Humans in a Post Employment World?

There are many sources suggesting that productivity (including robotics and A.I. interfaces) will increase enough to have a significant impact on future employment world wide.   This includes:

Geoff Colvin, in his new ‘underrated’ book suggests that even in a world where most if not all jobs can be done by robots, humans are social animals and will prefer human interactions in some situations.  The Atlantic, focuses on what the future may include for jobless persons when that is the norm.  “The Jobless don’t spend their time socializing or taking up new hobbies. Instead they watch TV or sleep.”  A disturbing vision of a world which currently includes, according to this article, 16% of American men ages 25-54.  The article did not discuss the potential for younger men who see limited future opportunity to turn to socially problematic activities from crime and drugs to radicalization and revolution.

As with any challenge, the first step is recognizing there is a problem. This may be more difficult in the U.S. where work is equated with status, personal identity (“I am a <job title here>”), and social responsibility.  One suggestion is the creation of civic centers where folks can get together and “meet, learn skills, bond around sports or crafts, and socialize.” These might be combined with maker-spaces and start-up incubators that become a catalyst for creator-consumer-funder collaborations.

So — what’s your future “job” — will you be in the “on-demand” economy?  Perhaps engaging in the maker-world? — How might this future differ in various countries? Will Europe or India or ?? yield different responses to a situation that is expected to affect global economies over this century?

3 thoughts on “Humans in a Post Employment World?

  1. First off I believe that there is a fundamental distinction between a) being jobless, that is, without a position in service of a paying employer, and b) being without meaningful work, which may conceivably be voluntary and unpaid. (This runs counter to the prevailing notion of “job” as intrinsically being both paid and meaningful.)

    Assuming that the ultimate increase in automation and concomitant productivity leads to an overall decrease in jobs, this would basically leave us with a lot of people with a lot of free time on their hands. At first sight this would be precisely in keeping with the express purpose of automation as being to free humans from monotony and drudgery in order to allow them to focus on creative and intuitive activity. However, this begs the question as to whether AI has any business in seeking to supplant humans in areas relating to creativity and intuition and as to whether humans when given said freedom necessarily turn to creative and intuitive acts (rather than e.g. simply being bored and succumbing to the pejorative consequences of this state). Arguably the answer to the first question lies in strategically determining which mental (sub)processes AI should endeavor to replace and which it should support, while the answer to the second would entail promoting education-writ-large (as in learning to learn as a life-long pursuit).

    With respect to the economic implications of the above prospect of joblessness, the value of free time (as opportunity for creativity or “re-creation”) would need to be reassessed in relation to monetary compensation, as the relation of an ecosystem in which the creation of intellectual assets is driven by the free exchange of information and ideas, would need to be considered vis-à-vis an economic system based on competition and the profit motive. It would be safe to observe that a global reconciliation between the two underlying models is already underway, witness e.g. the current reevaluation of the dichotomy between cooperation and competition in business and innovation. Plausible takeaways are that participation in innovation is multi-faceted and broadly distributed within the social fabric and that sustainable innovation is not contingent on raw profitability but sooner on the added value of the generated assets.

  2. I applaud this blog post and am saddened to see so few comments on this vital topic. At the recent IEEE GHTC in Seattle I wondered aloud whether the USA may be the “canary in the global coal mine” as we watch our previously-enviable, middle class struggle to keep their “chicken in every pot” and house with the “white picket fence”. Societies which are considered “underdeveloped” from US and European perspectives have survived for millennia without our capitalistic, market-driven economic system that views every human individual as a producer or consumer or both. In our rush to “help” the “underserved” are we not in danger of hastening the extinction of cultures (social technologies) that may be more sustainable than the one we are exporting?

    I’m not saying it’s good to be poor or that those at the bottom of the status hierarchy deserve to die of starvation, exposure or lack of healthcare. On the contrary. For the last 300 years we have invested the best educated minds on Earth in the task of improving human productivity through human-machine symbiosis. We are on the brink of abundance for all. What we lack is a social technology for distributing this wealth both within the US and around the globe. Our only dignified methods/social technologies for connecting products to consumers are employment (earned income) and extremely high social status (nobility, privilege). We have shrunken our notions of gifting or entitlement to the common wealth so far that people are shamed by accepting charity or welfare. Having seen and labeled the Russian and Chinese experiments in dictatorial government as communism we are unable to think rationally about systems for wealth redistribution that question the notion of private ownership and control of, as well as profiting from, capital means of production.

    It’s time for humanity to put as much effort into engineering sustainable social systems as we have into creating products and services. We need new concepts of “employment”, “work”, “jobs”, “occupations” and new connotations for “entitlement”, “valuable”, “deserving”, “equitable” and “worthwhile”. We need to have the courage to question whether the capitalistic, market-based economy that has served us so well in the previous several centuries is sustainable in the coming millennia.

    • Lisa,
      we package up concepts in buckets like “capitalism” or “equitable” … which often carry known or personal implications (in the mind of the author or the reader) … It makes your observation that we need “new concepts” more vital IMHO, and also more challenging, since many of the terms we develop are overloaded, or easily commandeered.
      Not sure how to get past this and into the essential dialog you suggest.
      Jim

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