5 Ways to Cope With The Workless Future

As many are feeling apprehensive about the future, we seem to be running out of letters in the alphabet to name successive generations. After Baby Boomers, came generation X, then the Millennials (aka Gen-Y), who are now succeeded by Generation Z.

Whether or not one finds any symbolism, omen, or irony in this is beside the point. What is important is to ask a question, what kind of world will those born in the XXI century grow up in? Will the automation of everything leave many people behind bringing despair and disappointment, or will it urge the humanity to redefine self-actualization? Where the realization of one’s potential will no longer be defined by career success or measured by net-worth? If and when it becomes unnecessary for a significant proportion of the working population to be working, will we be able to adapt our value system to allow for guilt-free leisure, encourage more creative exploration, and recognize the value of life-long learning?

Research by Economist Magazine

Just days after the e-commerce giant from Silicon Valley dazzled the world with the introduction of Amazon Go, it has made a first commercial delivery by drone. The fantasy world of tomorrow with flying cars and cashless stores seem to be turning into a mundane reality of today. This fantasy is though all too real for people whose livelihoods are threatened. Just imagining a scenario where the jobs of cashiers and retail salespersons in the US are fully automated, we are looking at adding 7.5 million people to the ranks of the unemployed. For comparison, since the beginning of XXI century, the American economy has been adding on average 0.8M jobs per year. Whether it’s Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla, or any other company that will bring a viable driverless technology to the market; it is not a matter of it, it’s a matter of when. Here again, 3.5 million jobs in America could disappear in a heartbeat, should this technology become commonplace. Loss of just those two narrowly-defined professions could undo 14 years’ worth of job creation.


Beyond those vivid examples, a widely-shared Blog on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda platform projects that roughly half of all jobs will be lost to automation in less than two decades. One could take solace in looking at the past experiences where some vocations fade away, but the new ones come in their stead. Many analysts argue, though, that this time will be different. If those predictions come true, and we are indeed heading for a workless future, now would be a high time to kick off a policy discussion on how we prepared for it.

In 2013, a pre-Amazon-Go and pre-autonomous-vehicle era that seems both recent and distant, the researches at MIT have identified a phenomenon they termed “great decoupling” — where a gap is widening between gains in productivity and new employment creation. In other words, the growth in economic output — more products and services for everyone — may not necessarily require more human effort, if this trend continues.

Research by MIT

If Airbus could 3D print a model airplane today, what does that mean for even highly skilled manufacturing jobs tomorrow? Anyone who is using a smartphone to manage a bank account, book travel, read the news, must recognize the extent to which our own habits have changed and how many jobs we personally have rendered obsolete. Various tasks that humans used to handle are now executed by a device that fits in one’s pocket. Harvard Business Review analyzed the latest trends and came to an unsettling conclusion that “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” A recent McKinsey study found that “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform.”

Just as we intellectually recognize that the world of tomorrow will have much less employment, (or at least much less of what we define as employment now), the job-creation rhetoric continues to dominate our political discourse. This proverbial tomorrow may take a decade or two or five to arrive, but, undoubtedly, some version of it will, and burying one’s head in the sand is no solution. Focusing on the skills necessary to compete for the yet-to-be-invented jobs is only part of the puzzle. As the gap widens between population growth and automation on one side and the job creation to meet the needs of our machine-powered future, on the other, we have to begin making serious adjustments to maintain social cohesion.

What If continued automation of work, be it legal research, or medical diagnostics, or writing of newspaper articles, delivers productivity gains that can well be distributed among the population without the need for everyone to contribute in a traditional way (i.e. by holding down a job)? Should such future be imagined, it will require a major paradigm shift in how our society is organized, how we define contribution, where we find fulfillment, and how we draw meaning from our daily activities.

