The future of work

Those who like what they are doing, would presumably still do it even if others got money for nothing. But within limits, I suspect.

I recently read a short, but interesting essay titled “Jobs Are Bad, M’kay?“. In this, the Young genius argues that people should work only if they produce Stuff (which of course includes services) that cannot be produced better without human labor.

This is eminently logical, and true from a materialist point of view. It ignores the fact that work is a form of love, but then again it is common today to think of love as a very private thing, so this is understandable.  But even without a spiritual perspective, I think his conclusions are very worrying. Not so much wrong as sinister.

A Swedish study a few years ago concluded that approximately a quarter of the population would not be employable in the information society. The numbers are probably higher here in Norway, since salaries are higher than in Sweden; in the USA the numbers may be lower now. But the really disturbing part is that the proportion  is going to change for the worse, and fast.

The children who are born today will not be in the workforce until 20 years from now, at best.  In that time, the performance of computers will increase literally a hundredfold, if Moore’s Law holds up, as it has for the past few decades.

When I was little, manual labor was still common in the countryside. These newfangled digging machines were just starting to take over the digging of trenches, but there was still plenty of other hard work to do.

When I was 20 and had just begun in my first job, we had a whole crowd of former housewives who were sorting documents, putting them in folders in the archive, and retrieving them. I also did my share of this, for it was an entry-level job.

Twenty years later this was gone. All the sorting was done by computers. We did not get woman-shaped robots running to and from the archives, but the housewives were replaced even so. The future comes while we look another way.

That was ten years ago. At the time, speech recognition (as in dictating to a computer or giving it orders with your voice) was expensive, unreliable and really only an option if you could not move your arms and legs. This year, there was a question on the NaNoWriMo forum whether such software was considered cheating, since it was so much faster than typing.

What will you teach your child, that a robot will not be able to do 20 years from now?

When the time comes when only 25% of us are employable, as opposed to 75%, what will we do? Logically speaking, as the Cerebrate points out, there will be more stuff to each of us if we just pay them to stay home rather than building offices or workshops for them to pretend working in. But how will they feel about that? How will those who CAN work feel about that?

For me, work is an act of love. If I can do a job that is actually needed, I will do it even if I get paid the same for staying at home writing novels. (At least unless my novels get better than they are now!) But I don’t think most people look at it that way.  I think they will demand more and more money for going to work at all, knowing that half of their income goes to people who can sleep in and then enjoy a leisurely lunch in their PJs.

And the more you pay the people who actually do work, the greater the incentive to develop robots that can replace them. It is a spiral without an end. Or rather, it seems likely that it will all come tumbling down before we reach the logical endpoint.

The only solution, in my view, is to change from a civilization based on maximizing Stuff to a civilization based on maximizing Happiness. Because numerous studies show that once the median income of a nation go much above $10 000 a year (in the exchange rate of  around year 2000), happiness does not continue to climb with increasing income. In some case, notably the USA, the happiness actually becomes less over time. (In Europe, happiness is still increasing, but very slowly, and this rise may be because of gradual dismantling of old national monopolies and thus increased freedom rather than increased money.)

A huge amount of the stuff you people buy is used to impress your neighbors. If we had a happiness-centered civilization, you would not need to do that. And because the greatest source of happiness is to give happiness to others, everyone would “work” in the sense that they would try to do something for others, no matter how small and simple. And for the directly productive minority, it would be much easier for them to share their Stuff with people who were trying to do some good, even if they were not very good at it, rather than with people who just sit on their ever growing backside and demand more Stuff.

That is what I think, but at least I think at all. How about you?