Utopia, Dystopia and the Future of Work

March 29th, 2014
in Op Ed

by Dan Kervick, New Economic Perspectives
Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the pace of automation and the impact of technology on the future of work. Many purport to see the dawning of a new robot future in which many, perhaps most, of today’s jobs will be performed by machines.

Follow up:

This line of thought tends to spin off into one of two alternative directions, one bright and one dark: The brighter view is a kind of techno-utopianism that looks forward to a future in which formal human employment has become less important to our society, and in which we will all enjoy lives of fulsome leisure based on an equitable sharing of our robot-manufactured abundance. The darker outlook is a species of techno-dystopianism driven by fear of mass unemployment and the growth of a burgeoning and struggling underclass of unemployed former workers, displaced and excluded from the economic mainstream of their societies, and surviving on whatever handouts and pittances the economy’s owners are willing to give them to keep them docile.

Both of these contrasting visions of our robot future, however, share the idea that automation will lead to an overall reduction of formal human employment. While I suppose both futures are possible, we might ask why this shared vision has become so popular. After all, modern economies in the technologically developed world have seen tremendous growth in both wealth and productivity in recent centuries, but have generally managed to create many new forms of employment to replace the older forms as they were reduced, or as they disappeared altogether. Why shouldn’t this process continue indefinitely?

In the past, new jobs have sometimes been created by technological innovation when human beings were needed to superintend the mechanized non-human work that the new technologies made possible. Somebody has to run and supervise the new machines, after all, and organize the operations that employ them. When technological innovation enables us to make some product more efficiently, one thing that can happen is that we then want a lot more of that good, as what was once a luxury becomes a staple of everyday life. So even though fewer people are required for the production of each unit of the good, we end up producing many more units and thus employing just as many people in its production. We work as much as before, but are richer and more productive.

But some now reason that the present era is different; that modern humanity has already picked most of the low-hanging fruit of industrial and technological development; and that we are at long last running out of new, high value things to do. We are also running out of the most easily obtainable industrial inputs and energy resources that we need in order to grow, and what is left can only be extracted from the Earth at a higher cost than previously. Future development, then, might increasingly consist in the more efficient production of the economic goods we already enjoy, rather than in the production of new goods. And since we already possess great affluence, we may find less demand for the production of more of those goods than was the case in the past. Some argue that we should learn to say “enough!” and embrace this new world of slower growth and declining overall employment, by taking an increasing share of our future productivity gains in the form of leisure.

I’m in no position to predict our long term future. But I do think we should take note of an important phenomenon that is often left out of these discussions, and a source of job creation that might lead to the addition of many more jobs than just those on which the heralds of the new leisure are reckoning.

Let us first imagine some surge in technological innovation has the initial effect the utopians imagine, and that our society suddenly finds itself with much more leisure than it had before, leisure which is spread around in a roughly even way. Suppose employed people are working, on average, only 20 or 30 hours a week, rather than their previously wonted 40 or 50. What do people do with their new leisure time? Well let’s imagine a single small community that begins to dedicate more time to the performing arts and their appreciation. One half of the community begins reading and performing plays, and the other half begins playing a lot of music. The people who perform the plays enjoy the whole process of preparing, rehearsing and performing them, and the other half of the community enjoys watching the plays performed by the first group. Similarly, the people who perform the music enjoy everything about composing, rehearsing and performing music, while the others enjoy listening to that music. We can see a certain kind of exchange at work here; but so far it is informal, with the new benefits gratuitously provided and unencumbered by precise requirements or enforced contracts. At this point, neither performing plays nor performing music is anybody’s job. Nor is anybody a market consumer of the plays or music.

Suppose also that there is a second community that is just like the first community: one half puts on plays for the other half, and that latter half makes music for the first half. But now suppose the people in both communities notice something: the plays produced by the players in the first community are generally better than those produced by the players in the second community; and the music produced by the musicians in the second community is generally better than the music produced by the musicians in the first community. As a result the people in both communities begin to gravitate toward the first group of players for their play-going, and they gravitate toward the second group of musicians for their concert-going. Since there is now some travel involved from community to community, there is a tendency toward more precise scheduling and somewhat more formal communication about times and programs.

