What Happens when the Robots Take Our Jobs?

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For decades we’ve seen many kinds of work radically automated or even eliminated. But how can we survive, let alone thrive, if the trend continues and most, if not all, forms of work are taken over by robots?

The Rise of the (Working) Robots

Federico Pistono, in his new book Robots will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK , presupposes the idea that robots will be taking over, not in a military or political sense, but rather that they will become more and more capable of what human beings used to call “jobs”. On the face of it, this is a technical problem. But look deeper and there’s an economic problem, and under the economic problem is the question of: what’s a human life about with productive labor removed from the equation? I’ll leave the first question to the technologists, briefly recap what I think are the most important economic trends, and make the rest of this article all about the third issue: how can human beings adapt emotionally and morally to a world largely without work?

Today’s Trends, Tomorrow’s Possibilities

Given that predicting the future is a tricky profession at best, let me highlight some recent events that may represent the foreshocks heralding the post-human-employment world. The most glaring evidence that the world is running out of work is the ever so gradual shortening of the work week. In the American colonies, the effort of building a nation demanded eight to ten hours a day for six days out of the week. Hours worked may have spiked briefly during the industrial revolution, given that artificial lighting could extend the working day to shifts that were 12 hours long, and workers worked six days a week for a grand total of around 72 hours per week. Since then, the work week has been creeping downward to the present average of just under 40 hours per week.

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Several factors contribute to the shrinking work week. One is the economic boom and bust cycle. During the 1920s, labor activists pushed for a reduced work-week, to five days a week. Then in the 1930s, the great depression spiked unemployment to 25%. The US attempted to legislate a 30-hour work week to more evenly distribute the dwindling amount of work remaining, though this effort ultimately failed. More recently, the growth of part-time and contract work, as opposed to more traditional full-time jobs, has driven down both hours of paid work, as well as benefit packages and worker security.

While economic busts come and go, the trend towards increasing automation of labor continues through good times and bad. Agriculture provides the most dramatic case study of this process. 90% of the U.S. population worked as farmers in 1790. Today, that percentage has dropped to less than one percent. This titanic rise in productivity is almost entirely due to automation on a grand scale.

We do not Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

For the last several decades, a major question addressed by career counseling is how to pick a career that won’t disappear before retirement — a more general form of the problem of finding work that robots won’t ‘steal.’ Over the short term, avoiding a robotic takeover is a matter of picking white collar jobs over blue collar ones, picking jobs that require interpersonal contact as opposed to those that are impersonal, and picking those that require emotional or esthetic sensibilities over those that are logical and analytical.

Career selection is a rearguard action against automation: giving more and more ground to the machines as time goes by. To combat the hopelessness of this endeavor, we look to the new job categories that are created as others are destroyed. In the short term, this hope is somewhat valid, although the jobs created may not be as numerous as the ones lost, and the qualifications for the new jobs likely far exceed those of the ones being taken over by robots. This trend drives young people to become more educated and more qualified, and yet still find themselves unemployed after college, more from lack of openings than lack of talent.

In the long run, the flight to difficult-to-automate jobs is entirely futile for one reason alone: human beings as a species develop new abilities slowly, as we are limited by our biology. Meanwhile our machines are rushing headlong towards greater competencies and greater application in the labor force. Today, we are not surprised when a robot displaces a factory worker. But soon some of the ‘safer’ jobs may give way to machines. Eventually we may find that robots are reaching human-equivalent performance on jobs such as administrative work, construction, or even medicine. Could there ever be an effective robot therapist? I’m not so proud as to believe that day will never come. Even if there is a class of jobs that robots can never do as well as human beings (I’m thinking about art or literature), do we seriously believe that we can employ our entire population full-time in just that small sector of the economy?

Another ward against increasing automation and decreasing employment is increasing demand. Consumerism is the idea that the road to full employment in the face of expanding efficiency is simply to generate and use up more consumer goods in less time. Ideally, the extra consumption soaks up the difference and humans remain both gainfully employed and surrounded by new toys to play with on their weekends. Marketing is the profession of increasing demand and keeping consumer spending high.

Even ignoring the environmental impact of such a policy, this approach is doomed to fail because, while desire for material goods can be extended to some degree, eventually productivity overtakes this (arguably) artificial increased demand. If farming is any guide, we can expect productivity to increase by powers of ten as automation expands. I might enjoy having a car instead of a motorcycle, or even two or three cars. Yet, long before I get to a power-of-ten difference, I’m no longer pleased by the increase. I don’t believe that advertising can pull the wool over our eyes to the degree that we’ll buy the required amounts of stuff to keep the consumer cycle going. We can see the dissatisfaction with the consumerist path in the ascendency of the simplicity and minimalism movements.

Developing a Post-Labor Mindset

If avoiding easily-automated jobs and rampant consumerism won’t protect us from the rise of the robots, then what will? Ultimately, it will take a change in our beliefs and values about work. According to Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, in 1856 Pennsylvania, it was literally illegal to be unemployed, and a conviction on a charge of “idleness” could carry a one-month jail term. While we might not be quite that punitive in 2013, many consider idleness at least a moral failing.

I believe the aversion to idleness is mostly a historical throwback. We have the sense that the wolf is always at our door and if we don’t work like mad, then we’ll be materially deprived. And for most of human history, that belief was absolutely true. However as automation takes off, this belief becomes more and more irrational. To live well in a post-labor world, we have to de-stigmatize unemployment. Perhaps in the past, to be unemployed was to be unemployable, and therefore in some sense ‘less than’ the working stiffs. But if unemployment truly comes from lack of need, rather than lack of ability, then unemployment should logically be blameless.

Even today, work for many is more than mere survival. Many of us meet our needs for challenge and significance through labor. In order to meet these needs, we’ll have to develop new activities that fill the space that traditional jobs once satisfied. I imagine the depth and seriousness of a career fused with the enjoyment of what we now call ‘hobbies.’ I think some of the most successful ‘workers’ of the present day have already internalized this model. Indeed, it is not new. Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius was quoted as saying “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” The trick going forward is to make the enjoyment the whole of the purpose, not merely a ‘nice to have’ along the way to the all-important paycheck.

When people are working for their own personal development and satisfaction rather than the economic impact or the increase in their own material consumption, then I imagine the resentment between the ‘workers’ and the ‘idle’ will fade away, as people slowly begin to feel it in their bones that — through automation — there really is more than enough ‘stuff’ for everyone, and that having everyone working full-time serves no further economic purpose.

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