A World Without Work

by Daniel Susskind
“What do you do?” is often the first question we ask when we meet someone new, said John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. Understandably so, since people’s jobs reveal more about them than practically anything else. But according to the Oxford economist Daniel Susskind, this “icebreaker” will soon be redundant. In this lively and “challenging” book, Susskind argues that the “Age of Labour” – defined by easy-tofind, mostly secure jobs – is rapidly coming to an end. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already making travel agents and supermarket cashiers redundant; soon, it will devour not only truck drivers, cabbies and bricklayers, but accountants, back-room lawyers and even journalists. In the past, fears of machines taking all the jobs proved unfounded: new technologies tend to create as many jobs as they destroy. But this time, Susskind says, things are different. Thanks to the sophistication of today’s technology, there are ever fewer tasks that can “only be performed by people” – he thinks most human jobs will be displaced within decades.

That’s going too far, said Rana Foroohar in the FT. Many economists predict that AI will have a less disruptive impact than many now assume. Still, it is clear that technology is already significantly reshaping the labour market. And Susskind suggests that “returns to capital will continue to rise relative to labour”, leading to deeper “inequality, unhappiness and social unrest”. His remedy is a bigger role for the state, said Alana Semuels in The New York Times. Governments should step in to redistribute wealth – perhaps by becoming shareholders of the most valuable companies, and introducing a basic income. Such ideas are “thought-provoking at a time when younger generations are nurturing a growing interest in socialism”.

If you want to “get up to speed” on technology and the future of work, then I recommend this book “wholeheartedly”, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times. However, it is strikingly similar to others I’ve read – making me wonder “whether one of those jobs that robots might take could be writing books of futuristic economics”. And as for Susskind’s high-tax policy proposals, they will “prompt a sharp intake of breath” from “anybody to the right of John McDonnell”. Actually, if there’s a fault with this book, it’s that Susskind is too timid, said Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian. “If AI really does to employment what previous technologies did not, radical change can’t be postponed indefinitely. It may well be utopia or bust.”