The Future of Work

  • Robert SkidelskyEmail author


Is technology making the human race redundant materially and spiritually—both as producers of wealth and meaning? Ever since machinery became an active part of industrial production, redundancy has been seen either as a promise or a threat. Sociologists stress the importance of work in giving meaning to a person’s existence. Economists, on the other hand, see work as purely instrumental, a means for buying things people want. If it can be done by machines, so much the better. David Ricardo described the shift from human labour to mechanical as inevitable and ultimately beneficial, while Marx’s later analysis denied that there were sufficient compensations to labour for their redundancy. The optimistic view of redundancy relies on the idea that machines will complement human capacity, work is only relevant as a means to consumption and consumption can be unlimited. These assumptions are wrong. The idea that a supply shock like automation will automatically set in motion acceptable compensatory demand or complementary supply responses is delusive. Any responses are likely to be highly disruptive, even destructive. Given this, policy must pay much more attention to correlating the rate of change with the capacity of human society to absorb it.


  1. Barton, J. (1817). Observations on the Circumstances Which Influence the Conditions of the Labouring Classes of Society. London: John and Arthur Arch, Cornhill.Google Scholar
  2. Council of Foreign Relations. (2018, April). Independent Task Force Report No. 76 on ‘The Work Ahead: Machines, Skills, and US Leadership’.Google Scholar
  3. Hicks, J. (1932). Theory of Wages. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  4. Patočka, J. (1975). Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Chicago: Open Court. (1999 ed.).Google Scholar
  5. Ricardo, D. (1817). Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (D. Winch, Ed., 3rd ed., 1973). London: John Murray.Google Scholar
  6. Robbins, L. (1932). The Nature and Significance of Economic Science. New York: Macmillan and Co. (2nd ed., 1952).Google Scholar
  7. Schumpeter, J. (1954). History of Economic Analysis. New York, Abingdon and Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Skidelsky, R. (Ed.). (2015). John Maynard Keynes: The Essential Keynes. London: Penguin Classics.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Global StudiesLondonUK

Personalised recommendations