The future of work?

We’ve spoken before in these pages about the growing threat of automation to many of the jobs we currently take for granted as ‘human employment’.  The trend’s accelerating.  A recent article claims that even China is moving rapidly towards automation of its factory environments, to cut back on rising wages and salaries and match the quality of production expected in overseas markets.

All this prompts the question:  what will society be like when there’s no longer work for everyone?  Fred Reed takes a look at the problem.

Unemployment or just barely employment already is high and apparently endemic. The rate is higher than it looks because the government counts only those looking for work, not the substantial population living on welfare. College graduates increasingly cannot find work, or have to work as baristas in Starbucks and live at home with their parents.

Which raises a very real problem: What do we do when most people have no work, though they are both willing and able?

To date, the only way we know to distribute goods and services (houses, food, that sort of thing) is to have people work and pay them for it. It is an imperfect system, having been devised by humans, and pays a quarterback millions for throwing a pointy object to a downfield felon while a shock-trauma nurse can barely eat. Still, it has been reasonably serviceable.

But this works only when there are jobs to be had. When there are not, when the bright, eager, and conscientious young cannot find jobs, then what?

. . .

As long as the country does not fall into chaos, we are not going to allow large numbers of people to starve (despite the title of this column). A way today used to avoid this is simply to give the necessities of life to those who cannot work to earn them — for example, welfare illiterates for whom there is no economic need.

But we have no widely accepted way of providing the necessities to a new college graduate whose degree, whatever it may be, doesn’t get him a job. And since the only way we have of paying those who do not work is to tax those who do, we face the prospect of ever rising taxes on an ever shrinking base of employed. That isn’t going to fly.

It is utterly conceivable that within the life spans of today’s cradle occupants, only twenty percent, or ten, of those of working age will be employed. (Eighty years is a long time, technologically speaking, much longer than from the Wright brothers to a space station.) In this case, the wage-and-salary model is not going to work. What will?

There’s more at the link.  Thought-provoking and recommended reading.

Revolutions have started over lesser causes – and may do so again.



  1. The falkacy – or at least, the weakness – in this viewpoint is that it excludes self-employment. It assumes that the only useful employment and way of earning a living is a "job". That is, receiving a wage in return for the provision of labour in a defined role.

    When this is your definition of gainful employment and earning a living, you are excluding the majority of the spectrum of profitable activities and encouraging those who are unsuccessful in finding a "job" to default to welfare rather than seeking other (legitimate) means of providing for themselves.

  2. Well then, it appears I have undertaken homesteading just in time–for all my work on the homestead to be automated. All I need to do is step back and watch robotics and computers plant, tend and harvest crops. Feed, water and care for the livestock. Bush hog the fields, bale hay, and mend the fences. Oh, and I'm especially looking forward to the automation of felling trees, bucking, splitting, and stacking the wood. Also loading the woodstove and periodic ash removal, to say nothing of chimney cleaning. This is going to be great!

    That was sarcasm.

  3. Every technological change has had the same argument. There were riots in England over the first machines to make thread, which was going to take away the livelihoods of all the peasant women who spun thread for supplemental income. What it really did was make thread so cheap that they were able to buy more clothing with less money. There were probably riots over cattle taking away the need for a team of men to pull a plow.

    The fallacy in the argument is that it assumes a fixed set of potential jobs. But what actually happens is that new ways of saving labor open up new sorts of jobs–usually better jobs. The increase in productivity make life better for everyone. There is some pain and dislocation for the workers who are directly effected, but in the long run, they and everyone else is better off.

  4. I guess that is why WORK is often described as OCCUPATION – because it keeps people occupied. I'm not too worried about labor – soon enough, there will be a C.C. program that 'employs' persons to fix the infrastructure that is crumbling around us. Just no other way to get it done in a profit driven society – it would cost too much to get it done. Work for food and board and maybe a little extra pocket coin – done.

    If you are unemployed, I would think the South would be a better place to live than the North. Much friendlier climate to grow your own food.

    I like Fred Reed's column – good stuff! Thanks Peter – I hope you are feeling better.

  5. Fred does lay out a cogent argument. I can see 'self-employed' becoming more prevalent and barter for services (which is already coming back), becoming a larger part of the economy going forward. Regardless of the technological advances, tech can't do everything…

  6. The march of progress isn't one way only, all the time. Always, some people are falling by the wayside. That is to say, not everyone will be better off in the long run — that wasn't true in the past, either.

    Right now, globalization, mass immigration, and automation are the big three factors making it harder for blue-collar workers in developed countries to make a good living. On the biggest scale, however, global GDP is continuing to grow because of them. And we need growth. The assumption of growth is baked into our annuities and pension funds. So far, winners outnumber losers.

    But there are troubling signs. The very fabric of society comes apart when too many people from an alien culture immigrate quickly. Well-paid jobs outsourced to Bangladesh or China are not replaced with equally well-paid jobs at home for Joe Lunchbucket. And automation (not only robotics, but efficiency gains from computerized logistics) also takes a toll on employment.

