Here's Something: Automation threatens the soul of the American worker

8

I came across a passage of text this week from about 200 years ago that should give us pause as we embark on further automation of the labor force.

It comes from Thomas Carlyle’s 1843 essay “Labour,” which was part of a larger work, “Past and Present.” He was a Scottish writer, philosopher and all-around dynamo who lived from 1795-1881. In “Labour,” he reminds us that work isn’t just a means to an end but an end itself, as work – and the overcoming of obstacles it demands – is necessary for happiness and self-worth.

And we moderns, and especially those who accept as certainty a robot-dominated workforce with a universal basic income as a way to combat resulting high unemployment, should consider Carlyle’s words before allowing government to further hand out, rather than hand up.

Carlyle found both a higher calling and down-to-earth purpose in work. One can’t be truly happy or fulfilled in this life without first pursuing hard work, he concluded. A job well done will cast out the demons, or “helldogs” as he called them, that torment those who don’t work and don’t achieve a sense of accomplishment.

Carlyle so eloquently wrote in his high Victorian prose: “For there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work. … There is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works: in Idleness alone is there perpetual despair.”

He also writes about those aiming to avoid work and seeking self-esteem in other ways, such as through self-contemplation and, I would add, the pursuit of entertainment. He sees any attempt at self-healing apart from work as folly. How true. The pride and happiness gained from overcoming an obstacle or finishing a job is worth 100 sessions with a counselor.

I wonder what Carlyle would make of the psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, life coaches, meditation experts, yogis, gurus and all the rest who try to convince us we’re happy just by naming and claiming it (or prescribing drugs to bypass our dark thoughts). Carlyle’s answer would be for the patient to do something hard to gain pride associated with accomplishment. Taking on meaningful work or overcoming a stiff challenge, whatever it may be, is Carlyle’s antidote to the stuff that drags us down. We lazy moderns want to escape work and yearn for an easy life, but Carlyle wisely says that work and challenge isn’t to be avoided, but tackled head on.

“It has been written, ‘an endless significance lies in Work;’ a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seed-fields rise instead, and stately cities,” Carlyle says. “… Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like helldogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves.”

We all deal with these “helldogs” in times of self-doubt, but Carlyle is right to observe how fast they scamper away while we are overcoming a difficult task or creating something. Yes, we need work to earn a living and provide the products we all need to live, but we also need work to bring purpose and pride to our otherwise rudderless earthly lives.

So, what will become of this pride and sense of purpose if, as many studies and reports predict, robots make obsolete those workers who now perform tasks that are prone to automation? One study published last November by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that automation could put 30 percent of the U.S. workforce out of jobs, and 800 million globally, by 2030.

These figures are scary not only on a macroeconomic scale, but on a human level. Robots will continue to provide the products and services we need, but what becomes of those people who are put out of work by automation? The idea of a universal basic income sounds like a good solution – until you consider the emotional toll it will take on its recipients.

Similar to today’s welfare recipients, this expanded population living on given – not earned – income will languish in the company of their “helldogs,” with no sense of accomplishment achieved by undertaking their daily work, menial as it may have been.

Carlyle’s words from 200 years ago were written when the sun never set on the English Empire. It seems we living in the vast American Empire should reconsider them before barging into a future where a third of the population is unemployed and unfulfilled.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

SHARE