Perspectives on Contingency

Work 0.0: Ancient Ideas on the Future of Work

Part I: What does it mean to ‘work’?

The 4th Industrial Revolution will change the way humans work across the globe. Discussions about the extent to which technology or Artificial Intelligence (AI) may replace human labour within the next decades are now commonplace, with scenarios ranging from the substitution of almost half of today’s workforce by computers (Frey & Osborne, 2013, p. 44) to estimates that see the number of jobs that are computerised and those that emerge from this altered situation almost at balance (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017, p. 55f).

Yet, even the most recent of these studies do not include upcoming technologies like Quantum Computing and Generative Adversarial Networks – both regarded as yielding disruptive potential to most industries (Lavoix, 2018) –, or the implications that advances in genetic editing and biohacking along with their promises of a substantially extended human life span have on how (long) and why humans work.

What is, in contrast, regarded as certain is that humans in almost any field and job will soon be assisted by intelligent digital systems – or, as a recent article put it, by “AI coworkers” (Katz, 2017).

Will this make John Maynard Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour work week and the need to design a life full of leisure (Keynes, 1930) come true?

A look back far into human history may help to find inspirations for designing these new ways of working.

What does it actually mean ‘to work’?

The word ‘work’ itself is derived from the Indo-European term werg that goes back to the Greek ergon, deed, (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018) but acquired a latently violent meaning in the course of time. Similar to the cognate term ‘wreak’, it used to mean to force an action onto something on the verges of legality (Seabrock, 2013). The English word labour, derived from the Latin noun labor, described physical exertion, difficulties, and hardship until early modern times (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018). It shares this connotation of exertion to the level of pain with its equivalents in many modern languages: the German word Arbeit stemming from an old Germanic root used to have meanings ranging from effort and distress to suffering and pain (Mittelhochdeutsches Woerterbuch, 2018). Closely related is the Slavonic robota (the origin of the English term robot) that can be translated as forced labour or compulsory service. The French travailler and the Spanish trabajar etymologically refer to the tripalium, an ancient torture instrument, and meant to be tortured or have pain before they became the normal terms to describe the act of working (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018). 

A similarly negative ring can be observed in non-European languages. The Chinese term máng 忙 (to be busy), is a compound of the root soul or heart (心) and the character for dying or losing (亡). (Mathews, 1931, p. 631) To be busy working thus was perceived as losing one’s soul temporarily and becoming a tool.

All these terms are still in use today. Our current perception of work, however, has changed substantially.

How did perceptions change?

Rather than pure necessity to sustain one’s life, at least in modern Western societies individuals have long started to identify themselves with their jobs (Gini, 1998). Studies on the correlation between suicide rates and unemployment demonstrate how strongly the financial stability and status acquired by working affect the citizens of Western countries (Cummins, 2015).

This may be one of the reasons why the original meanings of the terms for labour in different languages are so surprising and unfamiliar for us: today, working hard and long hours is considered as a sign of professional significance and high social status rather than of involuntary torture.

The remoteness of the original concepts from the modern reality is also exemplified by the current debates on how the “new work” of the digitalised era will differ from the “old work” of the 19th and 20th century or, as in the German discussion, what the next step in the evolution of work (“work 4.0”[i]) will look like (Bundesministerium fuer Arbeit und Soziales, 2015, p. 34f).

The first step in this evolution was the First Industrial Revolution in late 18th and early 19th century, when technological innovations made it possible to partly replace human labour with coal- and iron-powered machines. Next to new production methods and business logics, new work patterns and the first worker organisations emerged in this process. “Work 1.0” is thus the transformation of previously more or less autonomous workers, who owned their tools and determined their own working hours, production methods and prices, into employees that performed specific tasks within early organisational structures.

The expansion of railroads, the rapid increase in the availability of electricity and inventions like the telephone sparked the Second Industrial Revolution. Work 2.0 is characterised by enormous social tensions, low wages, and the replacement of substantial portions of the workforce by machines. Management theories like those of F.W. Taylor or H. Ford aimed at increasing the efficiency of work processes to a maximum. Simultaneously, the rise of trade unions caused the implementation of the first welfare systems in many European countries.

In the 1960s, advances in information technology and the automation of manufacturing processes triggered the Third Industrial Revolution and the emergence of work 3.0. The working environment familiar to any Western employee in the year 2019 is increasingly global and relies largely on electronics and information technology. Rather than in production, a further growing number of people work in the service sector.

