If social media is any indication, China’s workers are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one side is the state, which is calling on them to work harder and longer, criticizing young people for “lying flat,” and mooting raising the retirement age to help make up for falling birth rates and rising life expectancies. On the other is the private sector, which is heralding the advent of the ChatGPT era and ruthlessly trimming its workforce.
This is hardly unique to China. From Paris to Silicon Valley, workers seem trapped in a paradox: expected to work into their sixties or even their seventies, but unable to find a decent job after 35.
While the economic ramifications of this shift are obvious, the spiritual ones often go ignored. Over the past several centuries, work has become the axis around which we structure our lives. If we can’t find work immediately after graduation, we worry we picked a “useless” major. We spend our weekends “recharging” so that, come Monday morning, we’ll be at maximum productivity. Our professional achievements are a source of pride, while not having a job earns us a spot in the ranks of the unemployed. Even the term “retirement” defines our twilight years by our withdrawal from the workforce. A life without work is hardly a life at all.
This attitude has roots in the late 18th century, as the Industrial Revolution irreversibly sped up the rhythms of life, a shift made possible by the invention of modern timekeeping. Before clocks became a household item, people didn’t have a way to accurately keep time, nor could they plan and sell their labor as they would any other asset.
Although these days we’re hardly able to imagine another way of being, our forebears didn’t throw themselves unthinkingly into this system — rather, they viewed it as necessary for advancing social progress and as something that would give their individual lives meaning.
Max Weber explores this phenomenon in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Understanding work as a “vocation,” Weber nevertheless recognizes that the vast, intricate project of modernization has not liberated people as originally hypothesized — rather, by facilitating the exploitation of their labor, it’s enslaved them to the clock. Humans have lost control over the triad of capital, science, and technology; in the blind pursuit of infinite growth, we unwittingly became cogs in a machine of our own making.
The current panic can be understood as a side effect of modernity’s still unfulfilled promise of liberation. In addition to a source of meaning, work has become a means of survival, even as capital has hoarded the past century’s productivity gains while relentlessly replacing humans with machines wherever possible. It’s this historical process that has led to our contradictory feelings about work, where on one hand, we long to be liberated from it; while on the other, we worry what we’ll do without it.
Scholars and academics have criticized this contradiction for years, from philosopher Byung-Chul Han cynically describing our rat race-obsessed culture as a kind of “self-exploitation,” to leftist anthropologist David Graeber lamenting that more than half of the world’s population has been forced into “bullshit jobs.”
The AI revolution, if and when it comes, will spark not just an economic crisis, but a crisis of modernity, as the central pillar of our lives shakes and begins to crumble. For the moment, it’s hard to say how this crisis will be resolved. But the more doomsday predictions I read, the more I find myself thinking of Graeber’s choice to quote anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s description of the Nuer, a pastoral people in East Africa:
“[T]he Nuer have no expression equivalent to ‘time’ in our language, and they cannot, therefore, as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth. I do not think that they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time or having to coordinate activities with an abstract passage of time, because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are generally of a leisurely character. Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Nuer are fortunate.”
If the Industrial Revolution led us astray, maybe AI can put us back on the right track?
Translator: Lewis Wright; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Leremy/VCG)