When Robots Take Your Job (Non-dystopian version)

This morning, I was reading the umpteenth post on Reddit about how robots will take over all of our jobs. Most of the voices speak of how we’ll descend into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Those who have lost jobs as long-haul truckers, janitors, and sundry types of labor that does not involve higher functions of the human brain will break out their guns in order to avoid starvation. Amongst the doomsayers, there are the occasional quiet voices of reason advocating calm as this is a path we’ve been down before and it’s never as bad as people think. Those voices are more right than they know, but generally not for the reasons they believe. It’s not that technology won’t take over jobs, but that we will not react as popular culture and our worst fears may lead us to believe.

In terms of the future we can expect, we can look to the past for our answers to what technological changes will force in society. While violent revolution is possible, adaptation is more likely. We’re already seeing the seeds of those changes firmly planted in the present due to globalization when we witness more adults residing with their parents for longer periods of time.

The future is likely to hold more underemployed and unemployed people who live in multi-generational housing or communal living situations. At the moment, there is no small amount of outrage at the inability of adults to live independently and to purchase their own homes. As decades pass, norms will change and communal support will become expected and early and frequent independence will be seen as out of reach for more and more people. We will stop fighting it and embrace it.

For much of human history, relying on an extended network (often familial, but not always) was how people coped with terrible wages and insecure work environments. Victorian families, for example, often pooled the income from all family members doing paltry jobs in order to survive. This was not a failure to launch then, but simply a reflection of the reality. Rather than rebel, we will probably return to that mentality, though many will go down kicking and screaming before accepting such a new world order.

Similarly, we can see the seeds of how the gap between the haves and have nots will be resolved in the present in Silicon Valley lifestyle habits. Those at the top of the income chain will continue to be infantilized much like royalty in Europe in the past. Instead of cleaning their own homes, walking their own dogs, or even making their own toast, they pay someone else to do it. A robot is unlikely to ever make your pooch comfortable while he goes to the park to do his dirty business and an advanced Roomba won’t be scrubbing out your oven or tub any time soon, at least not for a price that those who are paid at the bottom of the top 5% can pay.

The likeliest outcome as technology takes over more jobs is that the amount of repetitive labor that humans do will be reduced, but not eliminated entirely, for a very, very long time — if ever. While a robot vacuum can clean the floors, it can’t wipe down the walls, or the legs of desks or even scrub the toilets. Despite years of trying, we still haven’t come up with a way to self-clean nooks and crannies of every space that humans occupy with chemicals or machines. We may not need two janitors, but we’ll still need one for many decades to come.

Similarly, while a self-driving truck can drive goods all over America, chances are that it’ll have someone manning and overseeing it for some time for safety reasons initially and that eventually there will be checkpoints with humans who investigate or service said vehicles in the distant future. The notion that machines will somehow manage this 100% in the next fifty years is far-fetched both from a technological and infrastructure viewpoint. We’re just not that good or that fast at building or developing. If we were, someone would already be mining the moon and my cat’s litterbox would be truly self-cleaning rather than all of the half-assed solutions that are being sold expensively that still require me to deal with feline waste. If we could solve all of the unpleasant tasks that require human hands at present, surely these little things for which there are enormous markets and potential profit to be made would have been exploited.

The labor forces for the types of jobs that technology will consume will get smaller over time and we will adapt to those losses slowly by either training people to do more sophisticated work at younger ages or by having fewer people on hand. On the whole, we are already opting to have fewer children and population growth is headed downward and eventually will likely hit zero or contract as people face the likelihood that their children will have to struggle too hard to succeed. Many high schools are offering vocational training in line with markets that are likely not to be supplanted by technology (medical, construction-oriented trades, etc.) or preparing kids for jobs in technology. We’re already on our way in this regard thanks to most of our manufacturing being moved abroad and existing mechanization technology.

I believe we can also expect to see a change in the way in which relationships operate over time as well. It may be seen as regression, but one of the ways in which the poor gained upward mobility in the past was to marry into affluence. We’ll likely see more men and women who marry upward and fewer two-income families at the top and middle and see even more double-income families with multi-generational living situations at the bottom (as has been the trend for some time). It would not be surprising in a world with greater unemployment to see more people looking less for love and more for stability as was once the case in the past.

Service professions will likely be expanded in the next fifty years. One possibility is that prostitution will be made legal as will more substances. The former would allow for a form of “unskilled labor” that can’t be duplicated by technology. The latter would allow for more cottage industries that are undeveloped and underdeveloped in the short-term and the emotional hardship of the changes to society will create a market for mood-altering substances that will ameliorate emotional suffering. Mores against these things have already been evolving away from puritan notions and the need to develop an economy in which those who cannot consume because they have no place and therefore no income in the new world order will push them aside even further. Laws will change to find a place for those who are displaced to continue to be productive members of society who can consume and pay taxes.

Rather than look to dystopian fiction to predict the future, I think it’s more effective to look to the past and the how the present has rapidly changed due to the effects of globalization. People do not trend toward disorder and chaos, but toward stability and order. The oldest cultures in the world (Japan, China, India) are some of the most structured. This is what we will seek to find as technology changes our world, particularly in an existence which is already rife with pacification. Though it will not be easy, and certainly not quiet, people would rather switch than fight for the most part.