First question, which is already vigorously debated, is how can one support oneself when one is not expected to be working. The unconditional basic income or “digital dividend” is the concept that is gathering momentum; and some jurisdictions have either toyed with the idea or are piloting it. “The political debate needs to engage the taboo topic of guaranteeing economic security to families — through a universal basic incomewrites David Ignatius for the Washington Post.

This novel policy proposal is often contrasted with welfare, and arguments are made in favor or against. The problem with the discourse is that it is framed in the terms of today’s situation, where policies are designed to discourage freeriding of some humans on the efforts of others. What we should be considering instead is the situation where all humans are “freeriding” on the efforts of machines. The latter don’t create demand. And that creates a serious conundrum for our economic system. Over a century ago, Henry Ford anticipated this debate when he postulated that: “it is not the employer who pays the wages, employers only handle the money, it is the customer who pays the wages.”

As radical as the universal basic income idea may sound, it is, in strict terms, a simple technical solution to a largely understood social problem. It will be much more difficult to imagine and institute a new value system where unemployment is not stigmatized. Adopting norms in a society, where one’s contribution is no longer defined by “economic output,” is a challenge of a different scale and complexity altogether. To address it, before the societal tensions boil over, we will need a ton of courage, a lot of blue-sky thinking, and a great deal of policy experimentation.

A neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris asked a million-dollar question in his resonant Ted Talk on AI. What happens when we invent a “perfect labor-saving device, which can design the machine that can build the machine that can do any physical work, powered by sunlight, more or less for the cost of raw materials?” The intelligence explosion that Sam warns us about, poses a whole different set of questions, if and when it comes.

Can we build AI without losing control over it? | Sam Harris

So I will not attempt to address it now, but there are a few ideas we could start with in anticipation of the time when the scope and scale of need for human efforts in producing economic output begins to decline.

1. In the spirit of Responsive and Responsible Leadership, we must begin by openly acknowledging and then facing the reality. As political careers are made and broken on the promises of job-creation, it will require a great deal of courage for our leaders to take responsibility and initiate a frank debate on the possible workless future. To better cope with the uncertain future, we’ll have to develop a new vocabulary to articulate the dilemmas we have yet to face.

2. It is also the intellectual framework within which we look at our economic systems that needs to change. Here we can start with redefining GDP to better account for non-compensated contribution, such as childcare and housekeeping, or better yet move towards a wider matrix such as Social Progress Index or any other methodology that recognizes human contribution and progress in new ways. Perhaps we should also retire the term labor productivity and, instead refocus, on measuring self-actualization.

3. One of the simplest and yet complicated questions to ponder in the world free of traditional employment, is what will we, humans, do with our free time. It would be good to ease our way into it by looking at a 6-Hour Workday policies that Sweden is introducing “to increase productivity and make people happier.” Shorter work days will not just help prevent burnout, they will allow people a space to find other activities from which they can derive meaning. For those who are employed, a job isn’t just a vehicle to earn one’s living, it is a means to address the basic human need for belonging. Exploring how this need could be met outside of workplace would be a worthy undertaking.

4. Given that an ambition of an individual today is often conflated with professional aspirations and then measured by one’s career success, the ambition of the future could potentially be viewed through the prism of building one’s capacity for imagination and aspiration to learn, generate and exchange ideas. Popularizing the idea of sabbatical breaks across all professional fields, beyond just academia, would help us in making this a smoother transition.

5. All of those efforts will have to go hand-in-hand with addressing the rising inequality and recognizing the Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy, “where failure [to find a job after losing one] is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame.”

The imagined future where humans may not have to work, as machines will be taking care of ever-widening range of our needs and wants, is not assured, but it is highly probable. We can debate the timeline and keep stuffing this difficult conversation into a can, so that we could kick it down the road. What would be more constructive though is delving into this debate headfirst, trying out new policies, learning form one another, and shaping our workless future to minimize its discontents. Our kids, the Gen-Zs, will thank us for it!


Originally published on 12 Jan 2017 at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/jobless-world-and-its-discontents