One hundred years ago about 70 percent of our population worked on farms to produce enough food for the country. Today, that percentage is less than two percent. Thanks to the coming automation revolution being driven by increasingly capable machines and artificial intelligence (AI), by 2060, we could find ourselves entering a world where 70 percent of today’s jobs are handled by two percent of the population.
For some of you, this might be a scary thought. What does one do without a job? How does one survive? How does society function? Let’s chew on those questions together over the following paragraphs.
Last ditch efforts against automation
As the number of jobs begins to fall sharply during the early 2040s, governments will attempt a variety of fast fix tactics to try to stem the bleeding.
Most governments will invest heavily in “make work” programs designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy, like those described in chapter four of this series. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of these programs will wane with time, as will the number of projects large enough to require a massive mobilization of the human labor force.
Some governments may try to heavily regulate or outright ban certain job-killing technologies and startups from operating within their borders. We’re already seeing this with the resistance companies such as Uber are currently facing when entering certain cities with powerful unions.
But ultimately, outright bans will almost always be struck down in the courts. And while heavy regulation may slow technology’s advance, it won’t restrict it indefinitely. Moreover, governments that limit innovation within their borders will only handicap themselves in competitive world markets.
Another alternative that governments will try is to raise the minimum wage. The goal will be to combat the salary stagnation currently being felt in those industries being reshaped by technology. While this will improve the living standards for the employed, the increased labor costs will only increase the incentive for businesses to invest in automation, further worsening macro job losses.
But there is another option left to governments. Some countries are even giving it a try today.
Reducing the workweek
The length of our workday and week has never been set in stone. In our hunter-gatherer days, we generally spent 3-5 hours a day working, mainly to hunt our food. When we started forming towns, tilling farmland, and developing specialized professions, the work day grew to match the daylight hours, usually working seven days a week for as long as the farming season allowed.
Then things got of hand during the industrial revolution when it became possible to work throughout the year and well into the night thanks to artificial lighting. Coupled with the era’s lack of unions and weak labor laws, it wasn’t uncommon to work 12 to 16 hour days, six to seven days a week.
But as our laws matured and technology allowed us to become more productive, those 70 to 80-hour weeks fell to 60 hours by the 19th century, then fell further to the now familiar 40-hour “9-to-5” workweek between the 1940-60s.
Given this history, why would it be so controversial to shorten our workweek even further? We’re already seeing massive growth in part-time work, flextime, and telecommuting—all relatively new concepts themselves that point to a future of less work and more control over one’s hours. And frankly, if technology can produce more goods, cheaper, with less human workers, then eventually, we just won’t need the entire population to work.
That’s why by the late 2030s, many industrialized nations will have reduced their 40-hour workweek to 30 or 20 hours—largely dependant on how industrialized that country becomes during this transition. In fact, Sweden is already experimenting with a six-hour workday, with early research finding that workers have more energy and better performance in six focused hours rather than eight.
But while reducing the workweek may make more jobs available to more people, this still won’t be enough to cover the coming employment gap. Remember, by 2040, the world population will balloon to nine BILLION people, mainly from Africa and Asia. This is a massive influx to the global workforce who will all be demanding jobs just as the world will need them less and less.
While developing the infrastructure and modernizing the economies of the African and Asian continents may temporarily provide these regions with enough jobs to manage this influx of new workers, already industrialized/mature nations will require a different option.
The Universal Basic Income and the era of abundance
If you read the last chapter of this series, you know how vital the Universal Basic Income (UBI) will become to the continued functioning of our society and the capitalist economy at large.
What that chapter may have glossed over is whether the UBI will be enough to provide its recipients with a quality standard of living. Consider this:
- By 2040, the price of most consumer goods will fall due to increasingly productive automation, the growth of the sharing (Craigslist) economy, and the paper-thin profit margins retailers will need to operate on to sell to the largely un- or underemployed mass market.
- Most services will feel a similar downward pressure on their prices, except for those services that require an active human element: think personal trainers, massage therapists, caregivers, etc.
- Education, at nearly all levels, will become free—largely a result of the government’s early (2030-2035) response to the effects of mass automation and their need to continually retrain the population for new types of jobs and work. Read more in our Future of Education series.
- The broad use of construction-scale 3D printers, the growth in complex prefabricated building materials along with government investment in affordable mass housing, will result in falling housing (rent) prices. Read more in our Future of Cities series.
