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Automation has already taken our jobs
We just invented new ones.
In Inventing The Future, authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams lay out their vision for a fully automated economy whereby machines “produce all necessary goods and services, while also releasing humanity from the effort of producing them.” This fully automated economy would require minimal hours to run, they say, and would produce enough wealth that the government could dispense a universal basic income (UBI) that would support us financially so we don’t have to work.
If the authors are decidedly post-capitalist in scope, they don’t specify how automated labor would generate wealth without capitalism. Neither do any other of the innumerable texts I have read on the topic. Where is the government getting enough money to pay us a living wage, without first earning it through the taxation of the wealth we generate by working? As I have yet to see a case for not working that includes a tax plan (other than “tax the rich,” which doesn’t have a long play in this scenario), I remain unconvinced that the two things—no work and free money—go together.
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That’s perhaps why, at a recent dinner party, I jumped when one of my guests revealed herself to be post-capitalist. Yes, there are a lot of bad things capitalism is doing, I agreed, but what is the alternative? Is there some other country, some other case study she could point me to in which working is not the means of production?
Socialism, she said, the Nordic countries.
Ah, the Nordic countries. I happen to be a devotee of The Nordic Theory of Everything and have folded down many a page as I nodded my way through that book. And yet, if we are to call the Nordic Countries socialist, we are only doing so because they use their money to support their people, they still get that money from capitalism. It is people working, and the government taxing their income, that allows the Nordic countries to provide healthcare, childcare, and public education to their citizens.
But if we can’t call the Nordic countries post-capitalist, are there any we can?
There are a collection of utopian novels—usually socialist, communist, Marxist, or otherwise inclined—that would have us imagine a work-free world, and if science fiction provides our best example, even those do not specify how the government is able to afford such a life. William Morris makes an attempt in his 1890 book News from Nowhere, depicting a world in which people are so contented without work that they happily take up the trades—operating taxi services for the enjoyment of taking people around and building bridges because they take pride in providing for their community.
The Star Trek franchise elaborates on these principles, imagining a post-money world in which the Starship Enterprise is equipped to explore space without financial motive. As Captain Picard explains to a bunch of de-cryogenically frozen people from the 21st century, “people are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” In a later time-traveling episode, he elaborates: “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
If I am skeptical of Morris’ optimism that we would build bridges for sheer enjoyment of it, maybe a little less so of Star Trek’s notion that we would space travel solely for the benefit of humanity, there is at least evidence that people don’t stop working when you give them money. From 2017 to 2019, Finland ran a two-year UBI pilot in which 2,000 randomly picked unemployed people were given €560 (roughly $606) a month (in place of any kind of unemployment benefit) and compared to a control group of unemployed people who were not. They found the stipend exponentially increased happiness, moderately increased physical wellbeing, and even slightly increased work.
Other UBI pilots—including those in the United States, Canada, and Africa—found similar results. And the largest and longest-running pilot to date is straight-up eradicating poverty. The NGO GiveDirectly has been giving money directly to people living in impoverished communities, and recipients have been using those funds to increase their economic opportunity—like buying a motorbike so they could start working as a taxi service. “According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, GiveDirectly’s cash grants spur a lasting rise in incomes (up 38% from before the infusion) and also boost homeownership and livestock (up 58%), while reducing the number of days that children go hungry by 42%,” Rutger Bregman reports in Utopia for Realists.
For this reason, GiveDirectly says it’s time to kill the “teach a man to fish,” metaphor. “People in poverty know how to fish,” they say, “but they can’t afford the boat.” That’s why Google handed over a $2.5 million donation.
In each of these cases, the UBI stipend is small—enough to take the edge off or provide a jump start, maybe, but not enough to pay the rent, the bills, the groceries. For those benefits and beyond, a person must work. And maybe that’s a good balance between people working and fueling the economy, and the government filling the gaps that might come from the calamities of that economy. I definitely believe economic conditions will continue to be in flux as we develop new technologies, and even that the automation of our jobs is imminent. If I do not think it will unburden us of work or make the government rich enough to pay for our lifestyles, I at least think that most of our jobs, as they exist now, will be significantly changed.
When the Ancestry competitor Storied launched last month, they did so with a series of six videos meant to convey the company’s value proposition. Interestingly absent from their team? People. “2Player developed the campaign with extreme efficiency in mind,” Brad Hall, the creative director of 2Player says. “Humans wrote the initial script, but then ChatGPT extended the main narrative into dozens of fully-written family stories while Midjourney generated archival photos and family history records. Essentially we trained the AI by describing the story and film direction, and it gave us back the props, wardrobe, and style frames we used to build the look of the film. In all, over 500 image-style frames were created to guide the process."
In other words, people got the ball rolling, AI did the rest. The result? “In a traditional process, we would have used our entire budget just on the creative development. We were able to massively streamline the process. It took maybe a quarter of the budget and saved us a third of the time, compared to traditional development.”
And here’s why Microsoft is making a multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT and other AI initiatives.
