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Exploring work ethics in the age of robotics

Wan Lixin

Wan Lixin

AFTER another hard day’s work at the hospital, and probably under the influence of the insufferable heat, my wife’s mind again turned to the meaning of her job.

With a few minutes of meditation, she came to a surprising discovery. “Oh, I am one of the only two among the seven of my cousins who are still working!”

And the other working cousin, unlike her, probably works more for the sake of keeping herself occupied.

After receiving generous home relocation compensation, her family of three owns well over 20 million yuan (US$3million) worth of apartments.

Equal pay and equal work for women used to be one of the outstanding achievements, often cited in tribute to the new China, but apparently, from what I see, formal employment is no longer a uniformly perceived necessity, but something negotiable, subject to rational choice.

Income used to be the chief justification for being in the harness, but honestly earned wages, particularly those for jobs in the manufacturing sector, are no longer persuasive for some urban youths, who no longer need to fret about their subsistence.

It is easy to see that in theory, other things being equal, locals should be more competitive in the labor market than those coming from outside. According to a recently published survey, 84 percent of the graduates working in Shenzhen this year spend an average of 59 percent of their monthly earnings on rent. The locals are privileged, in that they do not need to pay for their accommodation. They are also disadvantaged, for they seem to have less incentives to perform, and compete, in the workplace.

Increasingly, some rising technological and industrial sectors take on the look of a battlefield, fit for aspiring youths to fight and win, before the deadline.

Retired young

During my recent visit to Huawei headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, another visitor in our group mentioned a former Huawei employee who retired before he was 40. The person in question is now kept in comfort by, in addition to his pension, 600,000 yuan a year accrued from shares in his former company. But one does not live on bread alone. This guy, a long-distance runner, chooses to fly everywhere around the world to participate in Marathon races.

In many technological companies, those in their late 30s, feeling too old, are planning their retirement. This intensive utilization of labor is by no means restricted to the IT sector.

One professor I met recently mentioned his son, born in 1988, who now works in Singapore. The son remains single, having literally no time to start a family, even though he has a girlfriend. He often works until 10pm, while his girlfriend sometimes comes home as late as 2am.

“The watchword is that you work hard enough to be established before 30, or opt out,” the professor said.

Some of us still have a remote memory of employers who took a more holistic interest in its employees, their family needs, their difficulties, their health, their ideological leanings, or even their marital choices. In other words, there was a time when employees could afford to view its employers as something lasting, humane, and supportive. Then the strength of such affinity had been criticized as backward, detrimental to productive efficiency, and has since been much vitiated.

Following decades of “enlightenment,” labor today becomes a commodity easily replaceable and replenishable from the seemingly unlimited supply from the market. Labor becomes more and more like a disposable, if you think of the troops of delivery men forever rushing to their next destination, or Uber-like taxi drivers, who are supervised, rewarded and penalized by an app.

In a Chinese village from the past, a strong built youth who had imbibed the philosophy of honest labor qualified as a good son, good husband, and good parent. But it will be difficult for an app to take care of the full needs of a delivery man. As a matter of fact, these delivery men become invisible, yet powerful forces in accelerating the flow of national wealth towards a handful of young billionaires minted in the cyberspace.

In the industrial age, the youth have to prove their adaptability to the requirement of specialized technology. Today, there is talk about continual adult education, and people must constantly humour the whims of the cyber age. But there are warnings that all these efforts of being flexible might not go very far.

In the current enthusiasm about artificial intelligence, people are talking about human labor in general being taken over by robots. Futurists once fantasized about a brave new world when, after the drudgery of routine work is taken over by machines, human beings would be more meaningfully and productively employed in endeavors of more artistic, technical or social significance.

That was a very optimistic estimation. But one thing is for sure: However technology develops, it seems there is still an important role reserved for humans, as pristine consumers of goods, material and spiritual. There is definitely no need for fear of ennui.

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