A Society of Unemployed People(This post is part of a series. Please read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
In the previous parts, I have hypothesized that, for various reasons, the economy is moving along a trend that will use more automatic and robotic labor and less human workers, thus leading to an increasing portion of the population being unemployed. This trend has been discussed by researchers around the world and is definitely not my own idea. In this part, I would like to ask the question: how will the economy and the society look when this happens?
Let us start with an assumption (which will be revisited later). Suppose 80% of the population is either chronically unemployed or chronically underemployed, namely working in part-time and temporary jobs with long spells of unemployment in between. How will society react to this case? How will the economy look? Will we see significant changes in the political map? Will we see new political movements rising?
In the previous part, I claimed that one's perception of self is founded, in part, on their work. Our jobs give us a sense of pride, fulfillment, even purpose, and we often describe ourselves through them. For example, in a small talk with an unknown person one may introduce himself as "I am a salesperson in this tech company" much sooner than "I am a married 40 years old man with 3 kids and a house in the suburbs".
So, if 80% of the population find themselves without a satisfying, long-term, well-paid, stable, job, how will we introduce ourselves? Perhaps we will use George Costanza's opening: "My name is George, I am unemployed and I live with my parents"?
More seriously, how will the lives of the 80% of unemployed be spent? Nowadays, we spend between a quarter and a third of the hours in a year working, and even more if you take into account hours spent commuting to and from work and hours spent at home replying to emails or business phone calls. Without this amount of time, we will need to find a way to fill in large gaps of our lives, something to do.
One such option is a kind of Huxley's "Brave New World": a world where everyone is engaged in an ever lasting cycle of recreational activities, consumes drugs, and is constantly bombarded by mass media outlets that produce an endless stream of entertainment. However, robots are the parallel of the lower-level castes of Huxley's world, and do all the work. There is an everlasting abundance of products in the world, brought about by the cheap labor of the automatic machines. Perhaps people will escape to the comfort of the virtual world described in Stephenson's "Snowcrash" and live parts of their lives as avatars in a virtual world without the need to see the sordidness of their real lives. Will society be able to move in that direction without preconditioning of the human to a life of idling by?
Another option is a world of constant social tension between the 80%, who constantly live in unemployment, poverty, boredom, and barely scrape by and the other 20%, who live in a world of unimaginable riches. For the latter, there is little competition and they get to share the spoils of a highly productive economy that produces everything cheaply. They earn nice salaries based on their abilities, which cannot be replaced by robots, yet consume at prices driven by the technically unlimited supply and very limited demand. They enjoy lives of abundance, probably in gated communities patrolled by robots (see also "Snowcrash"), islands in an ocean of constant turmoil, insecurity, riots, and struggle.
Obviously, there are options in between these two extremes. I believe the answer to which of the extremes the world will to turn depends a lot on the choice of policies made early on in the process. On one hand, there is a policy of complete socialism, where every person is entitled to the minimum needs in life: shelter, food, education, health, etc. On the other hand, we can consider a policy of libertarianism: each for his/her own, no social safety net. One may be reminded of the clip showing former Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comments about the "47%":
It doesn't matter what we think about the governor's words, we must realize that this debate will increase in a world where 80% of the population is unemployed and constantly need help from the other 20%. Inevitably, the choice will be either to support the majority of the population that need help, at the cost of higher taxes, or abandon them to a life of struggle. It will be a choice between ruthless social Darwinism vs. a very demanding socialism that taxes heavily the rich in order to support the majority.
At this point, I would like to revisit the assumption of 80% unemployed. An economist (I am not one) might ask: how is it possible that there are so many unemployed? Doesn't it mean that there is, essentially, a large pool of potential-workers that will eventually put a pressure on lowering wages so that people will be able to compete with robots to win back some of the jobs? My guess is that the answer to that is negative. First of all, I want to recall the previous part, in which I claimed that if someone knows with a high level of certainty that they will never get a job, there is absolutely no reason for them to go to school in the first place. So, theoretically, people will be less trained than robots!
Even if this is not the case, and suppose all people are skilled at least to the point where they can compete with machines, this will still be an unfair competition between people, whose wages cannot be lowered below a certain level that will at least provide them the very basic life needs, and machines, whose only need is energy. Machines do not need to rest, they can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the minimum cost of power and maintenance. Recall the video showing a robotic assembly line in a Toyota car plant: there are plenty of valid reasons why robots are used there and not human workers.
Thus, we end up with a large portion of the population being excluded from the jobs market by means of their low skills and inability to compete at the minimum wage level. There will still be people that work, for various reasons mostly requiring levels of abstract thought and nonlinear imagination that it will be impossible and impractical to train machines to have. Of course, some of the employed 20% will also be the capital owners: those who own the means of production and reap the profits of the unlimited production levels.
Will society change? I am quite positive that it will.
Will the economy change? Again, quite positive that it will.
Will political structures change? I don't know.
EpilogueI started thinking about this topic a few months ago, after reading some work about the subject by an MIT labor market professor. I was recently reminded by an NPR show called "Ted Radio Hour" with Guy Raz. The relevant episode is "Do We Need Humans?". I highly recommend listening to this show and following the Ted Talks mentioned in it.
I want to add that I don't know what will happen. Everything that I wrote in this four-parts blog post is my own thoughts based on a little reading and listening. I may be completely off or somewhat onto something (I am certain that I am not dead-on correct), but the main reasons why I wrote the whole thing were: (1) I wanted to organize my thoughts and (2) I wanted others to stumble upon it and think about this possible future of ours. Perhaps, if we dedicate enough thought to it, we will find a way to work some reasonable future for the whole of us. So, please share this around, comment about it, and engage your friends.
Thank you for reading all the way through. I hope it wasn't too boring.
And I will leave you with this clip from the movie Wall-E.