It’s like Skynet, except with fewer guns


Takeaways

  1. Roughly 38 percent of US jobs may be automated by the early 2030s.
  2. The automation of a vast majority of jobs is an inexorable shift that will need to be addressed within our lifetimes.
  3. How will you find value in your life without work?

To work is to be an American. But what if there is less and less work available? What if no one needed to work at all? The future seems to hold an inevitable identity crisis for millions of Americans, and billions worldwide.

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes penned an essay titled “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren.” By the time his grandchildren had grown up, he predicted that the average person might only work “three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week.”

Alas, his estimates were far off: While average annual hours worked has come down, it’s still roughly double Keynes’ 780-hour annual prediction. NPR interviewed Keynes’ actual grandchild, Nicholas Humphrey, and discovered that he worked 15 hours a day, not per week.

So what went wrong? The Guardian makes a pretty good case that work today isn’t necessarily about production, but rather personal and social achievement:

One possible explanation is that many of us actually enjoy work, despite what we say to pollsters and to each other. To be sure, work can be boring, repetitive or exhausting, but it is also an arena where people get pleasure out of their achievements and enjoy mixing with other people.

Keynes failed to spot the importance of context. We consume more because technical progress has vastly improved the quality of goods on offer, and as we get richer we want the luxury car with the satnav or the meal cooked by Gordon Ramsay.

And that explanation makes sense. When you base work on status rather than production, you can constantly shift the goalposts. Producing 50 widgets is a static, attainable production goal. Having a better car than your neighbors is fluid and transient.

But maybe Keynes wasn’t wrong after all. Maybe his timing was just off. For lack of a better phrase, this time it’s different.

According to an analysis by PwC, employment in developed countries is set for a permanent and inexorable shift. It estimates that around 38 percent of US jobs may be automated by the early 2030s, followed by Germany (35 percent), the UK (30 percent), and Japan (21 percent).  Major global industries will see huge portions of their human workforce eliminated, including the transportation and storage industry (56 percent), manufacturing (46 percent) and wholesale and retail (44 percent).

McKinsey Global Institute also analyzed the work activities for more than 800 occupations from across the economy “to assess the percentage of time spent on activities with the technical potential for automation by adapting currently demonstrated technology.” You can use their tools to explore the potential for automation in your industry.

If you’re in a rush, simply figure out which quadrant you’re in below. (The top-left is most at risk.)

If economists and policy wonks aim for full employment, what do we do when there are no human jobs available? How will humans—especially Americans—find value in their lives without work? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income? How will you organize your time if you don’t have a major daily commitment and don’t necessarily need to be in any particular location?

These aren’t fantastical questions anymore: in a world with limited jobs, they’re practical questions.

As always, Keynes predicted the issue over 80 years ago. “If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose,” he wrote in 1930. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Keynes saw two options for the future. “One was that we could consume ever more goods,” Stiglitz said. “Or, we could enjoy more leisure.”

If humankind chose the leisure path, Keynes saw a radical transition from historical methods of living and assessing value:

We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines.

There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

The advent of automation and artificial intelligence makes this a pressing issue. Instead of choosing different life boxes, people will be forced into them—whether they expect to or not.

According to Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans expect that robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans within 50 years. But when asked what that meant for them, 80 percent of workers somehow expected that their own jobs will still exist.

If you don’t get on the train to the future, don’t expect a seamless ride. “Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth,” wrote Keynes. “But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them.”

As for the policy necessary to support this inevitable future—universal basic income. If you’re skeptical, check out Why Your Opinions of Universal Basic Income Don’t Matter.


Learn More

  1. F*ck work — Aeon

  2. Race Against the Machine — Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee