Tag Archives: Social

The robots are coming. What purpose do we have left?

A life without purpose is no life all.

Our purpose – a key element of a happy and fulfilling life – could be radically overturned by the rise of robots. Automation and artificial intelligence, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are threatening work and the economy as we know it. With that, even our happiness levels could be at risk.

The robots are coming

A seminal study on the future of employment by Frey and Osborne of 2013 put the figure of US jobs that could be automated by the early 2030s at around 47%. Imagining that about 1 in 2 employees lose their jobs is massive, but it is an average. For some sectors, like truck drivers or cab drivers, the figures are 70% or higher. If self-driving cars deliver on their promise, they will drastically reduce, or even eliminate, deathly car accidents. They will also radically cut employment in a sector that now represents about 3% of the US economy, and offers people with low education access to a middle-class lifestyle.

The gastronomy sector is another example. In a few years, you can order your pizza capricciosa online, and have it delivered home without any human intervention (we’re already almost there, though we still need a few humans). The dough could be prepared by one robot, the stuffing and sauces by a second, a third could bake it, and it could be delivered to your doorstep by driverless vehicle. Hygiene and efficiency would increase. For a capitalist, it is great: robots can work 24/7, without asking a salary, requesting additional training, getting bored, or going on strike.

White collar jobs are also at risk

But it’s not only blue collar jobs that can lose out. Also part of complicated jobs, like lawyers, accountants or radiologists can be automated. Again, their performance can be better than of humans. A well-programmed (or ‘trained’, through machine learning), robot accountant does not make the mistakes a human makes. A robot radiologist sees more cases during its training that a human during their entire career, and scores better in its diagnoses. These are just some examples: robots might also threaten your job, because humans can be beaten in every repetitive task.

Dramatic social effects

All these developments have massive social and economic effects. If robots take over so much of the current work, what will we do? Can we create new jobs for the 47%? Or will only be half the population be able to be employed? The demand-and-supply laws would posit that salaries would go down. Only those who control robots, the new means of production, would earn good salaries. Inequality would massively increase. This development is already visible in places like San Francisco. A four-person family with an income below $105,00o is now considered poor.

Maybe the entire economy would collapse. If only few people work and earn salaries, who can afford to consume of all products and services that robots produce? Henry Ford’s production line only started to take off when he realised that he needed to pay his staff enough to buy his T-Fords. Supply is nowhere without demand.

A new social contract?

Many in the tech industry, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg spoke out on basic income as a tool to protect those who lose out. In an interview last year, Bill Gates advocated a robot tax: “The human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory has his income taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”. Policy makers, such as San Francisco counsellor Jane Kim, have started to think what it could look like. Basic income might be part of the new social contract in a robot-driven economy – who knows?

What is our purpose?

At the moment, we have many more questions than answers. We know robots can do many parts of our jobs, and that some sectors are destined for radical transformation. But we don’t know what comes next. When coal mines in Western countries were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody could tell coal miners not to worry – we didn’t know yet that their children and grand-children could make a living as social media managers or YouTubers.

Similarly, the jobs that will be needed in the 2030s may not exist yet. At the same time, there are a few things that can give us hope. Coding is safe – robots cannot programme themselves (yet?). Social skills and social relations will remain important. And while robots are great in performing repetitive actions in situations they have seen before, they cannot (yet?) deal with completely new situations and decide what to do.

So, there are at least two avenues to find our purpose: one is to do the non-routine, creative work that is hard to automate (some creativity can be automated though – robots can create music and paintings). Another thing we can imagine is living the life as in Keynes vision – with a 15 hour working week, we can spend so much more time on holidays. There are a few big ifs – firstly, we need to have a new social contracts that allows it. Secondly, we  need to find a raison d’etre, a purpose outside work.

We should hurry to do so. The 2030s are close.

Celebrating the International Day of Happiness

One of the comments Twitter had a lot yesterday: ‘who decided that the International Day of Happiness would be on Monday’?

While Monday isn’t the least happy day of the week (it’s Wednesday), it may be a surprise that the first day of the new working week is the International Day of Happiness. But that was just the case this year: the day simply falls on 20 March, every year, forever.

