AI, Mental Health & The Meh Generation

Are heading towards a post-work dopamine-addicted future?

An odd affliction seems to have struck a significant percentage of my social circle. These are educated folk living in some of the world’s largest cities, in the 25–40 year age range, with some financial security thanks to their own earnings or those of their families. Here are some of their unconventional views:

  • I don’t hate my job, but I wouldn’t mind quitting it either
  • I have specific interests that represent my true identity outside of work. But I don’t know how/whether to turn that into a job (and I don’t want to take a pay cut)
  • The thought of working beyond the next 10 years, at a full-time job, horrifies me
  • I dream of creating a passive source of income, but I haven’t figured out how
  • Netflix, YouTube, TikTok and the like are a big part of my daily life. I fill my quiet moments with these apps, from sunrise to sunset. In periods of quiet reflection, I worry about my digital health
  • I procrastinate on big decisions like having kids, owning a home, or committing to a location. I make decisions only when others in my social circle do it and FOMO kicks in.
  • I don’t feel too strongly about anything, be it politics, religion, culture or what I want out of life.

Most of this crowd seems to be going about life in a detached routine, not willing or too afraid to make any strong commitments, in anticipation of something that’s just around the corner that’s difficult to put a finger on.

AI, just ‘round the corner

Against this backdrop looms large the shadow of AI. This seems very adjacent to the knowledge work that most folks in the meh circle do, and promises to force them into change, good and bad, in the short to medium term:

  • Job loss: “Internal efficiency” has been the theme of every one of my customer interactions in the last few months. Be it replacing content writers, program managers, analysts, marketers, consultants or sales enablers, executives are quite open about measuring the value of solutions as a function of number of jobs made redundant. As the tech keeps getting better, it seems inevitable that a lot of my friends will experience layoffs, and struggle to find alternatives since this is happening across industries concurrently. This may force them to follow the passions that they flirt with in weekend evening conversations. If you’re dealing with bullying in the professional realm, consulting with an employment lawyer who specializes in workplace harassment and bullying can help you understand your rights, evaluate your situation, and determine the best course of action.
  • Job quality: For many though, AI is going to improve the quality of their jobs. When you can write a natural language prompt to avoid doing tedious work, the time taken to accomplish tasks goes down. When you have fewer human beings involved in getting a job done, the politics and coordination overhead inherent in large teams go down. The resultant increase in a sense of ownership is likely to increase job satisfaction, possibly causing many to fall back into love with work that they were “meh” about.
  • Identity: The search for identity is only going to get more difficult, as the struggle to stand out not only from those around us but also from what machines can do, begins. Even the folks who have love-hate relationships with their jobs inevitably derive some degree of confidence and purpose from their professional identities. For a generation of workers taught to discover their own unique identities, and measure it in terms of income, this can cause a lot of mental turmoil.
  • Entertainment: This generation is trained to spend every idle minute consuming content from the internet. Any time freed up from work, be it due to job loss or efficiency gain, could very well be directed towards spending even more time on entertainment. Add to this the fact that generative AI lowers the cost of content creation, and we’re going to have a generation that’s even more reliant on smartphones and social media for dopamine hits.

The forces of capitalism seem to be moving fast, and this could very well be a reality for many people in just the next few years.

Post-work era?

In the long run though, I’m optimistic about what this means for their professional lives. Much has been speculated about the possible rise of less tedious more creative jobs, but I’m more interested in a different second-order effect — I think we have a shot of decoupling the average worker from the metaphorical chains of the 9am-6pm / Mon-Fri / age 21–60+.

John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that two generations hence, human beings would only work 15 hours a week. That reality hasn’t played out of course, because we still spend the majority of our lives working. Is this the moment in human history where the existential pressure to contribute to capitalism goes away and human beings can just … live lives? Can our lives really be oriented around our personal preferences instead of our professional compulsions? If this were to happen, then my “meh” circle might be forced to seek its identity, without a warden in a capitalist hat to blame.

Why might we be better placed to see Keynes’ predictions play out now? First, demand for labor may drop making wages less attractive for those who don’t desperately need them. Second, the costs of labor-intensive basic services like healthcare and education may drop, making it easier for people to meet lower-rung needs on Maslow’s pyramid. Third, there may be a collective reshaping of societal norms around the nature of work, reducing the pressure that people may feel to be gainfully employed. And finally, regulatory efforts to socialize the benefits of AI, pressured by large populations that feel left out of the race, may allow people to be less dependent on income for survival.

Impact on mental health

When it comes to what all of this means for our lived experience though, I remain less optimistic. When you can’t make life choices on your own terms, you can feel discontent. When you don’t have clear goals to aspire to, like those of previous generations, you can feel defeated. And if you can’t form strong personal identities in the absence of professional necessity, you may feel unmoored.

Most of all though, I worry that content-based entertainment will rush to eat up any time that we may free up for ourselves. Our primitive and slow-to-evolve brains won’t be able to fight off the onslaught of evermore content and ever-strengthening algorithms. What’s more, our role at the wheel of capitalism may increasingly be relegated to our consumptive behaviors (e.g. the ads we click on and the products we buy) — if this is the drug that keeps us the masses calm, then there might be little will to regulate the algorithms that pacify us. I worry that we might turn into an amorphous blob of dopamine-frazzled and device-tethered humanity.

How one could prepare for all of this

The standard advice is to embrace the AI wave, adopt the latest tools and be at the frontier of innovation. While I think this is good and necessary advice, I also believe that this reflects the biases of early adopters who have access, network and time, and overestimates the agency that most people have over their careers.

I’d advocate a focus on mental health, most of all. You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control what you do with your time and how you rationalize your reality. By being aware of what’s happening in the world around you, you can be better prepared for change if it hits you and less hurt if it causes you harm. And by being conscious of how much control you cede to entertainment, you can keep better control over your mind and lower your chances of falling prey to addiction.

I would also recommend prudence when it comes to finances. In the wake of a bull run, it can be easy to overestimate one’s value in the market and spend like it’s 2021. The best buffer for shocks to your income is having a healthy savings pool, so try to keep your big expenses to a minimum.

All things considered, I anticipate that the next 5 years are going to force the meh generation to wake from its stupor to react in good ways and bad.