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For the last four years of her life, my grandmother lived in a state-funded care home.
This was back in the early 2000s. I was at university, and I’d visit her during the holidays. The home was a low-rise brick building on a quiet road. It was in the same ordinary town just outside London that my grandmother had lived in before we (mainly my mother) had become unable to look after her ourselves.
The staff was made up entirely of nurses who had recently arrived in the UK, mostly from Asia. They were good-humored, selfless, and dedicated to a job that involved helping other people’s elderly relatives use the bathroom.
They did their best with the place. And fought a daily battle against minimal resources. But everyone could see it wasn’t great.
I think about the nursing home every time I see news reports about aging populations.
We’re living through a time of profound demographic transition. Soon, the young and able-bodied will no longer outnumber the middle-aged and old.
In 2015, 16 percent of people in the OECD were older than 65; this is expected to increase to 25 percent by 2050. Meanwhile, renegade demographers recently disputed the UN’s prediction that the global population will hit 11 billion by 2100. Instead, they say, the population will peak at between 8 and 9 billion in the middle of the century, and then decline because of lower fertility rates. That’s good news from an ecological point of view. But falling birth rates will only intensify the megatrend toward aging populations.
We need to prepare ourselves, then, for a world reshaped by a demographic lurch toward old age.
We have never lived in societies where millions of young and able-bodied people have no perceived social or economic value.
One implication is already clear. Many more elderly people will need care. A recent study by the London School of Economics found that the number of over-85s in the UK who need 24-hour care is set to double to over 450,000 by 2035. The UK is already facing an elderly care crisis, and it’s going to get far worse.
Indeed, elderly care is going to be a defining problem for industrialised nations across the globe in the 21st-century. So what do we do about it?
Another megatrend is set to reshape the coming decades just as profoundly as aging.
According to one estimate, automation technologies will eat 800 million jobs by 2030. It’s thought that as the century wears on, a combination of A.I. and robotics will mean fewer and fewer people will be needed to staff our economies.
Of course, it remains to be seen how all this plays out. We know that new technologies can create new modes of employment, as well as destroying old ones. But it’s hard to see a way around the broad megatrend. As the Economist columnist Ryan Avent points out in The Wealth of Humans, we’re building economies in which ever-fewer people are needed to support ever-more stupendous output.
And that’s a problem, for a whole series of reasons. Not least: what are all those economically unnecessary people — billions of them — going to do? They could simply do nothing. But we’ve never lived in societies where millions of young and able people have no perceived social or economic value. The historian Yuval Harari has even predicted the emergence of a new and massive ‘useless class’, and consequent upheaval as social and political relevance drains away from the vast mass of people and clusters around a tiny new economic elite.
And besides the political implications, what kind of life would that be? What use would we be making of all that human potential?
Aging populations and automation both pose huge challenges. But if we put the two together, they start to look like two interlocking pieces of a larger puzzle.
Why? Because an army of young and middle-aged people with no role in the traditional economy could solve the elderly care crisis now fermenting in pretty much every industrialised nation. Liberated from the necessity of ordinary labour, they would be free to turn to the important work of caring — for their young children, for elderly parents or grandparents, and for friends who need them.
That kind of change — lets call it a turn back to one another — would constitute a true 21st-century, automation-fueled revolution. It would mean huge changes to the kinds of work we prioritize, the way we live, what we think life is ultimately for.
But for that revolution to take hold, we need a prior shift. That is, a shift in the kind of human activities we consider socially valuable. Capitalism has enmeshed us in ways of thinking that prioritize economic productivity above all else. To do that, it has sold us a vision of individual empowerment that is bound up in traditional career success and the acquisition of new objects and experiences.
And fine, those attitudes have fueled a stunning rise in living standards across the last several decades. But if we’re now about to build automated economies that for the first time in history can continue to scale the heights of productivity without the need for huge amounts of human input, can we start to rethink all that?
Can we start to prioritize other forms of human activity, such as caring for one another?
Right now, our culture is obsessed with teaching kids to code. But look at the two megatrends that are ageing populations and automation, and a more powerful alternative becomes clear. We should be teaching kids to care.
The most important and available work for billions of people in the 21st-century will be care work. Care for young children. Care for elderly parents and grandparents who can no longer look after themselves, and for whom the state has no provision. Care for other family members or friends.
If we’re wise, we’ll swim with that tide rather than against it. A great way to start doing that would be to begin sending a revolutionary message to our young people:
‘Your societies are changing. They are not the societies your parents grew up in. Many of you will never have a traditional job. Your primary value as a human is not the value you bring to the economy. Our economy is supposed to serve us; we are not supposed to serve it. If you spend your life making the lives of those around you worth living, we promise we will recognise you as being engaged in one of the highest forms of human activity there is.’
A universal basic income (UBI) would also help ease this massive shift in human attention away from the economy and back towards one another. Political resistance to the idea of a UBI is considerable. Perhaps the best available way to puncture that resistance is to highlight the growing need for an army of human workers to care for our elderly. We can help individual people turn back to their own relatives via a UBI. Or we can fund state care for all those elderly people.
Which would we rather?
Our put it another way: what do we need more of in the decades ahead? Parents engaged with their young children? Elderly people able to live with dignity and surrounded by those they love? Or a new set of bullshit jobs to replace those about to be automated away?
We keep talking about how automation will steal our jobs, as though being a minor functionary in the sprawling machine of Late Capitalism is the most precious thing ever. But automation technologies have the potential to liberate us into a world in which we — ourselves, our family, our friends, the people we need to care for — are how we spend our best days and direct our best efforts.
Whenever I think back to my grandmother’s care home, the direction we should head in seems pretty obvious.
At the heart of this idea is a reimagining of what our societies can be under automation.
Modernity has atomized us, tearing apart the traditional bonds of family and friendship in pursuit of constant economic growth.
In the 21st-century, automation and A.I. will both obviate the need for much human labour. In addition, they’ll create societies of even greater and more disorientating change. The practical conditions are in place for a great turn back to one another, and the need for such a turn is increasingly clear.
It would mean implementing huge changes. Changes in how we think about usefulness, meaning and social value. In how we educate our young people. And in how we distribute the wealth generated by our economy. But we’ve made huge changes in those domains before in response to the rise of new technologies. We can do it again.
The work of caring for others, including those closest to us — sometimes especially those closest to us — is not easy. But deeply worthwhile endeavours are never easy.
Automation means the chance of an entirely different kind of life for millions in the 21st-century. It’s there, if we reach for it.