Now add more communities into the mix, with an expanded variety of arts and entertainments, including such things as educational lectures and diverting sporting spectacles. We can see where this is going. As the practice and enjoyment of these arts becomes more integrated and distributed among the various communities, the need for tighter scheduling arises. Also, given the higher resource and time costs involved in the expanded travel and production, the performers from these communities are somewhat less willing than before to perform for one another on an informal tit-for-tat basis, but begin to require more formal contractual arrangements. And rather than bartering performance for performance, money will likely become involved so that these performances become fully integrated into the entire background system of discretionary market exchange. Activities that were once leisure activities have now become jobs.

On reflection, it is obvious how important this kind of process has been in the past in turning informal sharing and gifting into more formal economic arrangements. We use our leisure, the time during which we are not working in the formal economy, to do things we enjoy and find valuable, sometimes creatively expanding our repertoire of skilled activities. Many of these activities are not solitary pursuits, but are cooperative or participatory group endeavors. And over time, some of the more desirable activities become rationalized and organized in more formal and efficient systems, and are eventually integrated into the formal economy. Think about how many widely performed activities making up our modern economic lives were once unavailable to people struggling with more demanding economic circumstances, or were available only to a very small leisured few. There are now large economic sectors consisting of professional actors, musicians, painters, athletes, toy-makers, educators and restaurateurs, and a massive infrastructure of venues and marketing channels for the consumption and enjoyment of these arts. Many of these delights could not exist, or at least not exist in their present abundance, in a more primitive economic system in which people need to work harder and longer than they do now just to provide themselves with the rudiments of life. Improvements in productivity are continually creating more leisure, but that leisure is continually creating new kinds of formal employment. It is a cyclic process of social and economic development.

So it seems to me that it is at least possible that our future, even granting that it is one in which many of our current economic operations have been efficiently automated, will contain just as much formal employment per capita as it does now. No one can say for sure. But in the meantime, there are other worries about the techno-utopian vision worth brooding upon. Whatever might be the case for our long term future, right now there are many people who are poor, or who certainly do not have what they regard as enough. Also, the world as it stands is in need of major structural transformations in the ways we generate energy, transport ourselves from place to place, educate ourselves, care for our planet and preserve its beauty, and organize our habitations, our politics and our communities. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. By indulging the techno-utopian vision, we may prematurely accept a new normal of stagnation, unrelieved misery, degradation of the environment, social decay and a general failure to live up to our full potential and achieve our highest dreams. We might also grow complacently comfortable with a world in which many people are unemployed or underemployed, and in which the fruits of our economic civilization are not shared in anything close to an equal fashion.

We should not fall prey to the notion that the challenges of the allocation of work and income can be met entirely through safety net programs that create a barely tolerable floor through which people cannot fall. People who are not working will generally have less wealth, less political power and influence, and fewer social and political connections. They are politically weak, and the politically stronger use their strength to make the weak even weaker over time. And when people are not employed, their skills and level of social participation may decline. Their sense of pride and dignity can be eroded as well due to their consciousness of their dependence on others, and due to their limited opportunities for making highly rewarded contributions and earning social esteem. Welfare programs are unlikely to deliver to the underemployed anything approaching the riches that the owners of the means of production reserve for themselves. So the seductions of an imagined but unachieved utopia of abundance and leisure could lead to a highly undemocratic and stratified dystopia of neo-feudal hierarchy, organized around a system of degrading human management of alienated and powerless masses. Perhaps we already have something like that system in place.

As we move forward into whatever future we decide to build, I think we should be guided by a few simple principles. Our societies should be based on ideals of cooperation, democratic participation, solidarity and reciprocity. There will always be some work to be done, and whatever total amount of work we decide as a society to do, that work burden should be shared as equally as is practically possible. And if we do move toward a form of life which contains a greater aggregate proportion of leisure than we enjoy now, that leisure should also be divided as equally as is practically possible, along with all of the other economic fruits of our common life together.

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