The Jobless Society

July 2012  |  Status: First Draft

Sooner or later, machines will replace the vast majority of jobs that are now occupied by humans. Surely this will also create a lot of jobs that currently don’t exist, because, after all, somebody needs to design, build, and maintain all those machines. Humans are also pretty good at coming up with new occupations that nobody else thought possible before. Still, it is not clear that there will remain enough full-time jobs for everyone. For example, it might only take 100 engineers to maintain a machine that replaces 100K unskilled laborers.

In addition, most of the newly created jobs will require very specific skills that take a lot of time and money to acquire, such as computer programming and nanoengineering. As a result, most of the newly unemployed workers will have a hard time finding another job. There simply won’t be enough jobs in the whole world for most of them.

What should societies do when this happens? What should we tell the billions of people whose jobs will have permanently disappeared?

Should we tell them, “Too bad, you’ll have to starve,” even if there’s more than enough food for everyone? (More mechanization is likely to increase agricultural productivity even further.)

Should we put them all on welfare? After all, the right to life is the most fundamental human right. But what are the moral implications of a social structure in which a small number of highly skilled individuals (and their machines) basically subsidize billions of unemployed people? A situation like that might disturb even the staunchest socialist.

Should we hope that a population with much more leisure on its hands will spend so much time watching movies and playing games that the entertainment industry (or something similar) will employ everyone else? But what if even that industry becomes so mechanized that it doesn’t need a whole lot of human employees? Should everyone just take up a hobby? How will they get paid? (Remember, people need disposable income in order to consume entertainment.)

On the other hand, there’s something irresistibly sweet about the idea that everyone can devote their lives to their passions without having to worry about putting food on the table. What if we abandoned the whole idea of having a job? What if we just gave up the notion that people need to work in order to make a living? What if a job just became something you did on the side for extra income or prestige? Would it be a good world to live in? Would we even recognize such a world as our own future?

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), such a future could arrive within our lifetime. But unless our moral intuitions and political ideologies are prepared for it, there could be a great deal of unnecessary suffering.