One of the key questions of the next hundred years is how society can adapt to a world without work, in which technology has displaced most human labor.
People have been asking this for at least the last hundred years, and perhaps ever since it was obvious that productivity was increasing fast enough that we might be leaving the Malthusian trap permanently behind.
In the 1950s, this was discussed in terms of finding hobbies and occupations for people who no longer would be working as many hours. (Much of the panic about juvenile delinquency in the late 50s was because it was thought that, not only did these teenage hoodlums have too much time on their hands, they would continue to have too much time on their hands as adults.)
Obviously, the expected End of Work (at least over the society as a whole) did not, by and large, occur, since women entered the workforce and increased their hours worked enough to compensate for the decrease in male employment and weekly hours. Total employment to population ratio didn’t peak until around the year 2000.
Why didn’t employment fall when people expected it to? Feminism as a cultural and political force must be part of the story (though second-wave feminism was itself partially an accommodation to changes in productivity and the technology of birth control.) The ability of American corporations to engineer desire that exceeds the limits of earnings has probably been oversold, but it’s true the median car on American roads keeps getting fancier, and the median house being built keeps getting larger (even if, over the last decade, fewer people have been building them.)
So people kept working because people kept buying.
Can that keep up? As AI advances to the point of displacing entire industries (eg, self-driving cars) even economists- who have historically been among the most skeptical that labor would be displaced in toto rather than in individual industries or regions- have begun to act mildly concerned.
But it also seems iffy whether consumption can expand indefinitely, and not only because of concern over climate change or others of consumption’s potential social costs.
Household size and fertility continue to fall among well-educated Americans with more buying power: since 2013, the majority of kids in American public school have been eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch, i.e. low income. Those with buying power are aging rather than raising new families; anecdotally, I’ve been often struck that there are simply no new housing developments apart from “Active Adult 55+” retirement communities being built within 25 miles in any direction from where I live. And ceteris paribus, for families with the same income and propensity to consume, the aftermath of the financial crisis has meant that less borrowing power is available.
Even our capacity to buy a bunch of junk like good ‘Mericans has seemingly sunk, like the excess transport ships being scrapped in increasing numbers due to excess shipping supply.
Rich-country energy use has either plateaued or declined, depending on who you ask, suggesting that online entertainment is displacing some real-life consumption.
And interest rates continue to stay ultralow, indicating that at a global level, consumption is having a hard time keeping up with savings.
Is this the reason for increasingly monolithic elite support for more low-skilled immigration:not chiefly from the desire for cheap labor, but from the realization that bringing poorer people into richer societies almost inevitably increases the average marginal propensity to consume?
Immigration (the other big question of the 21st century) aside, maybe this time really is different. Maybe we’re headed for a world with a much lower percentage of people working, for fewer hours, and those who are employed no longer engaged in tasks that look quite like work. Maybe some kind of Universal Basic Income will become a necessity to avoid mass destitution once the robots put us all out of work.
Certainly, politicians’ support for minimum wages above the median wage for low-education adults would suggest that they are not particularly worried about an increasing percentage of the population not working, and dependent on transfers. And for all the distasteful bile of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech, it was a reminder that largescale dependence on transfers is, to a fair degree, already here.
The question is whether society can sustain that transition. Free time and time out of the labor force can be deadly, both for those with the free time…
…and large-scale dependence on cash transfers has, in the recent past, been associated with a rapid decrease in marital stability within a population and a rapid increase in violent crime, as occurred among black Americans following the 1960s expansion of AFDC.
Last but not least, the emergence of democratic political systems in the West has been closely tied to the independent economic power of ordinary individuals, given to them by capitalism. The general trajectory of rich-nation government appears to be towards a “guide and benefactor” role in relation to its citizenry, not towards acting as the restrained servant of a free people.
Maybe these worries are all oversold, and a Universal Basic Income and a world without work would, instead, free the mass of humanity from toil and deliver a grander, more creative and free life than has been previously known. I’m sure for some people it would. And maybe the robots will all turn on us rather than slaving on our behalf, or climate change will really turn out to be a civilization-threatening disaster and these worries about a long global nightmare of peace and prosperity will be moot.
But maintaining a functional society in the absence of work seems a bigger problem to me than is often assumed.