursuits that suit them, their circumstances and their personalities. It may still be work, but with far fewer downsides.
There are also examples of people who work hard, and who love every minute of what they do. They are quite happy to spend 11, 12, 13 hours a day, plus weekends, happily beavering away at what they love. For them, money does not appear to be the prime incentive. Their work defines who they are. It’s intimately linked to their sense of self: their happiness.
This also tells us something about the nature of work. If we didn’t have to work, most of us would do something anyway. If we were freed from the need to earn money, that work might be qualitatively different, more personal, more individually focused.
It’s an intriguing idea: a future where most people would be able to choose what work they do. A world where most people, by our standards today, would be considered rich; not just in the developed world, but everywhere on the planet. On the face of it, it sounds hopelessly optimistic and unrealistic. But something like this could happen. The example of modern life suggests that work is getting scarcer by the decade – or at least the type of work done by paid humans. At the same time, exciting technologies are coming into existence that may one day enable us all to have the resources we need at our fingertips We may need to think hard about the implications of this in the coming century.