What if you never had to work again? What would you do? What if no one ever had to work again? What would society be like?
While it may sound absurd, we are quickly approaching a time when all jobs will be obsolete. Today, 8 of the top 10 occupations in the USA are already being addressed by robots and AI, and it’s just getting started. The change won’t happen in our lifetimes or our children's, but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be (un)lucky enough to be born into a jobless society.
In the short-term, having robots and AI pick up some of the slack doesn’t look like a transformative event. Productivity increases, lifting GDP, and creating new jobs. In fact, many studies have shown that as more robots enter a workforce, the number of jobs actually increases. If technology were to follow a linear path, we would expect to see more and more jobs created as more robots enter the workforce. Technology gains are not, however, linear. We are about to enter the “knee-bend” of the curve where we see technology making greater and greater exponential gains. What was once a rising tide lifting all boats will quickly turn into a tsunami erasing everything in its path.
How will society adjust to a new norm, where people are no longer required for labor? Can humanity survive such a change? You might think that there are no other parallels in history that we can draw on, but there are two previous major changes that shed light on the possibilities of life after jobs.
The first is the transition from nomadic to settled life. Looking at what happened when desert nomads were able to settle down offers incredible insight into our current situation. When we were nomads, life was all about surviving. There was little time for anything else. We had to constantly move to where the food, water, and weather permitted us to live. With the advent of farming, people no longer had to constantly focus on surviving. What happened? Religion, culture, academia, and society flourished. Since we were able to spend less time and energy worrying about surviving, we could develop these new hobbies. Life became better, richer, and fuller when we had more time for ourselves.
For a more recent example, we can look to the Industrial Revolution (which ironically people use as an example of why robots won’t take over all the jobs but I digress…) The Industrial Revolution did more than piss off a few Luddites - it helped invent the phenomenon known as the “Teenager.” Before the Industrial Revolution, there were two types of people - children and adults. Both were put to work, just in different capacities. However, as machines helped shoulder some of the workload, there was less of a demand for cheap child labor. Instead of spending all their time in the factories, children were able to spend more time in school. Add in the automobile for greater independence (cars have always been entwined with teenagers) and a new type of person was born.
True freedom isn’t only being able to do what you want - it’s being able to not do anything. It is very hard to imagine a free future where capitalism reigns and no one has jobs. A handful of people and companies would control all of the robots, leaving the rest of us to fight over whatever scraps they throw our way. We would all become beggars, living at the whim of the awfully powerful. This is the path we’re currently on, and it portends a dystopian future as bad as any sci-fi writer could imagine.
However, our path is not set in stone. We can adjust to the complete loss of jobs. If we can adapt to the total economic, political, and social turmoil that will come from erasing the most basic cornerstone of modern-day society, we will be greatly rewarded with absolute freedom. What will we do with all that idle time? We’ll do what we’ve done any other time in history when we find ourselves with more freedom - explore the human condition. Explore religion. Art. Philosophy. Science. Happiness. Sex. We can be pioneers in deep space, or pioneers going deep into our minds.
There will no doubt be new questions of how to divide scarce resources, but with the richest 8 people in the world already controlling as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion, it’s hard to argue that our current system is working well. Our society will be able to adjust to a new extreme, since we are already living in an extremely uneven one now.