Random Ephemera

We May Fast Be Approaching a Time When Most People Will Not Need to Work

Coming soon: self-driving cars built by other robots.
Coming soon: self-driving cars built by other robots. Photo by Spencer Cooper
click to enlarge Coming soon: self-driving cars built by other robots. - PHOTO BY SPENCER COOPER
Coming soon: self-driving cars built by other robots.

Most Americans have fantasized about never having to work another day of their lives, but what if that were to become the reality for most of us?

No, millions of us aren't going to win the lottery, but many of us might one day find ourselves permanently without a job.

The election of Donald Trump has been attributed to everything from Russian tampering to racism, but one of the factors appears to have been growing disillusionment among working-class whites who have watched good manufacturing jobs disappear. The idea of whether or not those kinds of jobs can be preserved has been hotly debated ever since, with some people viewing them in the past tense, as victims of globalization and automation that can't be saved and will never be coming back.

These changes have been under way for decades — all those lost manufacturing jobs were the beginning of a trend, not just isolated events affecting certain regions. Trump's narrative about Americans' losing jobs to immigrants might've helped him win votes from folks whose economic fortunes had declined over the years, but in most cases those jobs were lost to robots, and not some poor person from another country.

If we look back to the seismic changes that the automobile brought to the world, we also need to look at the main casualty of that invention: the horse. That animal was once our main form of transportation, and a huge factor in the building of human civilization. Then automobiles came along, and within a few short years, the horse was edged out and sidelined from being necessary to society and transitioning to a status of diminishing importance in human cultures. When horses became less important, horse-related jobs did too.

For about 100 years, some experts forecasted an imminent future where robots would replace human labor. For the most part that didn't come to pass, and they weren't taken seriously, but as a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic points out, we might finally be on the precipice of that kind of future.

In much the same way that automobiles replaced the horse, self-driving vehicles are currently being field-tested that will replace human drivers. As the technology will improve both road safety and efficiency, it's likely that human drivers won't be allowed to drive after a certain point anyway, so we can probably say good-bye to human-piloted cabs or big rigs — Uber just successfully completed a 120-mile test of a self-driving semi. The beer-laden truck made the journey in two hours, and while the company claims that it won't replace human drivers, that is almost certainly a "yet" proposition, and not a permanent statement of fact. These changes are already happening; within 20 years, human drivers will be a thing of the past, and most driver-related jobs will be too.

But it's not just driving jobs that are on a technologically driven chopping block. It's not hard to imagine a world where many types of human labor are rendered obsolete. We already have self-checkout machines at the grocery store, and ATMs; it is likely that advances in those technologies could mostly replace human workers. Fast-food restaurants have entertained the idea of replacing their employees with machines, and that future is probably fast approaching too. When one really thinks about it, these outcomes aren't science fiction anymore, and even careers in which humans seem irreplaceable might eventually be threatened as better artificial intelligence is developed. It is possible that in a few short years, more than half the current workforce could be eliminated, all replaced by new technologies. Since there won't be anything to replace those jobs on a one-for-one scale, this would signal a permanent shift in society and the workplace.

The economic implications are enormous; after all, what will happen to lower-skilled workers as the types of jobs currently available to them evaporate forever? Sure, we can hope that people will get better training, but that might not be possible in many cases, and even if it is, there will be too few jobs - as noted previously, a trend that emerges when one looks closer is that even in the case of developing technologies creating new jobs, they will probably create fewer ones than will be replaced. Elon Musk, the futurist founder and CEO of Tesla, SolarCity and Space X, recently said he believes that after jobs disappear because of automation, the government will have to pay people a universal basic income, since there won't be any other option left to them.

Beyond the economic issues of work disappearing, there are also social and personal concerns. Many people define themselves by their careers, and whether or not that's a good or bad thing, it seems to create a sense of pride and purpose in many people. What happens to a person's sense of self-worth once he's effectively told that he's not needed anymore because a machine can perform his job? That same article in The Atlantic has a hopeful outlook, pointing to a future in which people who no longer have to work to survive might instead create things for the joy it brings them; a sort of shift to a future where crafting and other creative pursuits might instill a sense of purpose in us.

Shaking off the cultural baggage of believing that work is necessary for each of us to live a fulfilling life might be the hardest thing to adjust to. So many people are ingrained with a work ethic that devalues people who don't work, and considers help from the government to be a handout, that it might be difficult for some folks to consider a government-provided "universal basic income" as anything but an unearned entitlement, but in 50 years or so, that might be the new reality most people will live with.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.