I had sufficient amounts of leisure time yesterday to read Derek Thompson’s long read in the Atlantic about “A World Without Work” — which I suppose helps to partially validate Thompson’s hypothesis. The article suggests that John Maynard Keynes’s prediction made in 1930 that in the span of a century, “the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years.”
Keynes elaborated on the effect this could have:
It is startling because — if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past — we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race-not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms.
Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature-with all our impulses and deepest instincts-for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.
Which brings us to Thompson’s essay, which is not quite as sanguine:
What may be looming is something different: an era of technological unemployment, in which computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work, and the total number of jobs declines steadily and permanently….
What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.
Thompson goes on to sketch three response strategies to these kinds of shifts — expanding consumption, communal creativity and contingent work arrangements.
Thompson quotes serious economists like Lawrence Katz and Larry Summers offering validity to the combined effects of automation and the sharing economy on the traditional employment paradigm. The essay is definitely worth a close read.
That said, the political economy person in me keeps mulling over the following three questions:
1. What happens to the distribution of benefits? As Thompson notes, it’s becoming much cheaper to make things. But this doesn’t mean that consumers won’t have to pay for them. And if the employment paradigm breaks down, where does the income come from? The sharing economy, for example, increases the rewards to owners of capital — exacerbating an ongoing trend toward rewarding owners of capital over labor. Thompson references “post-wage arrangements” and “universal basic income,” but these kinds of public policies require things like, you know, political support. And I can see upending the custom of “work-for-income” as politically problematic. So we wind up win a world posited by the likes of Marx and Mill — one in which the science of production has been settled, but the distribution of consumption has not.
2. What does the international relations of a world without work look like? Thompson writes about the United States — or the developed world -— like it’s hermetically sealed. But I’m betting that a “world without work” paradigm would have calamitous effects on emerging markets. Would increasing gaps in affluence between post-work and ongoing-work societies play out in the form of violent conflict? And if it did, would post-work societies rely on autonomous weapons to defend themselves against the have-nots of the developing world? And how would that work out for everyone?
3. What would the reactionary political movement to a world without work look like? It’s worth remembering that this should all be good news. Scarcity is easing as a problem, people can find their social purpose in non-economic pursuits, and so forth. But the bias in Thompson’s article is that the post-work generation embraces artisan crafts as the New New Thing. I can think of a lot of darker ideologies that this kind of creative destruction can foster — particularly if income inequality persists. Which is why I can’t shake the feeling that, as happy as we should be about this possibility, it’s far from an unalloyed good.