It seems that interest in the day has picked up compared to when I wrote about it in 2014 and 2015. Via Twitter, I was flooded with articles and infographics about ways to be happy and happiness at work. That’s a great development, I’d say!

The World Happiness Report 2017

The publication of the World Happiness Report has become another regular fixture on the calendar of happiness enthusiasts (see my take in 2015 here). This year, its release coincided with the International Day of Happiness.

Looking at the results, there were a couple of surprises:

  • Norway narrowly overtook Denmark (1st in 2016 and also in 2014) as the happiest country in the data from 2014-2016. A very important disclaimer: the differences between these two and Iceland (3rd) Switzerland (4th, ranked 1st in 2015) are statistically insignificant. In brief, we don’t really know if Norwegians are really happier than the Swiss.
  • It remains mind-blowing how important equal societies, high trust (measured via perceptions of corruptions), and small populations are. Like last year, the rest of the top-10 is completed by Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.
  • The section on the United States recognises its decline. This is not a failure in attempts to Make America Great Again – though polarisation is probably part of the problem. Declining social support and a reduced trust are the factors associated with this. Jeffrey Sachs observes that the US ranked 3rd in the OECD in 2007, compared to 19th in 2016. Given the fact that GDP is still growing but happiness is in decline, it is imperative that the US works on its social crisis.
  • Also in China, the data show surprising results. China’s GDP per capita has seen a five-fold increase in 25 years. If money were to buy happiness, the levels of happiness and well-being should increase, especially for the millions of people who escaped poverty and came to form China’s new middle class. Instead, multiple studies reveal that happiness fell a bit in the 2000-2005 period, before increasing again in 2010-2014. In the earlier period, unemployment and a weaker social safety net reduced happiness, and the recovery of happiness levels took a long time. China now ranks 79th, below South Korea and the Philippines, but ahead of Indonesia and Vietnam. It also outranks Greece, where happiness suffered during the long-standing economic crisis, and the cradle of Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan.


Mapping happiness

With the exception of pockets of red (unhappy) and orange (less happy) in Africa and part of the Middle East and Asia, overall, the world looks quite green and happy. There is a lot green to see on this map, from North America to Latin America, in Europe, in most of Asia, and in Oceania. Overall, the world is quite a happy place – and mind you, it’s the only planet where the International Day of Happiness is celebrated!


Schermafbeelding 2017-03-21 om 09.30.02

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.


Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016


Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

Why are Mexicans so happy?

Quiz question: which country is happier, the United States or Mexico? Based on what you read about wealth, migration and violence, you’d probably guess that the US outranks Mexico. This is not the case. In the World Happiness Report, Mexico scores a 7.088, just above 7.082 for the US. In other polls, Mexicans often score around 8 out of 10. What explains their happiness level?

The last two weeks I wrote about my main takeaways from the Well-being and Development Forum in Guadalajara that I attended, and about my own presentation. Today, I want to face a question that was the biggest one of the conference (and the title of one of the final panels): why are Mexicans so happy?

Data presented by some of the researchers illustrated that happiness in Mexico is surprisingly high: around eight points on a scale of ten. As everywhere, different factors contribute to (un)happiness. Professor Rene Millan Mon had measured performance on six factors to explain happiness. Of these, having the freedom to make own choices, a person’s health, and family relations, explained the largest part of happiness levels. Other factors – habitat, education and government – have a lower impact.

What was also remarkable to see is that Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city and the place of the conference, scored comparatively low. In a study of Imagina Mexico, it ranks as 70th out of 100 cities. It has good scores for spirituality and family, but a lot lower ones for economy, free time and friendship. And within the state of Jalisco, all more rural regions have higher happiness levels than this city of five million.

Picture 3

Why is that? In the end, it shows we don’t have the full answer about Mexico’s happiness. The World Happiness Report distinguishes six elements that are thought to be determinative for happiness. These six – economic, health, social support, personal freedom, generosity, and perception of corruption – only explain about four points out of the 7.088. If we assume that measurements of happiness are scientifically sound and that the number really grasps how Mexicans feel, we simply don’t know what makes Mexicans so happy.