    Until now, society has been solving the problem of surplus labor through the welfare state. But the welfare state is coming under strain, partly from the mass immigration which may in fact be the biggest threat of them all. Honestly, if I were a decision-maker I would have a hard time coming up with a viable strategy. Even the most carefully thought-out choices will have downsides.

    Nor is there a consensus among the people what we want. More than a few commenters on Internet message boards are peddling crazy conspiracy theories, such as that the elites want to "cull" human population by ninety percent (chemtrails, the Rothschilds, reptilian overlords). That's BS! It's all about growth, growth, growth — for which you need more consumers all the time. And having thought about it for a long time, I am deeply suspicious of anyone promising simple answers.

  7. Automation replacing jobs is nothing new, and won't be a serious problem in the long term. It may well be in the short term as people fail to adapt. During the industrial revolution, cottage industries were replaced en masse by factories producing items at far lower cost, and often with better quality. Total employment didn't decrease in the long run, other jobs were created to employ those whose labor had been freed up by new, better methods of production. Same thing with cars vs. animal transport and labor and a million other examples. When jobs that were previously done by humans are replaced by machines, things get cheaper and usually better. In the short term, there is pain as people's skills become obsolete, but in the long term we are all better off for it. It's creative destruction.

    I know a gentleman who is in his 50's and has made a career as a printer. He's been mostly unemployed for the last decade as demand for printing has dramatically slowed. Instead of seeing the writing on the wall the first time he was laid off and retraining into a field that has a future, he refuses to accept that the years he spent learning his trade are no longer valuable and thus is a drain on his family and society. It's sad, but it's essentially the human version of failing to recognize sunk costs. His previous training is a sunk cost that carries little value due to changing circumstances and he needs to move on.

    People innovate. Technology progresses. We may see higher unemployment due to automation over the next decade or two (almost certainly if the push for higher minimum wages continues), but in the long run we will be better off, and people will find work doing things that don't even exist as careers right now. If someone is really concerned about robots taking over, perhaps this would be a good time to start learning how to maintain complex robotic systems… There are always opportunities for those willing to work, learn, and adapt.

  8. The stupid way to approach this is to assume that we have to "invent work" to keep people busy. That almost inevitably means taking money from people who have earned it, and giving it to those whose input is worth less than their handout.

    The smart way is to ensure that those who come up with new ways to make a profit from this newly-available labour resource, face as few barriers as is reasonably possible.

    This is how it has always worked.

  9. My view is multifaceted:
    1) Automation that successfully displaces humans will make so much food and other goods so cheap that people will not need to work "full-time" to have enough to eat, shelter, transportation, etc.
    2) Shorter work weeks will become the norm – 20 hours or so. Some people will still want to earn as much money as they can, but as goods become more and more automated, more people will be happy to work less and have more time for creative and leisure activities.
    3) As goods become more automated, hand-crafted goods will become desirable, and the price vs. value will come into balance such that hand-crafters can live comfortably.

    I really think that's where the "excess" human labor will go. You don't need to be excessively literate to work with your hands. It will be something of a full circle for humanity but without the nasty/brutish/short part.

  10. Just learned something new. Apparently, actual lasting job growth tends to come from new companies. New companies have a high failure rate, about half, over the critical first few years. The ones that succeed are gazelles, where the new growth might come from.

    I figure the regulatory environment is potentially a rate limiting factor for the production of new companies.

  11. "The fallacy – or at least, the weakness – in this viewpoint is that it excludes self-employment." Yes and no. Yes, in that there certainly is too much bias towards "the only useful employment and way of earning a living is a 'job'." No, in that automation displacing "jobs" faster than people can adapt to different kinds of "jobs" (including self-employment) is not the problem, it is only a symptom of the problem. The problem is that the State, in order to facilitate its economic parasitism, has been the primary driver of the bias towards the "job" as the only way of earning a living, and that parasitism is making providing a "job" so costly that automation is being adopted at a rate which is socially disruptive. At the same time, as previously noted, the State has been making it more and more difficult both to be "self-employed" and to subsist outside of the (State fiat) money economy.

    While I don't endorse the entire "left-libertarian" agenda, there are some things they get very much right. "The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto by Kevin A. Carson" contains a great deal of the insight and few of the fallacies in an extensive discussion of the above issues. It can easily be found by searching on the title.

  12. I think this is why the economy hasn't crashed, as yet. Under the conditions obtaining in the past, the whole house of cards would have already come tumbling down. The fact that it hasn't? Mostly due to the unknown territory we're exploring. This is only the dawn of the "age of non-scarcity", and we're just beginning to see the implications play out in the economy.

    The bottom line here, though, is this: There are a whole hell of a lot of "excess humans", and what we're going to do with them is going to be a question for the future. Not everybody is suited for programming and building robots, or even maintaining them. What happens to them? What do we do with those folks, rendered obsolete and superfluous?

    Civilization has always been a project of around 10% of the population, with the other 90% just hanging on for the ride. What we're starting to see is that we need less and less of the 90% to do much more than sit on their asses on the sidelines. Dealing with this fact is going to be one of the bigger issues of the next century, along with the whole immigration/migration of peoples issues.

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