Today is Labor Day, the day we honor good honest work. It is also a good day to reflect on the future of work, and workers. It is clear that much heavy dirty work will be done by robots; much routine and even modestly creative work will be done by computers. So what will be left?
A nice article in the NY Times by my colleague Tyler Cowen speaks of the coming great divide among workers–those who have skills and provide services that are uniquely human will prosper. These include communicating with, managing, and serving human beings in unique, reactive, responsive, and creative ways. So far, those abilities are beyond computers. People will also pay to see the best that humans can do. So even though someday computer-driven cars may be able to drive automated cars around a track more safely and quickly than human drivers, race-car drivers probably don’t need to fear being replaced, as the thrill of watching human drivers defy death seeking to beat each other around a track will not be replaced by watching automated vehicles.
Still, as animated shows demonstrate, in some areas creative software programmers can replace human performers. This has already gone quite far in Japan — watch this video of a 3D holographic vocaloid (yes, that is what they are called) performing onstage at a live concert in Japan. This shows you why many young Japanese men prefer to spend their time at video displays rather than dating real girls.
Yet the question remains — what will these technological feats do for the future of labor and work as a whole? Here are two scenarios: one utopian, one dystopian.
UTOPIA IS COMING:
When all hard and dirty bulk labor, and all boring routine work are automated, what is left? Interesting and creative work! So will all of us be able to find such work? Actually, there is no reason why not. We would all eat healthier, more delicious food, if more people produced organic, highly varied, crops. We would all be in better condition if we had personal dieticians, trainers, masseuses, and other personal health and fitness gurus. Spa treatments that were luxuries of the rich are becoming staples of the upper middle class and may become as common as breakfast cereals (massage centers in Walmart, anyone?). People might finally pursue Keynes’ dream of a dramatically shorter work-week. Leisure travel and exploration and adventure trips would become more common for everyone. With cheap and easy to obtain computing power, and 3D printers to provide easy prototype creation, more creative people will be inventing more useful things than ever. Every one of us could have an agent or publicist, a personal fashion consultant and designer, have our dinner parties designed and catered. Cosmetic dental, facial and surgical treatments will keep everyone looking immaculate and young for decades on end. Mass produced and processed items would become virtually free, or available for subscription, while personal services would become the main items of consumption, providing lots of jobs for people to provide those services. Meanwhile, there will also be plenty of jobs for managers, logistics experts, and computer specialists to design, run, and maintain the complex systems that will provide the mass-produced manufactured and digital goods and services that will be cheap and subscription-based. The market for all such goods and services will increase as the global middle class expands; and as several billion new workers, mainly from Africa, get plugged into the global labor force, the creative power and consumer demand for the world as a whole will be multiplied, providing more opportunities for everyone. Computer-access education will mean that everyone in the world will have access to learning whatever skills and knowledge they need, so we will have by far the best educated, most capable, most creative work-force in human history catering to the most diverse, most connected, and most cosmopolitan consumer base in world history. Recent science-fiction–think Star Trek, where no one has to work for basic food or shelter, but everyone can choose challenging and rewarding work if they will train and pursue it–will come true.
Great, right? BUT — it all depends on whether we manage to maintain a degree of equality in the distribution of goods and services. If not, then this is what lies ahead:
DYSTOPIA IS NIGH:
As all heavy and boring and routine work is automated, fewer and fewer human beings will have skills that are valued in the labor market. Unemployment will rise, especially since disinvestment in public education will mean far greater inequality and fewer people who complete a four-year degree or musical training or design skills to prosper in the new economy. We will see a sharp divergence between those with the drive and family support and conscientiousness to avail themselves of educational opportunities and those who just want to buy the stimulants and basic housing and food to keep them happy. “Creators” and “Stoners” (legalized marijuana is spreading fast) may be the new version of Mitt Romney’s notional divide of workers into the “Makers” and “Takers.” As global markets grow, the few who manage the global companies or produce ideas in global demand will become richer than human elites have ever been, and will use their wealth to create private living and recreational enclaves, influence government to protect their firms and ideas and privileges, and ramp up the requirements for training and promotion to levels that only their families and the best and most determined of the rest can hope to achieve. The addition of billions of relatively low-skilled workers from African and Asia to the global labor market will ensure that wages for most workers stay low; and the unrest from hundreds of millions of ambitious youth with inadequate skills and limited opportunities will create recurrent bursts of political unrest and persistent problems of crime. Personal security, crime control, and humanitarian interventions (maintaining vast refugee settlements for those fleeing from environmental disasters and conflicts) will provide the most employment for the semi-skilled. Widespread anomie due to unemployment, under-employment, and low wages will lead people to rely more on alcohol and stronger drugs to get high in contrast to their depressing lives. Today’s science fiction — with vast, gaping contrasts between a pampered few living in barely imaginable luxury, and masses living a basic drab existence — think “Hunger Games,” “Elysium,” “In Time”– will come true. At the extreme, ordinary people will be pacified with a constant diet of drugs until they die out and are replaced by machines, while the elite managers remain the only conscious people left (think Huxley’s “Brave New World” or “the Matrix” with human elites, not machines, creating the digital reality for sleeping masses).
Either future is conceivable at this point; we stand just at the very beginning of the age of fully automated production and services. Everything depends, in my view, on whether we give in entirely to the logic of markets — what you get is what you can sell — or force markets to bow to the need to serve human well-being and insist on basic human rights to health, choice, personal development and dignity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber argued that the relentless drive of societies to greater efficiency gives markets and bureaucracies ever-greater power to shape our societies; the only alternatives, he thought, were the charismatic power of leaders to overturn rigid institutions leading to revolutions, and the institutionalized charisma of democratic politics which provides recurrent renewals of leadership responsive to the desires of the mass public. Today, we see a world in which the forces of charisma (bin Laden), democracy, bureaucracy, and markets are in open contention. The winner of this contest is still unknown; but the outcome will shape our future for better or worse.