How AI and automation have created a concerning ‘make work’ pattern
  • 15 Nov 2023
  • 9 Minutes to read
  • Dark

How AI and automation have created a concerning ‘make work’ pattern

  • Dark

Article summary

Thank you to Kem-Laurin Lubin, PH.D - C for sharing her knowledge and expertise with us.

You can read this article on Medium as well.


“Automation and AI will definitely cause widespread job losses and the potential for greater inequality. The challenge for our generation is ensuring that these changes will enhance, not diminish, our humanity” — Stephen Hawking.

If I had a dollar for every time a colleague or friend uttered the phrase “make work,” I’d be considerably wealthier. Granted, that’s a slight exaggeration. However, as I navigate through blogging about topics that resonate with my peers, we’ve reached a pivotal moment. It’s time to confront the proverbial elephant in the room: Are we merely engaging in “make work” as we inch closer to being overtaken by automation?

This question first struck me back in 2018, prompting a significant career shift. In search of a more fulfilling purpose, I left behind my previous role — moving from user research to a Digital Transformation Coach and now Design Strategist and co-founder of Human Tech Futures, a direct response to the challenges I see. That year, I shared my journey through blogging for the first time, candidly expressing my concerns about transitioning from user research to witnessing my design team transform into what felt like an assembly line of UI component creators. Simultaneously, we were paradoxically engineering our own obsolescence. Join me as we delve into this journey, exploring the fine line between meaningful work and the automated future that looms ahead.

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation has undeniably revolutionised the workplace, enhancing operations and increasing efficiency across various sectors. However, this technological advancement has also led to a less discussed but significant issue: the emergence of ‘make work’ patterns. Here, ‘make work’ refers to tasks or jobs that are created or extended not out of necessity, but as a reaction to AI and automation encroaching upon traditional employment roles.

Case studies and real-world examples

The phenomenon of technology impacting jobs can be illustrated through various case studies. In the retail sector, for instance, despite the widespread adoption of self-checkout machines, many stores still retain cashiers. Similarly, in manufacturing, certain tasks continue to be performed manually, even when automation could make these processes more efficient. A personal example underscores this trend, not going so well.

Back in 2018, I observed my local Shopper’s Drug Mart (comparable to CVS in the US) replacing its human-operated checkouts with self-service machines. I blogged about it because, sadly, this naive older woman felt confident that the self-checkout machines will break, securing her long held job as a cashier. She even celebrating every technical glitch as if to say: “See!”

Sidebar: (Incidentally I wrote about it about 5 years to this date: Learning & Innovation for Everyone (LIFE) — planning for the Future of Work.

We cannot ignore how the past informs our present.

This store, previously a vibrant community hub where neighbors connected and formed bonds with cashiers, now presents a starkly different reality in 2023. Despite reassurances from a staff member back then that no jobs would be lost, as human presence was considered essential, the scenario has drastically changed. The once lively Shopper’s Drug Mart has transformed into a somewhat desolate space. The numerous checkouts have been downsized to a single service desk, surrounded by cold, impersonal self-checkout stations. Adding to the poignancy of this transformation is the plight of a former employee, now teetering on the edge of homelessness, a crisis deepened by the loss of her vehicle and the ensuing financial strain.

This story is just one example that highlights the need to consider both the human narratives and the tangible outcomes of AI and automation. It emphasizes the importance of developing solutions that address these impacts in a holistic manner.

The Psychology behind ‘make work’

Never before has it been so vital to delve deeper into the psychological and societal implications of the “make work” phenomenon and the intrinsic human need for purpose. For many, their occupation is not merely a livelihood but a cornerstone of their identity and a wellspring of purpose. As automation increasingly encroaches upon various roles, there emerges a visceral, almost instinctual urge to safeguard these jobs, making so much of our existence transactional in nature.

This is not just about economic security; it’s about preserving a sense of self-worth and societal contribution that is often intertwined with one’s profession. However, this desire to cling to traditional job roles, even when they do not fully utilize the unique capacities of human intellect and creativity, can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it maintains employment; on the other, it potentially traps individuals in roles that are unfulfilling and, at times, unnecessary.

This paradox creates a workforce at risk of feeling redundant, their skills underutilized and their potential unexplored. Such a scenario breeds disengagement, a sense of stagnation, and, crucially, a crisis of identity. People start questioning their value and purpose, not just in their workplace but in society, at large.

The dangers of this are multifaceted. At an individual level, it can lead to diminished mental well-being, a decline in job satisfaction, and a loss of motivation. Societally, it can result in a workforce that is less innovative, less productive, and less prepared to tackle the challenges of a rapidly evolving world. It’s a situation that demands a re-evaluation of the very nature of work and its role in human life.

