“A half century from now, our grandchildren are likely to look back at the era of mass employment in the market with the same sense of utter disbelief as we look upon slavery and serfdom in former times. The very idea that a human being’s worth was measured almost exclusively by his or her productive output of goods and services and material wealth will seem primitive, even barbaric, and be regarded as a terrible loss of human value to our progeny living in a highly automated world."
-Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society
What do volunteer workers, recreational athletes and most fan artists have in common?
No one pays them for their work.
They work because they want to. They work as much as they want to -- and they do plenty of it. For example, Americans volunteered 7.7 billion hours and did $173 billion worth of work in 2013 without expecting compensation. That is something to keep in mind while discussing what people will do in a world where a decreasing percentage of the population works for pay.
As explained in part one and part two of this series, technology will increasingly displace more American jobs than it creates in the next few decades and into the future. This is also likely to happen in other industrialized nations at around the same time and later in developing nations as technology is distributed globally.
It would be very easy to label this as a negative development. After all, Hollywood has taught us to fear the influence of robots on society with films such as the "Terminator" series, the "Matrix" series, "I, Robot" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." In a more general sense, though, the upcoming situation is unprecedented. Just about every human in history has had to spend the majority of time working either for compensation or to produce necessities in order to survive. Due to this fact, the idea that a person's worth is dependent on how much he or she works has become ingrained in our minds. We think that any able-bodied adult has two options: work or die.
The alternative, that any fully capable person can have worth and dignity without working for compensation or directly producing their own necessities, is counterintuitive and frightening to us because it contradicts what we have been taught. Still, "work or die" will become increasingly problematic in the near future, when someone's inability to get a job has less to do with work ethic and more to do with the fact that a machine can do that same work better and faster for less money.
Another reason that the "work or die" mentality is problematic is that it prevents us from seeing the potential benefits of increasing automation, given that we adapt properly. If we do nothing, then the problems will outweigh the benefits. Automation will make jobs -- especially entry-level and low-paying jobs -- increasingly difficult to acquire, leading to a higher unemployment rate. Unemployment benefits are based on a person's last job (the benefits are equal to around 40-50% of previous pay), which is a problem if an increasing amount of the population has a previous pay rate of $0.00 per hour. Social Security has the same problem: it pays out benefits based entirely on the individual's previous work. The Supplemental Security Income program does provide benefits to people without requiring them to work for it, although these people have to be disabled, blind or elderly.
Current U.S. economic policies would force the increasing number of unemployable people into poverty because technology will increasingly reduce job openings. We command them to work or die, and they cannot work.
One proposed plan to adapt is to establish a "Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI)," also known as "Basic Income Guarantee (BIG)," for every American. In other words, unemployment benefits would not be determined by previous pay, but by a pay rate similar to (yet much lower than) the minimum wage. A GMI would solve the problem by allowing the rising number of unemployable Americans to survive without working. It would preserve the economy and society by keeping the consumers and the workers, even as those two groups overlap less over time.
Unfortunately, the money for a GMI plan would most likely have to come from higher taxes on large businesses. However, automation will allow those corporations to slash their spending on worker compensation. On average, 20-50% of a business's operating expenses are the workers' salaries. Since the minimum wage for a machine is $0.00, equal to its minimum worker benefits, businesses will increasingly be able to lower their operating expenses by automating those workers' jobs. Ideally, the GMI will start low and rise alongside the level of automation in the workforce in order to prevent businesses from suffering under the new taxes. As the businesses pay less for their workers, they pay more in taxes, causing a net-zero effect.
With those details established, let us move on to future predictions. Some people have suggested that after we reach a certain point where automation can provide for all of human needs, money will no longer be necessary. This view claims that a currency system is only required when the resources people need are scarce, and that once resources are abundant, we can transition to a "post-scarcity economy." The world of "Star Trek" is set in such an economy, as described by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: First Contact:"
While "Star Trek"'s replicators that can create almost any object instantaneously -- or some other technology that could officially move us to a post-scarcity system -- are a long way off, Picard's statement that people are no longer driven by the desire for wealth could very well apply within 50 years (or however long it takes to implement the guaranteed minimum income). The implications of this are revolutionary.
At first, the majority of people will want to keep their jobs for as long as possible, since the GMI will barely be able to pay for living expenses when it is initiated. Also, it is likely that the "work or die" mentality was drilled into their head by our culture since they were born, so they will be afraid of the stigma of unemployment. However, this will change over time. People who have been held back from pursuing their passions because their dreams are "impractical" will finally be free to do what they want with their lives.
For the first time in history, the average person will be able to do what they want with his or her life without worrying about survival. We will no longer be held down like all of the other animals, forced to think only of where we find our next meal. We will be free.
There will be no starving artists or creative geniuses whose situation crushed their potential. Not anymore. The J.K. Rowlings of the future will never be driven nearly to suicide by their inability to provide for their children while creating a cornerstone of modern culture. Since people may be more likely to buy a work of art because it was made by a human than to buy financial services because they were done by a human, a parent might tell their child in the future to major in art or another of the humanities rather than business in college because it is more practical.
And no, people of the future will not become fat and lazy as they were portrayed in "WALL-E." Contrary to popular belief, American exercise rates (aerobic and muscle-strengthening) have been steadily rising since 1998. Even if people do not use their newly available free time to exercise, which they probably will, they can just pop an exercise pill. Yes, you read that correctly: scientists are working on an exercise pill that could reproduce the major biological benefits of exercise. They have said that it would be "at least a decade" before the pill is commercially available, but a decade is nothing in a discussion on the future of humanity.
In the next 50 years or so, I would predict that more people will watch and participate in popular sports, especially since so many children and teens have wanted to become professional athletes only to learn that their dreams were unrealistic. I also predict a significant increase in the popularity of virtual media such as video games and television shows, and in the popularity of their respective fanbases. These fanbases could become the source of a large percentage of the artistic content of their generation. For instance, did you know that the longest piece of literature in the English language to date is a Super Smash Brothers fanfiction?
Still, these predictions are based on personal observation rather than statistics. Your guess is as good as mine in that regard. Only time will tell. For now, though, we can sit back and watch as our species finally breaks out of the prison in which it was born. We can be proud of the endless work by inventors and innovators of the past who have endlessly toiled to build the foundations for a free future. We could live to see a generation that surpasses all of its predecessors by automating the workforce.
For more information, check out the following resources:
The New York Times, "Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All"
The Atlantic, "The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income"
The Meaning of Life, "Aristotle, Robots, and a New Economic System"
PBS Idea Channel, "Will Minecraft and Makerbot Usher in the Post-Scarcity Economy?"