Thomas Galvin
Purveyor of Fine Pulp Fiction

Triquetra
Nobody's weak. Everybody's strong. -Justin Pope

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?

0 Responses to “Unnecessary”

  1. Brian in Shortsville says:

    Something I’ve actually given quite a bit of thought to, given what I’d be doing for a living (a nurse) if I HAD a job.

    Yes, in a nation that’s turning out almost a quarter of a million too FEW nurses EACH YEAR just to fill the new nursing positions being created – never mind replacing nurses that burn out, quit, get hurt on the job, retire or die – there is such a thing as an unemployed nurse.

    The great long-term strategic thinkers of the world (if there are such people), always fail to take into account demographics. Or if they account for demographics, they misinterpret the data and take the wrong action. Or they wake up to reality too late to take meaningful action. Or, they just sell out the greater good for a campaign contribution.

    Think about it, if you’re going to throw a party, the FIRST thing you need to know is, how many people are coming? Once you’ve got that figured out, you know how much food and beer you need, how big of a space, etc. And throwing a party, you can limit the number of invitees to your budget.

    Which brings me to the baby boomers (born 1946-1955). I presented on this in nursing school a million years ago, and have been hammering on it since. So my take on your topic is tinted by my own experience in my own industry, albeit, one that everyone is going to come into contact with sooner or later)

    The baby boomers are the single largest cohort of humanity the planet has ever seen. Our infrastructure and public policy has had to consider them since the early fifties. Look around any city neighborhood. You’re likely to see a school building that was built to educate baby boomers in the 50s that’s now a condo (assisted living, nursing home, senior apartments, etc.) housing them in the 21st century. That’s actually a neat microcosm of our society, and a lot of the public policy/political debate we’re seeing.

    Guess what kids, the eldest of those boomers turned 65 this year.

    A lot of them are exiting the already shrinking workforce (the ones that haven’t already been coerced into taking some kind of buyout with a reduction in the pension and long-term health care benefits they were counting on), or are reducing their presence by voluntarily underemploying themselves (working part-time as a Wal-Mart greeter a couple of days a week just to get out of the house type of thing).

    The boomers didn’t have enough kids to replace themselves in the existing workforce, and the workforce is shrinking anyway, for reasons Tom stated, among others (including outsourcing). The effect this has on public policy with respect to things like Social Security and Medicaid has been done to death, with more misinformation than anything. Lot more heat than light.

    But they will need to be replaced to some degree over the next little bit, making the short-term a tiny bit less dire than it would be during an era with a more even distribution of people among age ranges.

    Anyhow, the greatest cohort of humanity starting to turn into old folks is supposedly leading to 22% growth in the “healthcare industry” (just typing those two words makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit).

    So, how does a nurse go unemployed for a year, in a climate where the greatest number of the population are getting older and sicker, and the industry that’s supposed to address that is growing by 22%?

    It’s easy. The people running health care are morons, and the cost of giving healthcare is so expensive, the bottom line drives everything. So what’s happening in the real world, is health care providers are hiring everybody they can use to wring an extra dollar out of medicaid/medicare reimbursements, which doesn’t include people to actually take care of sick/injured people.

    Note, I said 22% growth in the “health care industry”, not 22% more nursing jobs. They’re hiring MDS Coordinators (reimbursement specialists). billing specialists, they’re hiring dietary consultants, recreation therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists – anything they can use to claim they provided an added level of care when they send the bill to medicaid, or an insurance company. But they’ll leave one nurse on a long-term care unit with two aides trying to keep 40 old folks breathing for 12 hours.

    Hell, I’m going to bet your doctor’s office looks pretty much like mine. There’s my Doctor. His physician’s assistant. An RN and an LPN. And two demon succubi that have to see your insurance card before you can see any of the 1st four. That’s about the ratio throughout. For every two people dong something beneficial for a sick person, there’s an industry leech.

    They’re playing the game, instead of doing what they were established to do. And if it’s happening in such an elemental, vital field as health care, it’s got to be happening in other industries.

    They’re also grossly under-utilizing the people they already have. Again, playing the game, they’ll try to staff an entire hospital wing with strictly BSNs (“bachelor’s-prepared RNs” in the vernacular). That way they can claim it’s a “specialty-care unit” when they send the bill to your insurance company.

