Barry Schwartz is a professor in Psychology at Haas Business School at UC Berkeley, who previously taught at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for 45 years. He is the author of many books, the most recent one being Why We Work, which explains why people are frustrated by the nature of the modern workplace. In this Ted talk he shares the fundamental assumptions we have created around work. One of them is that as a collective we believe humans are lazy and money is the only way to get people doing something. In an interview Barry Schwartz and I discussed alternative approaches to our economic measurement of work, to leadership and education.

Here is what he finds worth pursuing and what he is worried about.

What do you find most interesting about the future of work?

What I find interesting and also troubling about the future of work is that artificial intelligence is almost certainly going to have a massive impact even on highly skilled work. It is going to lead to a huge problem of finding ways to employ people at tasks that they find engaging and meaningful. It is not just a matter of people having enough pay for rent and food but about finding work where people feel good about the lives they are living.

Having money to live on does not answer the question of what you actually do with your life.

People have been ringing their hands about this problem but nobody has really found a solution to it. There are proposals around guaranteed basic income – and I find this useful to think about – but having money to live on does not answer the question of what you actually do with your life. This is my concern.

Is it going to be more difficult to find meaningful jobs in the future?

I think we need change our collective understanding of what makes work meaningful. The first industrial revolution replaced hands. The current industrial revolution is going to make most of our minds much less important. What this leaves is hearts.

We need to reorder what we regard as important and respected work.

The world will always need people who care for other people. That need will grow as the world population ages, and it is unlikely that we come up with a digital alternative to human care. The trouble is that the people who provide care are the least respected, the worst paid and least trained at the moment. We really have to reorder what we regard as important, meaningful and respected work in comparison to how we think now.

What do you think about considering individual contribution to society, such as raising children, elder care, environmental activism, driving innovations, etc. in a macroeconomic calculation?

It is arbitrary to call “work” only the things that people get paid for. Unpaid labor is labor and essential to the wellbeing of society. One reason why the developed side of society has troubles sustaining themselves socially is that for centuries we exploited the unpaid labor of women. That is why churches, schools and libraries could work despite being underfunded because you had people who were volunteering. Nowadays in developed societies women are entering the workforce so unpaid labor force has decreased and many unfunded institutions are falling apart.

Work is one thing and compensation is another thing. Some kind of accounting that gave people credit for the way they contribute to society would be a terrific idea, and that does not necessarily mean that they are going to get paid by somebody. I am hesitating a bit because I have read many books on how market-like thinking corrupts things we value and care about, turning them into extensions of the market. If you come up with a measure for the value added, let’s say, being a parent, it would change the nature of parent in a way that is not good. Whenever we use a scale assigning a value, it needs to be quantitative, so the first temptation is to use some kind of metric that we use in the economy and then it turns everything into an economic good.

Market-like thinking corrupts things we value and care about…we need another metric.

So, the question is how can we give people credit without scoring the things you give them credit for? How can we start taking unpaid work seriously and provide financial security without corrupting it? We need another metric. It looks like the economists have conquered the market of metrics. It is a hard battle.

What is your vision for the future of work?

My vision is that people who run organizations do not only ask about what serves the bottom line, but what serves the triple bottom line, i.e. what is good for the business, what is good for the employees and what is good for the community. The research literature suggests that the most successful companies are companies, which create workplaces where people want to be. Paying attention to the quality of work you ask people to do is not an act of charity but it is self-servant. However, there is a kind of ideology and dominant structure in place that I describe in my book, which is that “people are lazy and do not want to work unless you pay them. And, if you pay them, they will do anything. So, we do not have to worry much about what they actually do.” I think this is totally false. So I envision that people who run organizations ask what kind of organization they need to be so that the people who work there want to be there.

Paying attention to the quality of work you ask people to do is not an act of charity, it is self-servant.

I teach a class at Berkeley on this topic. It is called “Work Wisdom and Happiness”. It is about creating leaders who are sensitive to what makes work good and what makes people happy at work. They should create good workplaces to the extent they have control and make the world better in some small way.

Speaking of leadership, what do you think about a model where leaders were elected bottom up rather than determined top down? Obviously we are not scarce of leaders but scarce of the type of leaders that you describe who are in service to the company and employees.

I do not think that bottom up people know enough about what they want and would choose wisely, if they were in control. Whenever labor and labor unions have power, negotiations are almost entirely about wages, benefits, health and safety. They are seldom about the work. If we want to take a real transformation in ranking, leaders would have be focused on the quality of work rather than the compensation of work. Maybe it could happen bottom up. But I think at the moment we are likely to see grassroots movements based on the example set by some enlightened people at the top. 

Which principles should the new generation joining the workforce in 20 years from now, follow in their personal and professional development?

They should find something to do that is meaningful to them. What is most important about work is that you get some sort of meaning out of it. You cannot just tell that to them but you can nurture an attitude in kids as they are developing in what hobbies they pursue and what academic paths they take, to focus on what gets them excited and what they really think is important rather than what can get them a paycheck. If they get into the habit of thinking in that way, they will naturally think about their work differently when they reach adulthood. But in rich societies with plentiful jobs, people can be picky. In underdeveloped societies with high unemployment, people cannot be picky.

…it is useful to think of passion as something that you create.

What I sometimes see in young adults now is that they want a job they are passionate about but they cannot find their passion. So they wander from job to job hoping to wake up one day knowing what their passion is. I think it is useful to think of passion as something that you create. 

As kids already start learning programming now, could this be also something to learn at an early age as part of a personal development program at school?

Most of the time what moves people is the effect they have on other people. It is not a bad idea to start this at early ages. But most Western societies have assigned to schools the education of the head and assigned to parents the education of the heart. If we start to have programs on personal development in schools, I would assume enormous opposition by parents that the state is acting where it does not belong.

Parents are more worried about their kids getting jobs than about their kids being satisfied with their lives.

These things take time. We are talking about a fairly big change in the way people think about these issues.

What is your core message to the audience on the future of work?

People spend more than half of their lives working. They should be paying less attention to what they are going to get and more attention to what they are going to do.

Interview by ASLI TOKSAL.