Have you ever considered that a robot might be doing your job some day?
How about your spouse’s job, or your parent’s job? What if only 1 in 100 were employed? Or 1 in 1000?
This morning I woke up to find a Planet Money podcast waiting for me on my phone. It’s called This is the End. Planet Money tends to clock in around fifteen minutes, so I cranked it up and set about making coffee. They’re talking about how jobs are going away in successive recessions and not coming back, because at the end of that recession the businesses that had to downsize for the recession is able to recover their lost productivity through automation. They begin to explore the idea of what a jobless future will look like.
I listen, I process – jobless automatically means poor, right? Because you need a job to earn money and buy at least the stuff you need to survive.
I can’t imagine, however, a future of widespread, abject poverty. There must be, I thought, some way for people to make money. For one thing, there’s no way a person would allow all of their friends and family to starve, or to go homeless and be beaten to death by the elements. In a way, it reminds me of my mother’s response back before the year 2000, when I told her about the government’s program to phase out analog television in favor of digital, and how we’re going to have to purchase a box for every old-style television we have that we want to watch our shows on: she said, “there’s no way they’re going to do that. They can’t do that. There would be riots in the street.”
But there were no riots; digital TV took over without much fanfare. Sure, there might be a few analog channels yet, but the technology phased us away from the old paradigm, and now we find ourselves in this future where we really aren’t all that worried about it. We watch our shows – perhaps some of us not as obsessively as we used to, but I like to think of that as “growing up and getting in step with the real world” – and the idea of rioting doesn’t even enter my mind.
I do, however, remember a certain amount of disgust over my inability to pick up digital signals no matter where I was. The television industry had failed to provide a viable replacement for analog TV, but at that point I felt like the point was moot anyway; I already had access to much better content, because guess what? Netflix had started this streaming video service that actually worked pretty well. In seamless fashion, our “revolutionary” snail-mail DVD rental service stepped in right when a lot of us needed them, and we haven’t looked back since.
So who or what is going to step in for employment?
One of Planet Money’s guests for today’s show is Andrew McAfee. He’s an associate director at MIT who studies how information technology affects business. They asked him how this jobless future might work, and what it would look like, and guess what?
He said it makes his head hurts to think about it.
No kidding, right?
Forty years out in this “ridiculously abundant economy” McAfee says that “[w]e’re going to be freed from want and from privation. . . . However, in that economy do we have prices? Do we have money? If so, how do you get that money, because you don’t really have a job in that economy; there aren’t very many of what we used to consider jobs, and that was the way we distributed the money you could use to buy things, and that system . . . works really, really, well.”
That’s when it hit me: we’re all going to be Muppets.
Bear with me for a moment here.
When you strip it down to the studs the only way to “make” money is to create value for someone else, or by extension, for society at large. When we create value, the money seems to roll in all by itself because we’re used to performing and they’re used to paying for it . . . so what’s left when a massive paradigm shift has taken that assumption and turned it on its head?
I have an idea – how about we go wherever we want and do something we enjoy?
I know it all sounds kind of pie-in-the-sky, but this seems like it could be the Star Trek future coming at us fairly fast: an abundant economy, no want or privation, i.e. no real need for money. So why worry about money?
It’s like the old TV, we don’t need it anymore so just let it go.
Money? Psht! What’s that?
So what do you do?
The answer to that is, you live your life the way you want. In a future where the work is taken care of and there’s no need to provide the basic needs for yourself or your family, you’re free to pursue the things that interest you. Every person will find their talent and fit in where they can do the most good, not because they’re forced to by the economic model of the day, but because they want to, and eventually because that’s what they love to do. This transcends doing right by the family, and instead places the individual in a position of responsibility to the society as a whole.
Because of this, people will probably still entertain. People will probably still write and create art, and they will certainly explore worlds without and within. They’ll research, study, and innovate. They will push the boundaries of science and philosophy ever outward, because we love to do that. We were made for that. We’re insatiable for it. The people of the future will, in fact, create value by being good and happy citizens who have the leisure to make society a better place by just . . . having fun.
I know it’s hard to imagine, but it’s a lot easier to believe than thinking that in a world where robots do all of our work, we’re left out in the cold to suffer with scant means; because that would be a world torn apart by war – a neo-luddite war against the machines and the corporate oligarchy that use them to displace the masses: those who will stop at nothing to tear the whole system apart and build a new world where they will be free to do it all over again.
That might make an interesting movie, however.
Of course the world of the future will look alien and outlandish to us – do you think our parents at our age even dreamed that we would have the things we have today – the cell phones, the Internet, driverless cars? In that light, some skepticism on the part of pretty much everyone is understandable when someone says that someday we will be largely unemployed and yet everyone will be happy and money will truly be no object.
It’s like saying we’ll have tigers for pets and they won’t eat us alive.
But then again, why should they?
If you like audio drama, I also highly recommend listening to The Last Job, an audio play by the PRX podcast The Truth, in collaboration with Planet Money.