Automation and the Post-Labor Economy

Automation is set to replace a large portion of the American workforce. What do we do once it happens?

In his 1984 essay Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?, Thomas Pynchon predicted that "the next great challenge to watch out for will come when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge." Nearly 35 years later, that convergence is upon us. Barring some sort of federally enforced halt on technological progress, automation of most basic services is inevitable.


Self-driving cars are continuing to improve. Automated checkout lines are being implemented all over the American retail space. There are even programs being written that may be doing the majority of our accounting work in the future. Sadly, the common claim that technological advances and economic growth go hand in hand with job creation is spurious at best. In 1964, AT&T; was worth $267 billion (adjusted for inflation) and employed upwards of 700,000 people. Today, Google, which is worth roughly twice as much as 1960s AT&T;, only employs about 88,000. According to the McKinsey Global Institute up to 375 million people could be out of work by 2030. Unlike the second industrial revolution, which gave us cars and airplanes in the 20th century, the third industrial revolution probably won't create many new jobs. In fact, by that same 2030 mark, the U.S. could be staring down the barrel of 35% unemployment.

The specific numbers, which I've thoroughly explored here, aren't nearly as important as how the U.S. government chooses to address the issue. Mass unemployment is coming, and it's hard to even imagine what it might look like, let alone how we're going to deal with it. In his piece A World Without Work, Derek Thompson attempts to tackle this issue, comparing the future United States to the present Youngstown, Ohio, a once prosperous steel town that lost 50,000 jobs to overseas manufacturing in the late seventies. In the years following the steel industry's evaporation, the rates of depression, suicide, and spousal abuse all jumped up radically. According to professor Jonathan Russo, "Youngstown's story is America's story, because it shows that when jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroy." Thompson's thesis is that work is so ingrained in the American psyche that regardless of whether or not we end up with a welfare state to take care of the millions of jobless, there will be civil unrest. Kurt Vonnegut came to a similar conclusion 63 years earlier in his book Player Piano, in which the government was forced to not only provide complete welfare for the unemployed masses, but fake jobs as well.

With regard to the impending employment drought, the government is left with a few options. They can ignore the issue, allowing millions to slip into grinding poverty, turning Youngstown, Ohio into the norm. This type of laissez-faire capitalism would have made Ronald Reagan blush but the problem is, with no money, there are no consumers. Another solution that's been popularized in recent years is Universal Basic Income, a program in which the government pays all of its citizens enough money to live, regardless of whether or not they're employed. Plenty of tech moguls, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg, have embraced the idea that the money made from technological advances should be, at least partially, given back to the people. On paper, it's a no-brainer. People need money to live, and companies need people to have money or else no one would buy anything. This would, as it were, keep the trains running on time. The problem is, this plan ignores Thompson's point about the vacancy of purpose left by a post-labor economy. There's a feeling of despair attached to having nothing to do. Anyone who's ever spent a teenage summer vacation not working can attest to this, and as evidenced by Youngtown, this listlessness can be destructive, both physically and psychologically.

There is a third option however, one that's helped Germany lower its unemployment rate, called work-sharing. Essentially, the program cuts hours rather than employees. For example, if a company needs to cut 30% of its low level accounting staff, instead of firing 30% of its workers, it cuts everyone's hours by 30%. Conventional wisdom says that inoculating less efficient workers from layoffs while cutting the best workers' hours is a recipe for disaster, but we are entering a distinctly unconventional time. If employees are losing their jobs to hyper-efficient automation, the potential dip in productivity should be more than mitigated. That said, work-sharing doesn't completely fix the problem either. Unless major corporations suddenly start valuing benevolence over higher profit margins, less hours means less pay. Trim the hours enough and the results of work-sharing and the results of ignoring the problem altogether start looking eerily similar.

Maybe Vonnegut had it right in 1952. Maybe the only way to simultaneously combat mass unemployment and the moral corrosion that takes place when people feel they have no purpose is for the government to manufacture meaningless tasks for the millions of unemployed. It's possible that it doesn't have to be quite that bleak. American infrastructure is due for a massive overhaul, and construction workers aren't at particularly high risk of losing their jobs to robots any time soon. Some have suggested that the best way to address the automation problem is through a new New Deal, allowing people to find work rebuilding roads and bridges. But this is only a temporary fix. There's only so much infrastructure to rebuild. And, there's only so long before construction jobs in unpredictable conditions are automated out with the rest of the workforce. Of course, it's possible by then that American society will have found a way to define individual purpose as separate from occupation. If not, Youngstown may be a snapshot of the future.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff

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