Are We Ready for Less Work?

As jobs disappear, we'll need new thinking.

Posted Feb 17, 2019

Photo by Joakim Berndes, Creative Commons license
Source: Photo by Joakim Berndes, Creative Commons license

The 2020 presidential campaign will be heating up soon, and that means we’ll be hearing lots of talk about “working people.” Every candidate for high office nowadays, it seems, is on the side of “working families” and promising to deliver “good jobs.”

Such promises, however, whether emanating from Democrats or Republicans, should be met with skepticism, because they ignore an unsettling truth: We live in an era when human labor is becoming increasingly dispensable to economic production. Jobs are disappearing in America—we’ve lost five million since 2000 in the manufacturing sector alone, and experts predict as many as 73 million will be lost throughout the economy in the next decade.

Some will blame foreign competition for these jobs numbers, but the real culprit is automation. According to researchers at Ball State University, 85 percent of jobs lost between 2000 and 2010 were attributable to technological advances, not international trade. Robots have already replaced human labor in warehouses and assembly lines, self-driving vehicles will displace millions of professional drivers in the next decade, and even many educated professionals—doctors, executives, lawyers, and accountants—will soon see artificial intelligence doing their jobs better than they can. In supermarkets, calling centers, and fast food restaurants, machines are already doing work once performed by humans, and we'll see much more of it going forward. 

As technology enables businesses to operate without the expense and hassle of employing as much human labor, this will have enormous implications socially, economically, and politically. Consider, for example, that some of the most influential ideologies—philosophical positions that have endured and often thrived in western society for many generations—will necessarily lose relevance.

On the left end of the spectrum, labor has been central to both political theory and practice for two centuries, but that simply can’t continue in a society with diminished use for human employees. Workers of the world unite? What workers would that be? If industry is no longer so reliant on labor, this approach becomes quickly outdated.

On the right, meanwhile, libertarian disdain for government's role in the economy—faith in an “invisible hand” that magically guides the marketplace—seems vacuous in an economy driven by corporate institutions that permeate all aspects of daily living and control unfathomable quantities of data. In such an environment, it is the height of naïveté to insist that a “hands off” regulatory approach is the ideal, that the government which governs best is that which governs least.

None of this is to suggest that the technological progress enabling machines to do our work must be seen as disastrous for humanity. Quite the contrary. After all, how many people awaken each day thrilled to go to their jobs for eight hours, five days a week, all year-round? Having more free time can be seen as desirable, so long as one's quality of life is satisfactory. As Paul Lafargue wrote during the industrial revolution in his marvelously titled work, The Right to Be Lazy, labor equates to “pain, misery and corruption” for many, so the desire to be free from it isn't shameful. “O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues," Lafargue wrote, "be thou the balm of human anguish!”

But the new economic realities will call for new thinking. The laissez faire ideal of government nonintervention, of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in a completely unregulated economy, must necessarily be dismissed. From the left, meanwhile, the idea of economic justice must be considered within a new paradigm, wherein it is understood that “workers” in the traditional sense (and therefore unions as well) are no longer the main focus. People must be seen for their innate humanity, not their economic production value.

In the midst of this social transition, it’s worth remembering that a certain strata of society—the wealthiest—has long included a sector known as the leisure class, a group that has rarely complained about its jobless condition. The emancipation of the masses from labor, however, has always been seen as a dream, a utopian fantasy. With technological advances bringing it closer to a reality, new opportunities for creativity, entertainment, recreation, and life fulfillment will abound, but with them will come challenges. Utmost among those challenges will be the need to ensure a sense of security. 

We are already starting to see this phenomenon play out politically, from several angles. One, of course, is the emergence of the much-discussed “angry white working class,” a demographic already feeling the disappearance of good jobs and the insecurity that comes with it. Another angle, meanwhile, is the increased public interest in universal health care, which no doubt arises from the insecurity of not knowing whether your employer today will still be your employer tomorrow. Medicare for all, after all, would eliminate the worry of losing your family's health insurance when the boss hands you a pink slip and a robot takes over your job. 

Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang takes all of this one step further by advocating for universal basic income, which he calls a “freedom dividend,” a $1000 monthly payment to all adult citizens as a benefit of living in our wealthy and technologically advanced society. He describes this as "trickle-up" economics and believes it can help relieve much of the anxiety that permeates the middle and working classes. 

Such optimism might be hard to comprehend amid today's combative political dialogue. That division and rancor, however, is largely the result of insecurity, of people feeling that the system is leaving them behind. Unfortunately, for many nowadays that feeling is no illusion, but a stark reality. It may dwindle, however, once society accepts that we are moving toward a world of less work, and adjusts accordingly.