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What Will People Do

When I was an undergraduate at Willamette University, the fall junior honors seminar studied "problems of survival." The spring topic was "surviving survival."

I don't remember details, but the spring discussions probably focused on what people would do if most didn't need to work full time.

As robots, automation, and artificial intelligence take over more and more work, the question of whether humanity could cope with abundance may be about to become acutely important.

First of all, we will need to figure how how people can survive economically when most of today's jobs are no longer needed. We may need to devise an alternative to wages for distributing purchasing power.

But assuming we can figure that out, there is an even more fundamental question. What will people do with their time when they no longer must spend a lot of it earning a living?

Even today, many Americans must be horribly bored.

People with interesting things to do wouldn't spend so many hours passively watching television. They wouldn't devote so much time to following sporting events. They wouldn't be packing in to the latest movies. They wouldn't be experimenting with drugs in the attempt to find some joy in life.

Television, spectator sports, movies, and drugs are all big business with bored people who are trying to occupy their free hours.

Television, spectator sports, movies, and drugs are all big business with bored people who are trying to occupy their free hours.

Other people seek to entertain themselves by spending hours on social media like Facebook.

Of course, attendance at sports events and movies has lately been down, thanks to the pandemic. But this is presumably only a temporary blip.

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Some years ago, responding to students who complained there was "nothing to do" in the small town in which Adrian College was located, I suggested they check out a good novel or other book from the library.

And reading for enjoyment indeed is something people have done for several centuries now.

More enterprising folks are finding more active things to do. Large numbers of us sing in church and community choirs, play in community bands and orchestras, gather in small groups to play chamber music.

Many people volunteer at food banks and shelters for the homeless, or help Meals on Wheels deliver food to those unable to get out. There are always children needing nurture and mentoring and other people who need help.

People join health clubs, working out and making friends with fellow members. They join book discussion clubs providing both intellectual and social stimulation. Some love to go hiking.

Some take up long-distance bicycling late in life — I think the record for riding coast-to-coast in the U.S. was someone in his or her 80s.

There are enough of these non-passive activities to keep most employed people who are so inclined occupied during their free hours. But after we retire, such activities may be inadequate to fill up the day, and many of us resort to passive entertainment to fill the gap. For many people retiring is very stressful.

But assuming we have devised ways to provide decent incomes to people who are not working, what are people going to do when all or nearly all of their time, not just some of it, is "free" time? Will they be able to cope with permanent "sabbaticals"? Or will too much leisure ruin their lives?

Of course this problem may never arise. As in the past, new jobs may emerge to replace those which disappear. Or the human race may end up committing suicide if greed, jealousy and hatred of others outweighs people's goodwill and enlightened self-interest.


A prosperous life for everyone is now technologically and economically possible. But we won't get there if we continue fouling our own nest (the world's atmosphere) and failing to cooperate for the common good.

What is economically and technologically possible is not necessarily politically possible.

Paul F. deLespinasse