20th Century Automation
In the 1920's mechanized equipment led to a massive increase in the productivity per farmer, and as a result, there were far fewer farmers. In the 1950's auto workers went on strike when auto companies wanted to use robots to build cars. Automation in all sectors of the manufacturing industry has caused there to be far fewer manufacturing jobs. In the 20th century people were alarmed about automation, but the sky did not fall. Increases in efficiency created more wealth for nearly everyone, and there were still plenty of other jobs for displaced labor to migrate to. There was individual pain in transition, but as a whole the economy continued to grow and there were plenty of jobs.
21st Century "Intelligent" Automation
The 21st century has seen an acceleration of technology driven by computers and the Internet. Computers are more capable and the Internet has connected everyone in ways never before possible. The combination of these two things has led to the automation of what was previously middle class white collar jobs. Remember how we would go see a travel agent when we wanted a plane ticket? Almost all tickets are now sold online. Remember all those telephone operators? Phone support numbers are way down as automated systems and the Web have brought new ways to solve tech support issues and disseminate information.
Let's think about some future areas:
- Most retail sales people - Replaced by online retailers like Amazon
- Drivers - Replaced by self driving cars
- Many teachers - Replaced through online and computer learning techniques
- Lawyers - Ha, just kidding on that one, although there is some increase in efficiency with sites like LegalZoom.com
Is that bad? Isn't efficiency good?
Well it depends. More efficiency is almost always good, we get more for less, things get cheaper, higher quality, and we don't need to work as hard. Efficiency is bad when it can't be integrated into the economy properly. Or to put it another way, if our economy can't adapt it will suffer and possibly die, just like an animal species that can't adapt quickly enough to its changing surroundings.
Who is this effecting?
The specialized labor force is benefiting. These are people with unique skills that can't be replaced by automation. Doctors, Lawyers, Computer Programers, Authors, Artists, etc.. The common theme is that these are well educated specialized knowledge workers. The salary trend for workers over the the last 50 years shows a massive gap that is widening between the highly educated workforce and the uneducated workforce. In other words, if you don't have a specialized skill there are very few good jobs for you any more.
Computerized Automation has taken a bunch of previously good jobs
As more and more middle class jobs are replaced by computers, these workers are being pushed down into the low skill job market. As more people enter the low skill job market the wages fall due to simple supply and demand economics.
What can we do?
The obvious answer is to transform more people into highly educated skilled workers, unfortunately that takes a lot of time and a cultural willingness to get there. There are other ways creative ways that economists and Sci-fi writers have contemplated over the years.
- Restrict working hours to reduce productivity per worker. This is what France and Germany have been doing lately. This artificially reverses the efficiency gains and brings the market back to a temporary equilibrium. Unfortunately the rest of the world keeps moving forward and this causes the local economy to suffer.
- Create make work jobs to employ people and give them something to do. This is what the US did during the great depression. A variation of this is to prohibit automation in certain jobs to protect the job. Oregon and New Jersey did this with gas station attendants, it is illegal to self fill, but there are lots of jobs for gas station attendants. Taken to its logical extreme this becomes something like the Amish, forsaking all modern tools, but having plenty of jobs.
- Figure out a new status quo for employment. Does everyone need to work?
As a thought experiment let's imagine a not too distant future where computers have gotten really smart, we have plenty of electrical energy, and robotics have advanced substantially. Manufacturing jobs will be gone completely. Either a robot or a 3d printer will make all of the normal products that we use. Farms will have robotic tractors and robotic cow milking machines. Our house cleaning will be done by super advanced Roomba's and our cars can automatically drive us any where we want. A computer will take our order at McDonald's and our food will be automatically prepared and delivered to our table. I know this sounds like a bad 1960's Sci-fi film, but something similar will be here eventually. Maybe it will take a really long time, but it will probably come soon enough that at least our grand kids will see it. In such a world, there certainly won't be any need to have full employment. Probably less than 5-10% of the population would really have to work to keep the systems running. What will the rest of the world do? And what will it mean to be rich in such an economy? If I can have virtually any commodity goods that I desire, what would I want?
Post scarcity economy
My more observant readers will have been shaking there head and calling me an idiot already. I have simply described a "post scarcity economy". People have been thinking about this for longer than I have been alive. "Post scarcity economy" refers to an economic state where there are more than enough resources to satisfy demand and everyone should be able to get what they need. "Need" is highly subjective and the point where we actually enter a post scarcity economic state is subjective. Are we satisfying all "needs" when everyone has enough to eat, or when everyone has a McMansion and a 70" plasma TV?
My point in this long winded blog post is to show that we are already on the path towards a post scarcity economy, and any solutions to our economic inequity need to take this into account. In the United States there is already a post scarcity attitude that includes entitlement thinking and in many a lack of motivation to go out and fight for resources. If we look at the whole world and especially the current competition for natural resources, it is pretty clear that we still have significant global scarcity, but the US is living in a bubble. When we truly enter into a post scarcity economy there wont be a need for everyone to do traditional work for basic resources. What will people do then? I don't really know, but we do need to figure it out.
The out of work problem
If we can't find work for displaced workers what will they do? History tells us that large numbers of dissatisfied people with a lot of time on their hands tends to create unrest. Everyone needs something to do day to day and to give them a sense of accomplishment, without that we will likely see gang activity rise, along with vandalism and crime.
The news isn't all bad
I feel like I've been a bit negative in this whole article. I would like to point out some benefits of a post scarcity economy. We will have more time as a society to participate in art and culture, we could even see more of each other and socialize if we can stop looking at our phones long enough. We could explore the solar system and beyond. We could take our level of understanding of science, physics and biology to crazy new levels. Getting out of survival mode and thinking about other areas can be incredibly enlightening, we might even figure out how to all get along...
If you like science fiction and would like to read stories set in a post scarcity economic setting, or if you just want to read some fun books, I recommend the ones below. Many of these books show a positive future, some of them show a dystopian view where technology has reached a post scarcity level, but society was unable to make the cultural leap to provide a good life for everyone.
- Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - Cory Doctorow
- Diamond Age - Niel Stephenson
- Singularity Sky and Accelerando by Charles Stross
- Iain M. Banks' Culture series
- Neuromancer by William Gibson