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How to Replace What We Define as Work

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August 25, 2015
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Boston Evening Therapy Content

Work and Self-Worth

Driving is the number one occupation among American men. But that job is an endangered species with advances in the development of self-driving cars.

In the Age of Automation

That’s just one of the nation’s most common occupations being threatened with extinction, according to Derek Thompson in a WBUR public radio program Here & Now in June 2015 titled “What Happens if Workers Become Obsolete?”

Thompson points to another of America’s most common jobs – cashier. We all know what’s happening with that job as self-checkout counters increasingly take over grocery stores and big box stores.

Office Administrator is another typical career being threatened as technology constantly moves in with functions it can perform equal to, or better than, human beings.

Personal Meaning

As the nation faces this possibility, Thompson says the positive perspective is that people may be supported more by public policy and given more freedom to engage in projects that have deeper personal meaning.

But think about the lingering recession, from which many cities and states have not yet fully recovered, many just inching up in employment rates and housing sales.

Unemployment and Depression

Let’s face it. Unemployment has caused a lot of depression.

An article just a year earlier in The Atlantic titled “The Mental Health Consequences of Unemployment” says, “Those who have been looking for work for half a year or more are more than three times as likely to be suffering from depression as those with jobs.”

The end of work doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for good mental health unless there are major changes in society and culture, and that’s likely to take years, or even a generation or two.

Chicago Survey Suggests People Have Less Anxiety While At Work

Thompson points to a survey done of workers in Chicago who said they’d like to be somewhere else instead of at their job. But in a more detailed questionnaire, the Thompson says the study found that, “…people had less anxiety when they were at work…they complain about their jobs, but it turns out we’re much more miserable or more unhappy when we’re doing nothing.”

How to Replace What We Define as Work

The challenge, says Thompson, is to figure out how to replace what we define as work, which includes producing goods or services and earning a living, with work that is rich with purpose and meaning.

Unemployment and Shame

The Atlantic article in 2014 on the mental health consequences of unemployment cites a Rutgers study that found high rates of “feeling ashamed or embarrassed” or “a strain in family relations” when the loss of a job had devastating financial consequences.

Some of Thompson’s data adds to the unease about the continuing loss of numbers of jobs, or perhaps types of jobs.

In 1964 the biggest company in America, AT&T, had 800,000 employees, says Thompson. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, has 90 percent fewer employees and is worth $100 billion more than AT&T, in comparative dollars.

Unemployment and Isolation

The Atlantic article on unemployment 2014 suggests that in some cases, unemployment is “…a pretty direct line to isolation and depression…” and that can have an effect on becoming re-employed.

It points to a study that found that many people “…who find work after long periods of unemployment lose their new jobs within the year.” The theory is that perhaps “…depression is causing them to miss work, and their employers aren't interested in waiting around for them to recover.”

Unemployment and Health Issues

The 2015 article on a world without work in The Atlantic acknowledges that the ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income. People who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments.

“There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at the University of California Berkeley. “Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury.

The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.”

Our Sense of Purpose

So as robots, self-driving cars, self-checkouts and office jobs done by computers instead of people continue to expand, the nation, and the world, must take on the mission of figuring out a new definition for work. Or at least determine how activities with a sense of purpose can be done while somehow, the bills are paid for food, clothing, shelter and the other necessities that make human beings healthy and happy.



Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.

It affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. A person experiencing depression may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities and may sometimes feel as if life isn't worth living. More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn't a weakness and people can't simply "snap out" of it.

Depression may require long-term treatment. Most people with depression feel better with medication, psychological counseling or both.

Source: Mayo Clinic



Thompson, Derek, “A World without Work,” The Atlantic: July/August 2015,

Thompson, Derek, “What Happens if Workers Become Obsolete,” Here & Now, WBUR, July 29, 2015.

Rosen, Rebecca J., “The Mental Health Consequences of Unemployment,” The Atlantic, June 9, 2014

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