But this outperformance is not only visible in Mexico, but also in other countries in Latin America. I use to refer to it as the ‘Latin American happiness bonus’. Apparently there is something in Latin American culture that makes them happier than you would expect based on objective factors.

When asked, Mexicans themselves seem to think that strong social ties are one of the factor. Indeed, many people live a very active public life. The streets are full with people, and family ties are tight. But the question is whether this has emerged out of his own, or as an alternative structure to counter the negative effects of low public trust and a low quality of social security. The ‘fiesta’ culture could be another explanation. For instance, the quinceneria parties are a reason for a huge party, but also mark a key step or ‘accomplishment’ in life.

But social support is one of the factors studied in the report, and one that has the strongest relation with happiness as far as the data indicate! It might be that we still undervalue its significance in the data, but in the end, we don’t have the full answer. I experienced Mexico as a country full of contrasts. When reading about Mexico, I mainly read about violence, migration and drugs. Whilst social inequality, and protests about disappeared students were not far away, as a tourist I mainly experienced the warmth of the people, the beauty of their country, and also some pride about their enjoyable things (and about high happiness levels, too!). Maybe the surprisingly high happiness levels is just another contrast.

People make life interesting

During my time in high school, I was not the most social person in class. I didn’t really fit in with the two camps at my school.

At the one side, you had the popular kids. They played (field) hockey, wore shirts with their collars, smoke and drank, and dated each other.

On the other side, you had the alternative kids. They played in bands, dyed their hair yellow or green, smoke and drank, and dated each other.

I took my own course, alone, or interacting with the other pupils who where a bit in between the camps. I kept in my comfort zone, and if it wasn’t necessary, didn’t speak to people I didn’t know.

An encounter with F.

But that was high school. Let me tell you about an encounter I recently had.

I was sitting at a bar with some friends as a girl approached us and asked whether she could join us. She had had a bad day. At the bar, to a bunch of strangers she just met – us – F. told the story of her life.

F. had a bruise in her face. She had been hit by her boyfriend. They had spent a long time together, but recently he had turned violent. F. knew she had to leave him. At the same time, she wasn’t sure whether she was a ready to end it. There was a lot that connected her to him; the fight had broken her spirit but not her heart. A punch in the face is painful, but love can hurt even more.

On the outside, she had a good life. She only worked a bit for fun and personal interest. Otherwise, she was taken care off . Her lifestyle was rich, with frequent trips throughout Europe and money available for shopping sprees anytime she desired. In her early thirties, F. still enjoyed her life, going to crazy parties and doing whatever she wanted. Her friends looked up to her, admired her. And she couldn’t take it any longer. F.’s life, I think, had become artificial. It had to be changed.

The value of ephemeral encounters

It was a tense conversation, and an important encounter for her as well as for me. As I wrote above, in my days of high school I wasn’t very open to people. Now, I realised that I was able to engage in a deep conversation about all important parts of life with a person I met some minutes before. I gave her some advice, and I hope it helped her a bit. But it also helped me to reflect about myself and about human interaction.

Here in Brussels I regularly meet people only for a short time, and still have extremely interesting conversations. Initially, I used to think that these meetings are useless. I used to think that if a good level of contact is achieved, a seed of friendship should be made flourish. But I am starting to change my mind about this. Friendship is a great thing, but there is also a beauty and a value in ephemeral encounters. One nice chat for an evening, and than life goes on, each with their own friends, dreams and hopes.

Into The Wild

There are two ways I could finish this story. One is by referring to a Dutch poem, Aan Rika by Piet Paaltjens from the 19th century. It’s about a guy who sees a girl for a split second, when the train she’s riding is passing his. He gets dragged away by the moment immediately, and fantasises about both of them being destroyed by the colliding trains. But this is not a story of love or destruction.

The appropriate end to this story is a different one: the movie Into the Wild. The hero of the film, Alexander Supertramp, travels to Alaska alone to live a life of isolation, close to the nature he loves so much. The trip has moments of reflection, beauty and sincere happiness, I think. However, at the end of the film, Alexander realises an important lesson: happiness is only real when shared with others.

Is there anybody here?

Regardless how happy you are with yourself and your own life, it’s other people who make life truly worthwhile. Whoever they are.

Into the Wild