Automation, Work, and Identity

Mr. Roboto has arrived, and is here to destroy your sense of self. You’re welcome. Image from Pixabay.

Automation: it’s coming. There is no way to stop it at this point. It is estimated that about 38 percent of workers in the US alone could lose their jobs to automation over the next 15 years, according to CNN.

That’s a lot of jobs. More to the point, that’s a lot of people at risk for being displaced.

Manufacturing is one field where automation has already drastically reduced the number of available jobs. Physical and mechanical labor is simply more efficiently done by a machine that can work faster, work constantly, and work with less required maintenance then the fleshy blobs that initially built them. IT & Computer Science jobs are also likely to take a hit as far as the number of available jobs go for another reason: the best programmers and coders are the ones that code themselves out of a job. The remaining jobs fields, such as education and health care, require extensive training, education, or both. The skills needed in these fields are both time consuming and expensive to acquire, as tuition rises even at two year schools.

What is to be done, then, for the many workers displaced by automation?

We cannot afford to wait until robotic arms are knocking on our doors to make the needed changes in our social structure. 38 percent is a huge amount of people to cut out of not only the work force, but also the economy. People without money can’t buy goods and services. They can’t buy housing, they can’t buy food. Aside from the human aspect, a lack of funds means inability to participate actively in the economy: having more goods & services doesn’t mean anything if the target demographic can’t afford them. Long term lack of employment has the potential to have a negative psychological impact on those affected as well. In a nation built around the competitive nature of Capitalism, driven for centuries by the Puritan work ethic, where we spend more time at work than anywhere else, jobs are frequently a substantial part of an individual’s identity. Just look at today’s coal workers: they are determined to defend policies that prolong the longevity of their industry at any cost, even though the evidence shows that coals’ days are numbered. A combination of automation and decline in demand for coal products has doomed the mining industry: it’s only a matter of time. However, entire towns were built around this industry, families were loyal to it across generations.

People aren’t just losing their jobs. They are losing a chunk of their identity, as well as their entire social structure.

In some cases, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it’s an opportunity to change for the better. Coal is bad for the environment, and some of those jobs will be replaceable with jobs in green energy. Also, traditionally “Pink collar” jobs, such as teaching and health care jobs, could see an increase in value, as jobs requiring interpersonal skills could potentially become the only jobs we are left with. It could be an opportunity for traditionally marginalized groups to pull ahead socially and economically.

But what about those left behind? At some point soon, we are going to reach a time period where we simply do not need everyone working.

The current picture is grim. According to this Politico article about rural suicide, increases in poverty and decreases in prospects are contributing to a mental health crisis in rural America, where industries such as manufacturing and fossil fuel based energy once provided the means for the American Dream to even those with just a high school diploma. Now, the need for mental health and addiction resources is apparently rising faster than it can be met under current conditions. The article mentions that suicide rates have been rising everywhere since 1999, but have been particularly spiking in rural America.

It makes sense when you think about it. When the things that make you who you are, or who you thought you would be, are taken away, and when the life you were told you were always going to live is proven to be a lie, it’s bound to send even the soundest of minds into a dark place.

We need to help each other find a new identity. We need to support one another. Basic income and universal health care are two places we can start. We also need to start placing a higher premium on unpaid work, such as the work we put into maintaining our homes, our families, and self improvement. Art and science are also avenues around which we can build a sense of self: you don’t even need a degree to appreciate nature and learn about your local ecological systems, and anyone with a sketchbook and sufficient interest can start drawing. Imagine what people could do with a basic income, a library, and internet access. We have the tools to build an identity and a culture that is not based around performing unpleasant tasks in the interest of survival. We, as a society, just have to chose to use them.

We need to stop seeing ourselves and others as machines and producers of labor. We need to stop treating ourselves as human resources, and become more human instead.