The Future of Work

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One of the benefits of writing science fiction is entertaining ideas. In order to feed ideas, I have to research and cultivate and extrapolate… and sometimes what I conclude scares the hell out of me. Not necessarily because of an imminent and impending danger, but because of the blinders both government and the public-in-general wear.
We all wear blinders, right? I mean, whether we can’t see that the dog is a pain in the ass or that our sweet baby has grown into a manipulative brat or that supporting an ideology isn’t going to solve anything, we all turn our heads away and continue living as though everything will come out all right. We all do it.
What is wrong with that is so often we could have avoided a lot of pain and expense if we had just removed the rose-colored glasses… early.
We’re doing it again. This is your early warning system alarm going off. Hear it?
We just had a president elected, running largely on a platform of bringing jobs back. Just what does that mean? Do you think that coal mines and drilling for oil will suddenly increase in a world of solar power and growing numbers of electric cars and public transport? Does it mean that these new industries will hire enough people to make up for the workers displaced by outdated and diminishing technologies? Are you thinking that somewhere in China or Mexico or Pakistan there is a guy that just hung up a going-out-of-business sign on a factory, and all those jobs are suddenly going to be flooding back to the United States? And what about all those degrees coming out of those hallowed halls of higher learning? They’ll all get good paying jobs, right?
Please… get a grip.
Truth is, we are living the last days of a gilded age. Unless significant realities get recognized and attended to, the proverbial chit will soon hit the fan. What do I mean?
The majority of children born today may not ever have a job. At least not as we presently perceive employment. The statistics bear me out. Manufacturing will almost exclusively be done by machines in the very near future. Even those cheap little kids in Indonesia will soon be replaced by mechanical devices that will build a better product for less money. The economic realities insist on mass production going to robotics.
This is where you start to defend your own ideas about what the reality is. About how in this coming age of enlightenment and ease, people will be freed to pursue their desires, educating themselves and being released from the burden of physical labor to pursue their dreams.
Sure, that will happen. About as likely as your kid growing up to be the next sports phenom or reality star.
Or maybe you think that lifting the burdens of work will allow everyone to paint and dance and play music? Well, sure… as long as they have enough to eat, right?
Who is gonna pay for all this leisure time we are all going to enjoy? Where do you get the money to purchase all these products robots are going to make? Where does food come from if no one is buying your paintings, or everyone is dancing, or music is free? Do the robot owners just give their products away?
I recently saw a demonstration where a robot cooked a gourmet meal. I’d like to know what human chef will be able to compete with a mechanical kitchen helper that can place a hundred thousand perfect dishes on the table? You think music and art are safe?
I suppose engineers will always be employed, right? Not so sure about that. Fruit pickers? Probably not. Geriatric nurses? Perhaps, but surgeons not so much. It seems the only field sure to grow is shuffling papers in our over-regulated “paperless” society.
Remember how computers were supposed to cut down on the use of paper? The laws of unintended consequences made a farce of that. And those same laws will run rampant in the job market of the future.
Artificial Intelligence, some use the term “singularity” for the ultimate manifestation of it, is just around the corner… or not. Giant strides have been made, yet the promising advances often reveal the goalposts have receded. But with each advance, the capabilities of synthetic human labor replacements grows. Those advancements become part of the next generation of machines, those that are replacing us.
The conundrum that always stumps me is how people will make money. I just don’t get how a population of privileged, highly advanced, intelligent citizens will feed, clothe, and entertain themselves if they aren’t employed and getting a pay check.
There has been talk about a future “national wage.” Can you imagine the screaming over that one? I mean, just exactly who is going to pay for that? Surely the diminishing numbers of employed will not be asked to shoulder a growing burden as their own jobs become threatened. Who does that leave? Well, the people who own the technology, right? When have you ever seen a person making enormous profit volunteer to fund people with nothing to do, no investment in the infrastructure that supports them, and no sweat equity?
If we think the government should solve the advancing problem, you might want to rethink that. Our human history is replete with examples where governments waited until it was too late before they made any efforts to assuage an impending calamity. It seems the slower the problem creeps toward catastrophe, the less quickly humans recognize dangers.
I have one thought regarding solutions. Mechanical devices have and will continue to replace humans, just as machines have largely replaced horses. Human labor will become obsolete just as horses are no longer necessary for labor. We humans invented a term to measure the energy of equine labor being replaced.  That term and measurement is “horsepower.” Unlike horses, we can’t survive on grass, so we require a medium of exchange. At some point the steel, hydraulics, and electrical technologies replacing us should be evaluated in terms of how much human effort they replace. A unit of energy we could call “manpower” except that it would probably not be politically correct. Regardless of what our energy unit is called, it should be taxed to fund the wages of those it replaces. The sooner we begin, the better the outcome.
Can you imagine the load off younger people if they had some assistance with funding social security and knew they would be supported as jobs became more difficult to find? Perhaps they might feel some relief if their last-ditch struggles in higher education were paid for instead of accumulating massive debt.
People will scream. People will rant. People will claim they are maligned. But the alternative will be a society falling apart and the consequences that attend those kinds of events. I suggest we begin by recognizing a looming problem.

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1 thought on “The Future of Work

  1. I suspect people will still dream and have ambition to build power and control. We ask questions and have interests in different subjects. The owners-rich will have the ability to enlist others to pursue their ideas as the rest of us become their work/slaves and have to share their dreams rather than our own. Musk for example.

    Lisa

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