- Healthcare costs will plummet thanks to technologically-driven revolutions in continuous health tracking, personalized (precision) medicine, and long-term preventative health care. Read more in our Future of Health series.
- By 2040, renewable energy will feed over half the world’s electrical needs, substantially lowering utility bills for the average consumer. Read more in our Future of Energy series.
- The era of individually-owned cars will end in favor of fully electric, self-driving cars run by carsharing and taxi companies—this will save former car owners an average of $9,000 annually. Read more in our Future of Transportation series.
- The rise of GMO and food substitutes will lower the cost of basic nutrition for the masses. Read more in our Future of Food series.
- Finally, most entertainment will be delivered cheaply or for free via web-enabled display devices, especially through VR and AR. Read more in our Future of the Internet series.
Whether it’s the things we buy, the food we eat, or the roof over our heads, the essentials the average person will need to live will all fall in price in our future tech-enabled, automated world. That’s why an annual UBI of even $24,000 could roughly have the same buying power as a $50-60,000 salary in 2015.
Given all these trends coming together (with the UBI thrown into the mix), it’s fair to say that by 2040-2050, the average person will no longer have to worry about needing a job to survive, nor will the economy have to worry about not having enough consumers to function. It will be the beginnings of the era of abundance. And yet, there has to be more to it than that, right?
How will we find meaning in a world without jobs?
What comes after automation
Thus far in our Future of Work series, we’ve discussed the trends that will drive mass employment well into the late 2030s to early 2040s, as well as the types of jobs that will survive automation. But there will come a period between 2040 to 2060, when the rate of automation’s job destruction will slow, when the jobs that can be killed by automation finally disappear, and when the few traditional jobs that remain only employ the brightest, bravest, or most connected few.
How will the rest of the population occupy themselves?
The leading idea many experts draw attention to is the future growth of civil society, generally characterized by not-for-profits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This field’s main purpose is to create social bonds through a variety of institutions and activities we hold dear, including: social services, religious and cultural associations, sports and other recreational activities, education, health care, advocacy organizations, etc.
While many discount civil society’s impact as minor compared to the government or economy at large, a 2010 economic analysis done by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies surveying more than forty nations reported that civil society:
- Accounts for $2.2 trillion in operating expenditures. In most industrialized nations, civil society accounts for about five percent of GDP.
- Employs over 56 million full-time equivalent workers globally, nearly six percent of working-age populations of those surveyed nations.
- Is the fastest growing sector across Europe, representing more than 10 percent of employment in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and the UK. Over nine percent in the US and 12 in Canada.
By now, you might be thinking, ‘This all sounds nice, but civil society can’t employ everyone. Also, not everyone will want to work for a non-profit.’
And on both counts, you’d be right. That’s why it’s also important to consider another aspect of this conversation.
The changing purpose of work
These days, what we consider work is whatever we’re paid to do. But in a future where mechanical and digital automation can provide for most of our needs, including a UBI to pay for them, this concept no longer needs to apply.
In truth, a job is what we do to make the bucks we need to get by and (in some cases) to compensate us for doing tasks we don’t enjoy. Work, on the other hand, has nothing to do with money; it’s what we do to serve our personal needs, be they physical, mental, or spiritual. Given this distinction, while we may enter a future with less total jobs, we won’t ever enter into a world with less work.
Society and the new labor order
In this future world where human labor is decoupled from gains in productivity and societal wealth, we’ll be able to:
- Free human creativity and potential by allowing people with novel artistic ideas or billion dollar research or startup ideas the time and financial safety net to pursue their ambitions.
- Pursue work that’s important to us, be it in the arts and entertainment, entrepreneurship, research, or public service. With the profit motive reduced, any type of work done by people passionate about their craft will be viewed more equally.
- Recognize, compensate, and value unpaid work in our society, such as parenting and in-home sick and elderly care.
- Spend more time with friends and family, better balancing our social lives with our work ambitions.
- Focus on community-building activities and initiatives, including growth in the informal economy related to sharing, gift giving, and barter.
While the total number of jobs may fall, along with the number of hours we devote to them per week, there will always be enough work to occupy everyone.
The search for meaning
This new, abundant age we’re entering into is one that will finally see the end of mass wage labor, just as the industrial age saw the end of mass slave labor. It will be an age where the Puritan guilt of having to prove oneself through hard work and the accumulation of wealth will be replaced by a humanistic ethic of self-improvement and making an impact in one’s community.
In all, we will no longer be defined by our jobs, but by how we find meaning in our lives.