If we no longer need a surfeit of employees to produce videos, we definitely don’t need a slew of them to push papers around, and that’s most of our jobs right now. In his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert Gordon points out that 79% of work in the United States is office work and Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China and author of AI Superpowers, thinks office work will be the first to go, with 50% of our workforce replaced by AI in the next 10 years. “Accountants, factory workers, truckers, paralegals, and radiologists—just to name a few—will be confronted by a disruption akin to that faced by farmers during the industrial revolution,” he says.
But if we are facing a “new industrial revolution,” it’s worth taking a peek at what happened during the first one. In his book, Gordon documents the decline of labor jobs in the United States. As he shares, in 1870, 87% of jobs were considered “unpleasant” (which he defines as arduous, physically difficult, and dangerous—largely farming, mining, railroad building, manufacturing, construction, and other so-called “blue collar work”). Only 12% were considered “pleasant” (which he defines as professional, managerial, and other so-called “white collar work”).
By 2009, those numbers had flipped—only 21.6% of jobs were “unpleasant” and 78.4% were “pleasant.” We went from working blue-collar jobs to white-collar ones, and Gordon credits this shift to technological change: robots replaced assembly line workers, irrigation systems and plows replaced farmers, machinery replaced manual digging and mining. In other words: we automated things—so much so that 45.9% of our workforce were farmers in 1870, and only 1.1% were in 2009.
If automation took our labor jobs, we didn’t become unemployed in their absence. “Fears about new technology replacing human labor and causing overall unemployment have raged across industrialized societies for hundreds of years, despite a nearly continual rise in both jobs and wages in capitalist economies,” investorMarc Andreessen said in his essay "Why AI Won't Cause Unemployment," “We had two such anti-technology jobs moral panics in the last 20 years—’outsourcing’ enabled by the Internet in the 2000s and 'robots’ in the 2010s… Now we’re heading into the third such panic of the new century with AI, coupled with a continuous drumbeat of demand for Communist-inspired Universal Basic Income. ‘This time is different; AI is different,’ they say, but is it?”
Yes, is it? We’ve never lost our jobs before, even if they have drastically shifted. No longer focused on our base needs for survival—mining our resources and farming our food and building our railway systems—suddenly we had the space to tackle more aspirational challenges: like discovering antibiotics and inventing the vaccines that improved our health and increased our lifespan, inventing cars and airplanes and rockets that improved our travel, and creating the internet which improved our access to knowledge. We effectively crossed off the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and moved on to the next ones.
If our physiology and safety have been immensely improved in the United States, and inroads have been made toward our emotional wellbeing and sense of self, we now find ourselves 1) needing to scale those foundational pillars to the parts of the world that have yet to achieve those basic needs, and 2) further actualizing up the scale. If we continue to do both things, Lee thinks we will transcend the pyramid and ultimately become artists. Jobs that require “less than five seconds of thinking” may be the first to disappear, he told Quartz. But “art and beauty is very hard to replicate with AI. Given AI is more objective, analytical, data-driven, maybe it’s time for some of us to switch to the humanities, liberal arts, and beauty.”
My profession might be reaching that apex. My own needs are so far met that I find myself solidly on the cognitive, if not aesthetic level of that scale. My work is to write essays like this one, and to do that I have the leisure to read books like Inventing the Future and Utopia for Realists and The Nordic Theory of Everything, and AI Superpowers and The Rise and Fall of American Growth, not to mention several studies on UBI and automation, all so I could track work, understand the implications, and think through how that might be applied to our future in this essay.
The fact that you are now reading this essay and may comment or contribute further discourse on it is further proof we have time, money, and leisure to do so. That’s because, even as our work has ascended Maslow’s hierarchy, we have spent much less time doing it—and earned much more money for the labor. In 1870, Americans worked 70 hours a week across six workdays and earned $14,355 a year (in today’s dollars—$633.60 back then). But by 2023, we are working 40 hours a week across five and earning $61,417.
As Jason Crawford points out in his essay “Why we didn’t get the four-hour workday,” we also went from having four vacation days each year to 20, while starting work much later in life (as in not working as children) and retiring much earlier (not a thing in 1870)—we also get to live a lot longer. After running the numbers, Crawford concludes we spent 49% of our lives working in 1881, compared with 20% in 2011. “A reduction from 49% of an adult life spent working to 20% is almost as great as a reduction from forty hours a week to fifteen,” he says.
And now we might be playing into Srnicek and Williams’ point, because if automation will so effectively meet our needs that the only work left for us is to become artists, and we’ll only need to spend 10-20 hours every week doing it, then maybe we will arrive at the post-work world they envision, if not in the way they intended. And if we continue to earn even more money doing it, maybe the government will have enough tax revenue to supply a UBI that could fill the gaps. Maybe capitalism is the way to socialism, so to speak, just like the Nordic countries imagined.
If I can’t yet imagine a future in which we no longer have to work, or even one in which AI puts us out of work, maybe there is one in which the only work left for us to do is attain transcendence. Maybe then we will build bridges just for fun, and explore the galaxy for the benefit of humanity.
But I’d love to know your thoughts:
Thank you for reading,