This article makes an attempt to understand and predict the consequences of the rapid automation/computerization in the realm of human work. I make them based on my experiences as a software engineer, while I am fully aware that programming is not threatened to be eradicated by automation in the next decades. For that reason, I realize that I am holding a privileged position.
In the second part of the article, I argue why work in general should be voluntary within a welfare state and why the governments main task should be to create a situation where humans dont' have to work in order to obtain the bare essentials such as housing, food and healthcare.
What is work?
So what exactly is work? Work is something that sucks, right? After all, if I could spend my time without having to worry about finances, I'd rather spend my days at a tropic beach drinking some beers and doing exactly nothing.
But for how long? When would my natural urge to be productive kick in? I assume that after a couple of days, I would start a project that consumes my time. But since I don't have to worry about it's financial merits, can it really considered to be work?
My attempt to define work is the following:
- Work pays the bills.
- Work is something that produces value for the recipient of effort.
- The amount of money that work generates usually correlates with the amount of value it produces.
What if some people stop producing value?
One of the fundamental issues of our modern times is the fact that our society becomes more complex each passing day. It's practically impossible to grasp even narrow professional fields in its entirety. People in their professions are usually extremely specialized.
Navigating successfully within a certain industry requires years of education and training. In the next decades, there will be an enormous demand for this workforce. But there is only a certain percentage in the population that has the
- Motivation, discipline and interest
- Required cognitive ability and health
- Stable socio-economic background
to become a highly sought-after specialist. For some percentage of the population, those jobs will be unattainable. I don't know how high this percentage is, but I assume it's between 20% to 70% of a given countries population and therefore significant.
Right now, this is not such a huge problem, because there is still enough labour that doesn't require specialized skill. However, what happens when employees in fast food chains go out of labour, because McDonald's decides to fully automate their restaurants?.
What happens when the whole retail sector, which still amounts to one of the most prevalent job sources in industrialized countries, decides to lay off a large percentage of their employees because retail jobs are not longer demanded?
For example, Amazon Go launched around 25 stores that have so called Just Walk Out Technology. Even though Amazon predicted the number of opened Go stores too optimistically, they have proven that supermarkets without cashiers with fully automated checkout technology are technically possible.
Right now, the checkout process might be exploitable to some degree, but the technology will be fully mature in the coming decade.
Those developments don't suddenly imply that supermarkets and fast food chains won't require employees anymore. It means that a supermarket can be run with two employees instead of five.
What happens when the people that got laid off have a hard time to find new jobs? Realistically, workers probably won't have any issue finding new employment, since the unemployment rate in the US is at a record low in 2020. Therefore, unemployment caused by automation does not put people into hopeless job situations in the labour market of our current time.
However, the underlying automation and digitization shift will only pick up motion and societies will gradually switch to labour systems where low skilled cognitive work is no longer sought after. Simple as that. It doesn't matter if it takes another ten, twenty or thirty years, but I can guarantee that in the next decades, maybe even as far away as the year 2050, automation and technology advances will cause radical changes in the labour market:
- Truck driving on highways will be fully automated in the year 2050. Logistics within cities will be probably partially automated.
- Supermarkets, fast food chains, buses, taxis will be partially autonomous.
- Most low skilled work in factories will be automated, as it is already the case.
- Some subfields in medicine and law will be automated. For instance, some surgeries are already heavily assisted with surgery robots.
- Areas in software development could be partially replaced with AI, such as UI generation, testing and other fields.
What jobs are safe?
There is a requirement for human intelligence amidst automated processes. For example, you cannot run a supermarket without at least one or two employees, independently of the level of automation.
What happens when a child crashes into shelves at the supermarket? Who cleans up to mess and refills the shelves? Who puts items back into their appropriate shelves when items were left at the wrong place? Who stops people from manipulating the check-out technology in supermarkets? Who repairs said technology?
The same applies to cleaning services. Smart cleaning robots might learn how to vacuum large hotel complexes on their own, but they will always get stuck, even if the reason are not self-inflicted. Cleaning a room is a immensely complex task. I don't think that there will be a viable general purpose cleaning machine that can handle all the complexities and nuances of cleaning arbitrary hotel rooms in the next 30 years.
It seems that the general rule of automation is: The more you control and design the work environment, the easier it is to automate.
Real life is simply too complex to successfully automate all work processes. Therefore, it's realistic to say that job fields heavily affected from automation will require less human employees with a broader technical skillset. Nevertheless, it still holds true that a large percentage of low skill labour will no longer be demanded.
There will be a extremely high demand for nurturing amd emotional work such as in health care and psychology. Jobs in nursing, social work and in retirement homes should not be automated, because it would disregard simple ethics and human dignity.
