…but I believe that robots are stealing my luggage. — Steve Martin
I couldn’t help but remember Steve Martin’s old “What I Believe”* routine when I read the title of Federico Pistono’s essay over on on IEET: Robots will steal your job, but that’s OK: how to survive the economic collapse and be happy
In spite of the talk about it being okay and the assurance that we’ll all be happy sooner or later, Pistono paints a pretty bleak picture:
What will the millions of middle-age, unskilled workers do when they are displaced by technology?
I have discussed this with economists, entrepreneurs, futurists, and not a single one was able to give me a convincing answer. Technology is advancing simply too quickly for the newly unemployed to learn new jobs. In the past, we have seen automation cutting the workforce, but unskilled workers all gravitated towards places like Walmart to find an easy (even though very unsatisfying) job. Now, if Walmart begins automation, competitors will have to do the same, in order to stay alive in the market. There would be no coming back for the shopping industry. It is an irreversible process; the replaced jobs will not come back.
The same will happens for millions of drivers, construction workers, and many others. But having these jobs removed, what will people do? So far, nobody has been able to answer that question. The reason for this, I think, is because there is no answer. Not in this system, not in the way it’s designed to work. The displacement of human labour in favor of automation will have a snowball effect on everything. With unemployment levels at 30% or 40%, the economy will collapse.
Without a backup plan to adjust to a new paradigm, we can expect the worst. Civil unrest, riots, police brutality, and general distress of the population will continue to rise until critical levels are reached, at which point the whole socioeconomic system will crumble upon itself. This has negative repercussions across the whole spectrum of the population, and it is against the interest of everyone on this planet, even of the richest and wealthiest people.
This is familiar territory for anyone who regularly reads this or my other blog. Some experts, Martin Ford in particular, believe as Pistono does that only major economic restructuring — usually described in the form of government payouts to individuals — will prevent a crisis. Others believe that the robots will only change the nature of what jobs are available, forcing us to retool and adjust, but not bringing about economic Armageddon. Walter Russel Mead has penned a series of essays entitled Beyond Blue which examines this transition (which he says will be long and painful, although not quite the crisis that Poston describes.)
In Part 4 of the series he compares our current transition with the transition at the turn of the previous century from an agrarian to manufacturing workforce. At the time, many predicted that that, too, would lead to economic doom rather than creating the huge rise in wealth and standards of living which in fact occurred. Mead says we’re in for something similar now, although this time it’s a very different transition:
People do not run out of wants and needs when they have enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter and enough warmth. In fact, liberated from the constraints of the struggle for survival, the human imagination discovers new wants and needs at a faster pace as the old ones are met and forgotten.
This hunger for new, richer and more interesting lives ensures that we can all keep making a living – and it ensures that we will also want to keep working so as to afford all the cool new services and experiences being created around us. As long as humanity keeps wanting, humanity can make a living satisfying wants – and creating new ones.
Mead argues that the new economy will be based on personal services — wherein we add value to existing stuff rather than creating stuff or, in Mead’s words, provide experiences that people want to have. He terms these “lifestyle industries,” and he claims that their rate of pay will increase, just as pay for manufacturing work increased as that sector took off.
These industries include a wide and diverse set of offerings, everything from massage therapists to chefs to personal education consultants (no doubt we’ll meet with that last one in a coffee shop.) If Mead is right, it sounds great — a prosperous nation full of people working in creative endeavors aimed at making their neighbors’ (that is, their customers’) lives better.
Only one nagging question remains: how long before the robots steal those jobs, too?
*I’m not linking it from here because of some of the content, but it’s easy enough to find with a Google search.