Will a Robot Replace You?

When you commit yourself to researching the future of the political-economy as I have, you will come across a great deal of literature that describes an impending job market bust that will be permanent and irreparable. The implosion will come as automation overtakes nearly all aspects of the supply chain and in every sector of the economy. This naturally leads me to ask: when, in history, has technological innovation left workers permanently unemployed?

Technology has definitely caused historic upheavals in the job market. The 1930s serve as a somewhat recent severe example, and half-jokes about how robots will all take our jobs someday were common back then as they are now. The 1930s actually had plenty in common with the 2010s: despite the loss of disposable income, consumer products like telephones and automobiles became omnipresent while a rising generation forged its identity. Then, it was Greatest Generation, now it’s the Millennials. Needless to say, the robot revolution did not happen, though one could argue that a robot evolution has been occurring since the dawn of the industrial revolution, it stands that the unemployment rate since the Great Depression has bounced around, reaching levels as low as 4%.

Silicon Valley sage Jaron Lanier holds that this time, the job bust will be for real. Even more apocalyptic-minded are Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age. I think that the current economic downturn has everything to do with technology, but I cannot commit to the idea of it being permanent.

I have no empirical evidence to support this feeling, but here’s why I think I’m right: most people most of the time will find a way to make it. To believe that automation will permanently displace workers is to believe that every human was born to do one thing; to serve a single purpose like a cog in a machine (pardon the cliché). It is to believe that a human can let an automaton rob him of his pride. It is to view all workmanship as products that can be substituted, and that human ingenuity, innovation, and even productivity are nonexistent except as talents possessed by an extreme minority.

Now that I’ve made my views on the possibility of large-scale permanent unemployment clear, let me drop the bomb. Major and permanent job displacement due to technology is actually possible under one condition: a welfare state. Shocker? If an entire portion of the population is provided income and a basic standard of living while being unemployed, that portion will grow steadily forever as the life of a worker continues to be only slightly better than the life of an unemployed person.

So maybe the doomsayers are correct: if we keep redistributing income to unemployed people, technology will replace them all. What would that society look like? One class the lazy majority, another wealthy owners? Who’s the slave in that scenario?