Ultimately, the solution lies in recognizing and fostering the unique qualities that make us human — creativity, empathy, critical thinking, and the ability to adapt. As we transition into a future where automation and artificial intelligence play a larger role, it’s crucial to redefine work in a way that aligns with these human attributes. This redefinition should aim not just at employment for the sake of employment but at meaningful engagement that nurtures individual growth, societal contribution, and a sense of purpose that resonates with our deepest human needs.

The economic and social implications

The phenomenon of technology impacting jobs, as illustrated by my example and case study above, reveals a deeper societal issue: we are often held hostage by traditions and a reluctance to envision a path forward that benefits everyone.

This narrative is apparent across various sectors. In manufacturing, a similar trend is observed, where manual labour continues for certain tasks despite the potential for increased efficiency through automation. However, in these scenarios, humans are often relegated to the Sisyphean task of “make work.” My aforementioned 2018, at my local Shopper’s Drug Mart further exemplifies this.

Now, let’s assess this one case study and its wider impact: This example is just one among many that highlight a critical issue: we are often constrained by traditional practices and an inability to envision a future that accommodates everyone.

Economically, this results in ‘make work’ patterns, where jobs are maintained to keep employment figures stable, but at the cost of potentially hindering the full potential of technological advancements and that human who could be truthfully informed with notice to allow them to transition. This approach poses a dilemma: while it preserves employment in the short term, it may also slow down innovation and progress.

Socially, the adherence to outdated roles raises significant questions about how we value work and the roles humans should play in an increasingly automated world. It brings to the fore the need for a re-evaluation of our work culture and the development of strategies that not only embrace technological advancements but also ensure the well-being and fulfillment of individuals in society.

This calls for a balanced approach that recognizes the importance of human contribution in a technology-driven era, ensuring that progress does not come at the cost of societal and individual welfare.

The ‘make work’ phenomenon and what we can do

The essence of progress in our modern society hinges on a fundamental shift in the approach of company leaders, educational institutions, governments, and influencers towards a deeply empathetic understanding of the human condition. In a world bristling with uncertainties, it is incumbent upon those in positions of power to not just recognize, but actively nurture the interconnectedness that binds us all. This vision goes beyond mere rhetoric, demanding tangible actions that facilitate mutual growth and resilience.

Companies are called to provide relevant, forward-thinking training, aligning with the evolving landscape of work and technology. Universities, as bastions of learning, must redefine what a modern education entails, ensuring that it equips individuals not just with knowledge, but with the adaptability and critical thinking skills crucial for navigating the ever-changing tides of the global economy. Governments, for their part, need to undergo a metamorphosis, adopting modern policies and practices, led by visionaries and influencers who truly ‘get it’.

This holistic approach addresses the ‘Make Work’ phenomenon, where automation could streamline processes, yet human labour persists, often out of resistance to change or a nostalgic clinging to outdated practices. This pattern, prevalent in industries from manufacturing to services, leads to jobs that might provide employment but fall short in contributing meaningfully to productivity or personal development. It’s a clarion call for a collective effort to usher in a future where work is not just about employment, but about meaningful contribution and continuous personal growth.

Rethinking work in the age of AI and automation

The challenge involves redefining the concept of work in the era of AI and automation. How can we balance the advantages of technological progress with the necessity for meaningful human employment? It is essential to explore avenues for workforce retraining, upskilling, and transitioning into roles that utilise human creativity and problem-solving — areas where AI is still lacking. The ‘make work’ pattern that has emerged in the wake of advancements in AI and automation is a complex issue, touching on economic, psychological, and societal aspects of work. It is a phenomenon that demands thoughtful consideration and proactive strategies to ensure that, as we embrace technological progress, we also maintain the value and dignity of human labour.

*About me: Hello, my name is Kem-Laurin, and I am one half of the co-founding team of Human Tech Futures. I am currently pursuing a doctoral degree (University of Waterloo). My research inquires into identity construction through contemporary case studies (judicial) that demonstrate how citizens’ data is collected and utilized. Whether data is illicitly harvested or willingly shared, the resultant algorithmic constructions wield immense power over users whose identities are quantified through information. My research objectives are to (1) develop a critical understanding that will then allow me to (2) produce concrete heuristic principles for use in AI powered design systems (as informed by my professional experience in systems design).

Professionally I practice as a Principal HCD Strategist and Design Thinking Coach. Prior, I led large Design and Research teams in HCD at Blackberry Autodesk and also worked at Siemens in German, USA. In my spare time, I build layered gardens with a tropical vibe while my 135 pound GSD looks on. Today I feel blessed to have traveled to over 25 countries before the world transformed to what it is today; I was able to experience a good breadth of human experiences. Periodically, I give back as an active mentor to my students, and many burgeoning critically thinking HCD Researchers who seek to make the world a better place.*

Was this article helpful?