Right now, about fourteen million Americans are out of work.*
Right now, there are about three million job openings.*
That means that even in every single out-of-work American was doing absolutely everything in their power to find a job – sending out resumes and pounding the pavement and making phone calls and cashing in favors – there are eleven million Americans who cannot get a job, through absolutely no fault of their own.
These people aren’t slackers, or lazy, or bad, or any other pejorative. Can we agree on that? And if they aren’t bad people, can we also agree that they deserve some basic human rights, like food and clothing and shelter? We can? Good.
This sounds like it’s the beginning of a political rant, but I promise, it’s not. Instead, I want to take the current situation, and look ahead ten, twenty years.
Automation is the big thing these days, and has been since … well, since the industrial revolution. It started with agriculture. Once upon a time, the vast majority of human civilization was employed in some sort of agricultural role. Now, at least in America, less than one percent of us are. We have tractors and combines and harvesters and balers and all kinds of machines that do farming better than we ever could.
Manufacturing used to be the backbone of the American economy, and the source of the best jobs. But now, we have machines and robots that build our stuff for us. Cars and computers and tools and toys are all assembled more than by machine by man. And the machines do a better job than we ever could, but it still puts a human being out of work.
“So,” someone says, “just get a job building the robots.” And people did. Except now there are factories where robots build robots, with no human intervention at all.
I’m a software engineer. This last month, I wrote a piece of software that will save about eighty man hours of work per week. I worked for four weeks, and eliminated two full-time jobs forever. And the software I wrote does the job better than a human ever could. But it still means there is less human work to be done.
The question I want to ask you is: what happens when this trend reaches it’s logical conclusion?
What happens when there simply aren’t any more low-skill jobs? Pretty soon, we’re going to find that robots are cleaning our offices and our homes, taking out and collecting our trash, cooking our food, repairing our cars …. What happens when all of the minimum-wage or close-to-minimum-wage jobs are just gone? What happens when the millions of people doing those jobs today are rendered unnecessary, and there’s nowhere else for them to go?
What happens when this trend extends to the middle class? What happens when we don’t need people to sit in an office, because Siri‘s big sister is a better manager than any human MBA? What happens when a computer is able to write better software than I ever could?
What happens when the only jobs are very highly skilled? What if the only way to find work is to get a Doctorate in medicine or physics or chemistry or math?
What happens when computers become smart enough to replace our doctors, too?
What happens when there are no jobs?
We’re very close to a time – and possibly already there – when millions of American workers will be simply unnecessary. And we’re not that far away from a time – ten years? Twenty? I think it will be within my lifetime. – when most of the middle class is unnecessary, too.
What do we do then? How does our economy change when we’re capable of meeting everybody’s needs without their labors? What does our society look like when there are no jobs?