The Unintended Consequences Of An Easy Life

A little while back, I wrote about Keynes’ prediction that our greatest challenge today would be what to do with all the leisure time we now have as a result of technology doing all the work that previously kept us occupied.

My conclusion was – as you’re probably only too well aware – that this problem doesn’t seem to have materialized as we’ve just filled the time with even more work in pursuit of increased productivity, higher incomes and better standards of living.

This debate has taken a new turn in recent months as we ask a more nuanced question about the role of technology in our lives, questioning the fundamental case for technology progression at all: Do we really want to be more productive? What are the unintended consequences of technology making the little things in life easier and easier?

My thinking on this was sparked by a fascinating depiction of a day of our lives in 2030 by Vodafone’s Head of Product Management, Sally Fuller. In this utopia/dystopia, as I wake up my coffee machine is alerted by the sensors under my skin that I will soon be vying for my caffeine hit. By the time I’ve walked downstairs to the kitchen, there it is – my latte, good to go – while my self-driving car programs itself ready to take me to a meeting location that it already knows. And so it continues… a completely frictionless day during which I waste no time on menial tasks like making a cup of coffee or programming a SatNav.

On the one hand this sounds fantastic. Maybe as a result I’ve saved enough time to get to that early morning Yoga class or meet an equally tech-enabled friend for breakfast before work, in which case this technology development has enriched my life by giving me the opportunity to do things that enhance my vitality.

Alternatively, I find myself in a context whereby all my similarly augmented colleagues (seem to be) using this time to work harder, for longer, and to produce more. In this scenario, the extra time simply amplifies the already hyper-competitive nature of work, fuelling anxiety and burnout, and removing from my day the few legitimate opportunities I had to defocus while doing something simple.

Both scenarios are plausible and we see versions of them playing out today as a result of the technological progress we’ve experienced so far: the emergence of the leisure industry to facilitate those great experiences and, simultaneously, an intensification of work with those on the highest incomes now working more hours rather than less in order to stay ahead of the competition.

Perhaps then, the key message is that we need to be conscious – as individuals and managers within organizations – about how we use this time ourselves and how we signal to others that they should use this time too. Particularly in light of the fact that, as technology continues to replace repetitive, routine tasks, the work we humans will be left with will be complex and require reflection, focus and innovation, rather than additional hours tapping away at a keyboard, stressed and anxious.

If we simply go with the flow, we are likely to find ourselves caught up in the dystopia of anxiety and overwork that will eventually be our undoing. Be conscious about how we’re investing our time – and how we encourage those in our teams to do so - and we’re far more likely to navigate towards that Yoga session and lazy breakfast utopia.

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