Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Can we talk about work?

Rosie the riveter thumbnail

Rosie the riveter thumbnail

You may remember a recent comment by Elon Musk, made to Rishi Sunak during a cringe-worthy staged chat, that Artificial Intelligence (AI) would soon mean that we will live in a world where no-one has to work. The comment sparked a debate (albeit a very brief one) on the nature of work. A typical example was aired during the BBC Radio 4 World at One programme on 3rd November 2023 ( accessed 07/11/2023). The host, Jonny Dymond, interviewed Baroness Prosser – labour peer and former president of the TUC – and James Suzman – anthropologist and author of Work: a history of how we spend our time about Musk’s comment.

What struck me most about this debate, typified by the example broadcast on World at One, was that the participants so often seemed to be talking at cross-purposes. It’s not really surprising because much of our vocabulary around work is ambiguous and indistinct. Consider the following list:

  • Work
  • Job
  • Employment
  • Labour
  • Voluntary work
  • Paid work
  • Unpaid work
  • Hobby
  • Pastime
  • Work satisfaction
  • Purposeful work
  • Purposive work

There is so much overlap between these terms and plasticity in the way they are understood and used by different people, that any conversation about work involving two or more people will first have to overcome these barriers before any meaningful exchange can happen. In his book Work: a history of how we spend our time, Suzman makes much of the distinction between purposive and purposeful work. Purposive work is done to achieve a certain end, but can be done ‘blindly’ (e.g. automatically or instinctively) whilst purposeful work requires conscious planning. Many menial and boring jobs can be characterised as purposive work whilst jobs that provide purposeful work tend to give more job satisfaction. In his book Post Growth: life after capitalism, Tim Jackson devotes a whole chapter – the return to work – to the importance of meaningful work. But Jackson uses a completely different framing to Suzman, preferring to use a distinction between labour and work based on the work of Hannah Arendt. This distinction characterises labour as that which “maintains the conditions for life“, for example the essential jobs that we all found out society could not do without during the Covid Pandemic, and work which “is the activity that enables us to maintain the durability of the human world“, including art, culture and much more. Jackson’s distinction between labour and work is no way equivalent to Suzman’s distinction between purposive and purposeful work. Jackson stresses that a high degree of satisfaction can be obtained both through labour and work. I find it all quite hard to get my head around – it’s hard to combine Suzman and Jackson’s different framings into a single coherent whole.

I mention all of this to underline the challenge that faces us if we are to have a meaningful public discourse on the the value of work as AI affects the workplace more and more. Judging from the example on World at One, it’s a challenge were not up to yet. My understanding of work seems quite closely aligned with James Suzman’s because I found myself agreeing with him more often than not, but Baroness Prosser’s viewpoint seemed to me to be hopelessly confused. All the participants rightly talked about the importance of the purposefulness provided by work, but Baroness Prosser seemed unable to countenance the idea that purposefulness can be achieved through work which is not paid employment.

I think that part of the problem with the World at One debate was that it didn’t move into the territory of the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The only way Musk’s vision can become a reality is if some version of UBI becomes a reality. (It’s no surprise that Rishi Sunak did not pursue that subject with Musk either!) Proponents of UBI argue that most recipients of it do/would not just take the money sit idly by, but instead seek purposefulness in unpaid voluntary work. Sadly the World at One exchange did not elicit Baroness Prosser’s views on that. Perhaps because of the time pressures, Suzman’s comment that for Elon Musk’s vision to become a reality would require a willingness on his part, and of others making money in these vastly over-capitalised industries, to share the wealth created, elicited no more than a chuckle from the host Jonny Dymond!

Clearly the debate has a long way to go. Unfortunately, this iteration seems to have fizzled out a mere few months after it started.