    Here’s the problem with that. They’re trying to hire imaginary nurses. Those people don’t exist, at least not anywhere NEAR in the numbers they need. see above. We don’t have the classrooms, or; PARTICULARLY; the instructors to churn out nurses of ANY kind fast enough to keep up with the new jobs being created to meet the demands of an aging cohort of boomers, never mind replacing the nurses lost to attrition. A nursing instructor, of any kind at any level, requires a minimum of a Master’s degree. Nursing instructor is about the lowest paying job available to a nurse with a master’s.

    Now, the few that are produced? Everybody wants them, but there aren’t enough to go around. But with unemployment at 11%, the HR people figure they’ll eventually they’ll find one. They won’t, but while they’re looking for the needle in the haystack, a nurse who COULD do the job gets an unemployment check instead of a paycheck. So it ends up being a trickle-down employment situation, at least until the HR dolts realize that beggars can’t be choosers, and the logjam breaks.

    The personally frustrating thing, is that the REAL difference between a BSN, and an RN with an associates is all the admin crap. That’s basically what the extra two years of college cover in a nursing program.

    RNs with associates degrees and LPNs can legally do almost all of the same work, and an experienced conscientious nurse is an experienced conscientious nurse regardless what alphabet soup is on their badge.

    And the message society has been sending kids forever is: get a degree so you don’t have to WORK for a living. I’m seeing 23 year-old know-nothings with BSN on their badge, that have never seen a yeast infection. They can move a stack of paper from one side of their desk to the other like nobody’s business. But they don’t want to actually get up from their desk to take a sick person’s temperature. And no one’s hiring regular old RNs and LPNs for them to boss around. We’re losing awareness and insight on units like nobody’s business. THERE’S you’re robots.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been in the top 5% of nurses since I walked into nursing school. The only thing I ever expected to get out of nursing for myself was job security. Nursing jobs can’t really be outsourced to India or China, and for at least the next 20 years or so, we’ll have plenty of customers. Oops, my bad.

    That’s the view from one of the biggest “growth industries.”

    I’d close by saying that unemployment begets more unemployment too. I’m getting by, but my discretionary income these days is nil. I haven’t bought a new pair of work shoes in awhile, and I’m sure the local pizza joint and bars have let delivery people and bartenders go because I (and a bunch of other people) just don’t have the loose cash to patronize them.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I don’t think we’ll ever reach a “no jobs” stage. Entertainers must be human, and I think politicians and teachers and doctors, as well. For example, robots can help identify a disease, but I think it takes a person to make a judgment call.

    We need to improve education so that more people are able to do the work that still needs to be done. Because there’s plenty, even if you ignore supplying food, clothing, etc. Mostly it’s work that NGO’s do, I think – fighting poverty, disease, genocide… And then the science-y stuff like improving alternative energy, reversing desertification, etc. Also, research into perfecting the Marauder’s Map.

    I was going somewhere with this, but I forgot. Alas.

    On another note, will buy your book when it comes out in paperback. (:

  3. Hayley Hamilton says:

    That was really depressing.

  4. Joe says:

    You’re talking about the post-scarcity economy right? There are lots of books about that. Try reading the Culture series. Basically, we make AIs to divide up resources and manage people. People like Eliezer Yudkowsky are doing that right now. You can find out more here: http://lesswrong.com/ Eventually people are just going to be doing work for the sake of doing work, not because they need to to survive. Times are difficult now, but I think that future generations will reap the rewards.

  5. Dayna Barter says:

    Brian,
    Where do you live? I work for a Home Care & Hospice agency, and we ALWAYS need nurses.

  6. Melissa says:

    From a joking standpoint, I’d say there’s a reason all those sci-fi movies aren’t set so far in the future anymore. Except not that joking.

    Aren’t we supposed to end up in World War III and be destroyed by nuclear war before the robots take over anyway? :)

  7. Thomas says:

    Hi Dayna :-)

    I suppose that is one possibility. I prefer to think that our machines will murder us because we’re program them too sloppily, not because we make them too smart.

  8. Thomas says:

    Hi Brian :-)

    That’s a real shitty position to be in, and I agree, our health care industry is seven kinds of messed up.

    The point I’m trying to make, though, is what do we do with the demon succubi? They need jobs, too, and there might not be a whole lot that they’re qualified for. And it sucks when they take up a job that could go to someone who is qualified, but… I’d still rather see both of them employed.

  9. Thomas says:

    Hi Rebecca :-)

    We might not get there any time soon, but I do think we’ll reach “no jobs” (or “almost no jobs”) eventually. IBM is now modeling an entire cat’s brain in software. A human baby is next, I think, and after that… eventually, computers will have all of the reasoning capacity we do.

    But before we get to “no jobs”, we’ll get to “not a whole lot of jobs”. Yes, we still need doctors to make the final diagnosis, or actually treat the disease, but how many doctors do we need? And sure, entertainers are human (for now – there are experiments in machine-generated literature, too), but how many entertainers do we need? And how many people are cut out for it? I think I’m pretty funny, but I can’t earn a living doing this.

  10. Thomas says:

    Hi Joe :-)

    Yep, we’re talking post-scarcity, and I am familiar with the Culture stories. That kind of concept is actually what got me thinking about all of this.

    Right now, we have a very strong Protestant Work Ethic thing going on: a lot of people believe that you don’t deserve the necessities of life unless your contributing to society. In the culture, no one had to contribute to society, because it’s all taken care of. I’m thinking about how to bridge the two. How does a culture deal with the shift to post-scarcity?

    I do think we’ll get there, eventually… but I also think there will be riots in the streets before the haves allow everyone else to become haves, too.

  11. Thomas says:

    Hi Melissa :-)

    A lot of science fiction writers working today set their stuff “ten minutes in the future”, because things are changing so rapidly that you really can’t predict what the world will look like in ten years.

  12. Neil says:

    Hi Thomas,

    I’ve been having conversations along these lines for a while. You’re right to mention the protestant work ethic – one of the problems we have is that in terms of dicussions around employment we seemed trapped in some 1950s-esque fantasy world where good jobs with benefits are there so long as you have the gumption to go and get them. Failure to find employment is amoral failure, and worst of all is to rely on the state for benefits.

    One problem is that politicians generally aren’t great on science and even fewer have much interest in futurology. There are a whole load of technologies coming down the tracks that will have a huge impact – just think about something like 3-d printing as a mature technology. That’s without even getting into robotics and AI and human augmentation of one sort or another.

  13. Thomas says:

    Hi Neil :-)

    Yeah. See Herman Cain’s “if you don’t have a job, don’t blame Wall Street, blame yourself” line. And this guy represents the views of roughly half of America, at least on this subject.

    There’s a lot of genuine meanness in this country. It’s not enough for some people to have a good job / benefits / retirement plan… they demand that other people don’t have these same things. Like the assclowns that applauded when someone suggested letting the uninsured die.

    Stuff like that is why these kinds of things make me nervous. The benefits of modern technology aren’t equally distributed — our employers reap the benefits of increased productivity, but we don’t enjoy more leisure time, for example — because of sentiments like this.

  14. Brian says:

    You pointed out why we likely won’t have to worry about this in the near future: the structural nature of unemployment attached to automation. When things like the tractor, cotton gin and what have you were invented tons of people became unemployed temporarily, but these automatons just moved them to different fields, and up and coming workers were now shifted to other fields as well. But the economy as a whole doesn’t shrink when a new innovation comes along because more jobs are created from an increase in our ability to harness our scarce resources.

    For example, the cotton gin increased the amount of cotton harvested, so farmers could sell more to companies, who could then create more clothing, and thus sell more clothing (until demand stabilized, of course). The money spent from the additional profits may make them open more stores or invest in other opportunities. Either way, no matter what business(es) they invest in, they would create more jobs.

    It’s likely that, short of some insane creation that allows us to create matter and energy ex nihilo ad infinitum, we shouldn’t have to worry about long term unemployment purely because of technological advances. Now with political regimes acting in their best interests (which will always be rather short sighted, seeing as how no one is eligible for reelection forever and doing things to improve the economy short term is easy when you can pass the buck to someone else in four years if your plan crashes later) and artificially altering the way the economy Works for whatever reason, we could be in real trouble. But automation itself doesn’t eliminate jobs so much as change them into something else, and actually create more.

    The software you work on may put people out of work in one sense, but at the very least it created a job for yourself (and likely a team of other software developers, no?) and keeping it updated/creating supplemental software will keep you employed. And if whatever employer you work for (or you yourself if you’re self-employed) is selling the software or decides to sell it, s/he may hire web developers, advertising agencies and actors for TV spots etc. Granted this isn’t strictly job creation, but I don’t know what kind of software we’re talking about.

    And robots may one day be advanced enough do what humans do, but there are still a limited number of (nonrenewable) natural resources that would be used to make robots, so once we peak and have however many robots we can sustain without exhausting natural resources beyond our comfortable living, good old fashioned labor would become more abundant in fields where business owners couldn’t afford robots. In the meantime people can repair robots (or at least repair the robots that repair robots) and still mine for the natural resources used to make robots, program, design, clean and recycle them (or at least do these things for the robots that do these things for other robots).

    Wow, didn’t mean to type that much…. Then again I also didn’t think I’d be talking economics on this site, LOL!

  15. Thomas says:

    Economics is just one of the many areas of interest here at the Galvin Institute for Higher Sarcasm. ;-)

    In the past, everything you’ve said was true. Buggy-whip makers went on to become brake-pad manufacturers, and cotton farmers went on to become textile makers.

    The problem we’re starting to see, though, is that technology isn’t displacing jobs, it’s eliminating them. The job pool is actively contracting. It’s like outsourcing on steroids.

    It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Baring some kind of anti-singularity (like someone setting off an EMP over most of the industrialized world), we will get to a place where manufacturing is so efficient that we become a largely unnecessary overhead.

  16. Brian in Shortsville says:

    TOO synchronous.

    Being the sort of guy who usually has three books going at once, I went to have a morning constitutional this AM, picked up the book that was face down in the loo and read (in part):

    “(W)e originated mass-production, and mass produced everyone out of a job with our boasted laborsaving machinery. It saved labor, the very thing we are now appropriating money to get a job for. They forgot that machinery don’t eat, rent houses or buy clothes.

    We are going through a unique experience. We are the first nation to starve to death in a storehouse that’s overfilled with everything we want.”

    Thomas Galvin, November 2011? Well, yeah, but also;

    Nope.

    Will Rogers, April 28, 1930.

    I’m not sure what I make of that yet.

  17. Thomas says:

    I think there’s a good point there, though he may have been looking a bit farther ahead than he realized. People doing stuff to get stuff is the backbone of our — and any — economy, and we’re kind of circumventing the first half of that.

    This isn’t to say that automation is bad — I’m all for efficiency — just that we have to deal realistically with the consequences.

  18. Neil says:

    I’m not even sure this is really a future problem. Even now we have millions of people that are effectively unemployable. What do you do in a world where unskilled labour is out competed by a machine or a guy in China, but you live in a country where you are expected to have a job and everything is costed with that expectation.

    Western governments have been “managing” this problem for a while. Over here in the UK back in the 80s Thatcher’s government massaged the unemployment figures by putting many long term unemployed on something called incapacity benefit – which was for those deemed incapable of working and signed off by a doctor. It was enough to live on (just about) with other benefits added in. Currently there are around 1.6 million on this benefit. Our government is over hauling this benefit at the moment and reviewing every last person on it, with many having it withdrawn and forced back onto the job market. I find it difficult to argue that those capable of work should be allowed not to at the state’s largesse but some of these people have been out of work for 20+ years and are being dumped back into a ferocious job market. Many are completely unemployable, often with genuine health issues – sure, you reduce the welfare bill but you now have 1 million+ more long term unemployed.

    Solutions are difficult and I don’t think our politics and economics are at the point where they can deal with a future where a smaller number of us are genuine wealth creators and the rest of us are employed or supported in other activities. As Herman Cain illustrates too many resent perceived handouts or idleness.

  19. Zoe says:

    That is a good theory, and one that is so far the path the developed world is going down. However, it assumes that everything else stays the same and doesn’t take into account the effects of climate change, depletion of the natural resources used to advance technology, the unforeseen consequences and cultural shaping of our world due to unpredicted events/ natural disasters/ wars/ other stuff we just don’t know about yet unless one is psychic, etc.

    Increased automation is definitely something to be concerned about in the near future, but in the long-term, we can’t be 100% sure what’s going to happen with technology.

    Or, alternatively, Skynet.

  20. Thomas says:

    Neil:

    Yeah, the low-skill jobs were/are the first to be hit. But it’s starting to creep into the middle class, and I think more people are going to take notice now.

  21. Thomas says:

    Zoe:

    I would argue that depletion of natural resources will make automation – and the efficiency that goes with it – even more important.