Throughout history, the world of work has been in constant evolution. Each new change has impacted the way we do our work, our personal lives and our mental health. With the development of artificial intelligence (AI) we are facing yet another revolution in our working lives. But are we ready for it?
The Industrial Revolution transformed Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, but several innovations were developed as early as the 1700s; for example, the machinery in textile mills. This led to unrest among the workers, who, having moved from rural areas to be close to the mills, now feared losing their jobs to machines. Philosophers also worried that the working person’s life had been reduced to a monotonous grind.
Luckily, there were some well-meaning forces. As early as 1810, philanthropic textile manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen realised that his mill workers’ poor performance was due to long hours of drudgery and fear that machines would replace them. Owen instituted the eight-hour day at his textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland, which he advocated with the famous slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest.”
During the Industrial Revolution, British factory and mill workers were allowed to stay at home on Sundays to “observe the Sabbath”. However, many people preferred to drink, gamble and enjoy themselves instead, with the result that they often had to take Monday off to recover. This unofficial holiday was known as Saint Monday and was so detrimental to productivity that factory owners decided to make Saturday a half-day in exchange for guaranteed attendance on Monday.
In 1908, a forward-thinking mill in New England, US, extended the weekend to include Saturday morning, so that its Jewish staff could also observe their holy day. This was such a success with all the workers that other nearby industries soon copied the model of a five-day working week. The practice was officially adopted in the US in 1932 as a way of countering the unemployment caused by the Great Depression.
Wherever the two-day weekend was introduced, the results were the same: an invigorated workforce with more time for family and leisure activities, reduced absenteeism and greater productivity.
Jump forward to the 1980s and the birth of the digital revolution: automated machines, computers and the internet were heralded as tools for speeding up and reducing the cost of many working practices. However, as time went by, the introduction of email, messaging services and various administrative softwares allowed work to encroach on people’s daily lives. Smartphones in particular created a culture of always being available, or ‘always on’. For many, this represented a return to the slog of the past, and a threat to their work-life balance.
The next revolution
If these seem like huge changes, they are nothing compared with the revolution about to take place. Artificial intelligence has been presented as a way of relieving human beings of many monotonous or dangerous tasks. We have, however, heard that argument before! Should we embrace the change or, like the mill workers of the early 1800s, should we fear that AI will supplant humans in more creative and skilled work? For most people, AI should be just another tool in their working lives and not automatically make them redundant. But how can we be sure that belief in the superiority and the economic benefits of AI will not transcend the reality of its utility — and ours.