The ongoing digital transformation will change these logics within the next years. Not only production processes, but a major portion of administrative and service tasks that are currently performed by humans will be taken over by artificial intelligence. Demands on products and design are likely to change and force many industries to reconsider and adapt their business models. At the same time, directly cooperating (and probably competing) with artificial intelligence will raise new questions among employees.

However, just like in the previous Industrial Revolutions, the changes that are about to occur go far beyond the context of individual companies or industrial sectors.

If the amount of work that intelligent machines perform steadily increases, this will trigger one of three alternative developments:

  1. A steadily decreasing portion of humans in the workforce
  2. Steadily decreasing working hours per human while their overall number remains roughly constant
  3. Steadily decreasing density of work assignment per human while their overall number and working hours remain roughly constant

The first two, and to some extent also the third scenario imply an increase in the time that humans can design according to their individual preferences.

Will this be the starting point for the age of leisure and of abundance that John Maynard Keynes predicted for the year 2030? And will this indeed cause “a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society” (Keynes, 1930)?

Keynes himself proposed three-hour work days or fifteen-hour work weeks “to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible” (Keynes, 1930). For him, man in his original state (referred to as the “old Adam” in his essay) was only content when occupied with some work or duties that yield an income. According to Keynes, reduced, but inflexible working hours could thus help people transition into the new age in which working longer (or at all) would be unnecessary. Once this transition had been completed, this new economy would be characterised not by the striving for profit, but by economic prosperity for everyone, mindfulness for the present than the future, virtuous actions and people, who “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful” (Keynes, 1930).

Yet, while Keynes is right in saying that the dimension of the changes in the living standards of Western societies that have occurred in the last 150 years is unprecedented in human history, the working situation he imagined is not.

Rather, what he calls “habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations” is a modern phenomenon. Until the first factories in the 17th and 18th century, people were not acquired to lifelong, continuous working in compliance with the rhythm of the production machines. Instead establishing these “habits and instincts” that characterised work 1.0 to 3.0 was a lengthy and hard process that was fully completed only in the 20th century (Arlt & Zech, 2015, p. 3).

Assuming the Fourth Industrial Revolution will indeed make working continuously for the major part of one’s life unnecessary, work will likely lose it current meaning again.

Does this mean that working – even if only for a limited period of time of the day, the year or one’s life – will once more be considered torture or necessary evil as it was before the First Industrial Revolution?

I will not, if technology assures economic welfare for every member of society regardless of the hours, days or weeks that person decides to work. Rather than the medieval take on work, ancient concepts of engaging in business yields promising inspirations for the future of work.


Arlt, H., & Zech, R. (2015). Arbeit und Muße. Ein Plädoyer für den Abschied vom Arbeitskult. Wiesbaden.

Bundesministerium fuer Arbeit und Soziales. (2015). Gruenbuch Arbeiten 4.0. Berlin.

Cummins, I. (2015). The link between unemployment and suicide. Retrieved on October 25, 2018 from

Frey, C., & Osborne, M. (2013). The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Retrieved on October 03, 2018 from

Gini, A. (1998). Work, Identity and Self: How We Are Formed by The Work We Do. Journal of Business Ethics 17 (7), pp. 707-714.

Katz, M. (2017). Welcome to the Era of the AI Coworker. Retrieved on November 01, 2018 from

Keynes, J. M. (1930). Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. In: Essays in Persuasion (1932), pp. 358-373. Retrieved on October 20, 2018 from

Lavoix, H. (2018). The Coming Quantum Computing Disruption, Artificial Intelligence and Geopolitics (1). Retrieved on November 10, 2018 from

Mathews, R. (1931). Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary. Shanghai.

McKinsey Global Institute. (2017). Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transition in a time of automation. Retrieved on November 05, 2018 from

Mittelhochdeutsches Woerterbuch. (2018). arbeit. Retrieved on October 26, 2018 from

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2018). *werg-. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from*werg-

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2018). labor (n.). Retrieved October 26, 2018 from

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2018). travail (n.). Retrieved October 26, 2018 from

Seabrock, J. (2013). The language of labouring reveals its tortured roots . Retrieved on October 26, 2018 from

[i] According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, n.0 is a postpositive that describes a superior or more advanced version of an original concept, product, service etc (Retrieved on November 10, 2018 from: