The Robot Economy’s Less Obvious Dangers
We live in an age of job insecurity. If it wasn’t enough to be worried about being ‘restructured’ or outsourced, the recent surge in press about the robot workforce of the future gives us another reason to toss and turn at night.
“You’d better be nice to the robots”
The chatter about how many of us will be replaced by robots in the coming years has reached fever pitch of late. Some of it is rehashed fear-mongering (“Just look at what happened to the travel agents!”), but others raise provocative points about what the future of work will look like. Recent studies and analyses indicate that automation has the potential to make 45% - 70% of today’s jobs obsolete in the coming decades, and that a key competency for the employee of the future may be the ability to work alongside collaborative robots.
The recent protests by U.S. fast-food workers for higher wages has provoked responses and analysis that on one hand concede the minimum wage is worth less than ¾ of its peak value when inflation is taken into account, but then go on to point out that these jobs will likely be done by robots soon anyway, so…meh. But robots won’t be content with asking whether you want fries with that- they’ll also be taking many jobs that we consider to be highly skilled. Aside from the pressing individual concerns that the robot economy provokes (“How will I afford to feed my family?”), it raises larger societal concerns too: “How does the world work…without work?”. We need look no further than many of the nations on our doorstep to see the chaos that large-scale unemployment can foist upon a society.
I’ve written before about the utopian and dystopian views that humans typically take of the future of work, and technology’s role in it. In our most fearful visions we are approaching, or have surpassed ‘Peak Jobs’ (the point at which technology begins to destroy jobs faster than it creates them). This view rejects the ‘Luddite Fallacy’, an economic postulate that asserts that technology will never lead to long-term, structural unemployment, because innovation changes the rules and often opens avenues for commerce and employment that previously could not have existed or been imagined. Essentially, the Luddite Fallacy argues that the automation of jobs forces us to think of new and creative ways to remain employed.
A fascinating viewpoint that aligns well with the Luddite Fallacy comes from David Graeber, a professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, in a recent article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Graeber observes that as recently as the 1930’s it was thought that technology would free us to work 15 hours a week and pursue utopian lives of leisure. We all know that never happened, but why? Graeber acknowledges that prevailing wisdom has ascribed this to the rise in consumption, but disputes this notion and offers an alternative theory:
“…rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”
Graeber certainly does not see the proliferation of these jobs as a good thing. He argues that it represents a means by which power structures that marginalize productive workers and favour executives and the financial elite are reinforced. He sees the rise of bullshit jobs to be a moral issue concerning the dignity of labour and social control.
The Uncertain Future
Why is this important? Well on one hand, like the Luddite Fallacy, it suggests (however depressingly), that we are in less danger of running out of jobs than current commentary might suggest. The capacity of humans to invent ways to earn a living is vast. Pet estheticians, bloggers, IKEA-furniture assemblers, UX designers – all of these are jobs that we couldn’t have foreseen a few decades ago. And the future likely holds many jobs we can barely conceive of now. Our grandchildren may become alternative reality architects, weather coordinators, asteroid miners, or maybe even pizza delivery drone technicians. But Graeber’s post raises deeply important questions. The first of these is the degree to which increased automation, and our response to it, will further contribute to the growing inequality between ‘low-skilled’ labour and highly skilled workers. Those striking U.S. fast food workers are no longer teenagers earning spending money. They are under-educated adults, the long-term unemployed with few other options, single parents with two other jobs, elderly workers who can’t afford to retire. When robots take their jobs, what will they do instead? Transferable skills and the flexibility to redirect one’s career are luxuries these workers will not have.
The second concern Graeber should awaken us to is the nature of the work we create for ourselves when our old jobs are taken by robots. All work is not good work, and though our ingenuity might produce new jobs to allow us to tip our dog’s manicurist and pay for take-out sushi, shouldn’t we all continue to aspire to more than toiling at meaningless, and in some cases morally bankrupt, roles simply because someone will pay us to? I’m not of the opinion that we should each be entitled to pursue our life’s passion and be paid for it, but as these new roles, professions and careers emerge, collectively we yield a certain amount of influence over their essence and quality. Whether we seek to exploit new cracks in the economic system (akin to today’s Big Agriculture patent lawyers, perhaps) or create work that actually brings value to our societies is a choice that we may each have a tiny ability to impact. That is a responsibility and privilege we should take incredibly seriously. If the robots are coming, what will you do?
Photo credit – Antonis Lamnatos (Flickr.com/ Creative Commons) (Robot Army)