Automation and the Crisis of Meaning

by Nick Price

One of the most interesting middle ground challenges for businesses today is employment change through automation. By ‘middle ground’, I mean changes that fall between the practical present and the far-off future. In this case, the far-off future is a society reshaped by mass removal of jobs and small but hugely effective businesses.

Accelerating the arrival of an automated future are changes in work-driven migration flows such as the UK exit from the EU. Faced with a reduction in labour from overseas, automation may be more attractive than employing locally.

Working on what we can control: Meaning

The societal accommodation of reduced opportunities for human based work is a challenge. The traditional motivation of monetary reward for delivered effort and capability is under threat. A factor complicating this change is the social status associated with particular types of work and employers.

Meaningful work is not just about monetary reward but the psychological loop of effort, reward and self-determination. Disposable income – financial leeway above survival expenditure – is another opportunity for self-expression through what we value. For example, we make choices to spend on family, property, experiences, distraction, saving for security, etc.

Our traditional world is being upended and we are seeing progressive experiments with new mechanisms such as Universal Basic Income and the Living Wage. The challenge however is not just finding new mechanisms, but in rethinking value, and finding ways to be at ease with lives that do not circulate around the accumulation of money. This includes, for example, increasing the value we place on social contribution, artistic creation and exploring the bartering of goods or services (time). This is a philosophical change at the individual and national state levels, and will take time. In the meantime, businesses have plenty of work they can do now.

Workforce Planning for Automation

Workforce demands will change the number of people employed and the nature of their work. Consider the mass transport industry: traditional roles in customer services, such as drivers and conductors, are already changing. Industrial action (or rather friction) is beginning to take place as a result. Another industry under change is healthcare. Advances in healthcare are shifting demands from acute care to chronic care as we extend our lifespans. Chronic (long-term) care places pressures on community level health facilities and residential care. Again, industrial action is taking place in this industry.

When left to the traditional divides between management and the workforce, the act of negotiating change gets stuck in conflicts at the detailed level. This shuts down more long-term thinking and makes changes to the shape of the economy become the burden of management rather than a collaborative ownership with the workforce.

Collaborative Adaptation

Ideally, opening up collaborative conversations between management and the workforce on the shared problem of changing work demands early can pre-empt later problems. Why collaborative? Because white collar jobs, to use a traditional term, are as much under threat as blue collar ones. The automation transition is a business-wide issue that includes management, workers and dependants. This requires collaboration and cooperation.

Rational collaborative conversations are needed to forge creative strategies and agreements for both white-collar and blue-collar workers and look at rethinking the social role of the business.


A big part of productively engaging with the effects of mass automation is not getting lost in the debate of ‘is it a good or bad thing’. A Utopian view is that all work disappears and life is one big party. A Dystopian view would be that civilization as we know it collapses, humans lose their meaning and the clever tools that we created take over the planet from us. Rather than reacting emotionally we need to look at this as a ‘Misstopia’, a possible future that we can choose how to meet it rather than be a victim of it.

About the author

Nick Price is a Speaker and Strategy Developer. His background is as a professional futurist in technology, business, design, and user experience. Nick has worked with companies all around the world from bases in Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands and the United States. Now he is back to a base in the UK and working for all sorts of companies who want to understand the world and do business in a different way.


2 Replies to “Automation and the Crisis of Meaning”

  1. The 24th century envisioned in Star Trek expresses a future where work to earn wages is no longer the paradigm. Instead as Captain Picard states in one episode, “material needs no longer exist….the challenge is to improve ourselves.”

    If automation and AI partner with humanity in a symbiotic relationship then pursuing self-improvement sounds like a delightful goal for all of us.


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