Furthermore, in the coming decades, there will be an enormous demand for all kinds of engineers, information technology professionals, scientists, medical professionals and managers. Content creation, entertainment and the service industry will also require a lot of people.
Furthermore, simply because some jobs can be automated doesn't mean that they will go away. After all, efficiency is not the sole criteria when it comes to a sound business plan.
The value of work
Now that it was established that modern societies have a large demand for highly specialized work, the purpose of this essay is clarified.
In modern capitalist countries, I assume that roughly 20% of the workforce amounts to 80% of real value generated (pareto principle). This is a bold and problematic claim, since it appears to diminish the work of so many people.
Let me explain.
What I mean with that is that companies that are in industries that can be scaled horizontally require a constant amount of employees which produce an arbitrarily large amount of yield. Examples?
- BMW, a well known German car manufacturer employs 134 thousand people and produced around 2.5 million cars in 2018 with a revenue of 97 billion Euros. This means that on average, one employee of BMW is responsible for 723k Euros in annual revenue.
- Alphabet Inc., the conglomerate behind Google employs 118k people in 2019 and has an annual revenue of 161 billion Dollars. It follows, that on average an Alphabet Inc. employee is responsible for 1.36 million Dollars in revenue in 2019.
- Royal Dutch Shell had 82 thousand employees in 2018 with 388 billion Dollars in revenue. It follows that the average Shell employee brings in 4.7 million Dollars revenue in the year 2018.
What does that mean? Does it mean that a Shell employee produces more value than a teacher in a public school? After all, the teacher has probably a net revenue of -50.000 dollars annually, paid by the taxpayer.
However, the teacher's work is indispensable, because without it, there wouldn't be educated people working in the highly successful companies above. If the companies themselves would educate their workforce, it would be possible to put an tangible number to the value generated by teachers.
Let's assume you are one of the many low paid workers such as cashiers or cleaning personal. Those jobs make around 12.50 Dollars per hour which would put their annual revenue to roughly 24 thousand dollars. How does 24.000 Dollars compare to 115.000 Dollars in the case of the average Google salary? It's absurd.
Put differently, the value of work depends on how scalable and sought after the nature of your work is.
There is no easy solution here. People are differently gifted, distinctly lucky and from different socio-economic backgrounds. There will never be equality in that sense. The modern capitalistic system creates an enormous pressure on individuals to compete with each other. There is a global market for virtually any service and material good.
It is easy to see that the extremely competitive global capitalistic system yields a small percentage of highly successful companies that are the winners of the global market. The same applies to the workforce.
The individual solution seems to be the mantra of working harder, have a better education, be more competitive. That's all nonsense, since the globalized market doesn't care about your individual effort. It will always reward the top tier companies and workers, while the lower ranks are left empty-handed.
When an individual is immensely driven, has the luck to come from a good socio-economic background and is intelligent enough, the competitive world embraces you with open arms. However, for many people, this relentless competition is not very attractive and they choose to not participate in it.
After all, why is it purposeful to always strive for more money, more consumerist goods and more status symbols.
It seems to me that the allure of what money can buy is limited to the freedom to not participate in the hamster wheel anymore.
So what is the solution?
The work is already done
The work is done. It's time to enjoy the benefits of centuries of hard work of humanity.
I am not an economist or have a large understanding of socio-economic systems, but let's take a huge leap back in time and look at what work was for stone age societies.
Our ancestors needed safety and food. When they were attacked, they tried to defend themselves and when they were hungry they were either looking for fruits, nuts or plants or they hunted animals. When they moved from one place to another, they needed to carry the little belongings they had to the next place.
So work for them was mostly gathering enough nutrients, surviving threats and finding a suitable cave/shelter.
Isn't it possible right now to provide exactly that for all citizens of rich countries for free?! The government's main task should be to provide the bare essentials:
- Food and water
- Education and Health
- Maybe a monthly basic income of 400$ on top of that
for free to everyone in the country that doesn't hold a job which generates more money.
Let me be perfectly clear about that: If a citizen does not want to work, they should have the option to receive the bare minimum in order to survive without any obligations.
Of course such a policy would create all sorts of problems:
- People that don't work might become depressed and lose perspective. However, if they find purpose in work, they can always look for a job in demand or do charitable work. They can do purposeful jobs without having the burden of profitability.
- Some people would attempt to cheat the system by renting away the free housing or sell the food in order to buy alcohol or drugs.
- Some people would destroy government property by not cleaning up the housing or destroying the property.
For both cases 2) and 3) there should be penalties by the government such as jail time. However, the main idea should not be punishment, it should be aiming to support and help.
How to finance it?
Well, the social system that I describe above is already in place in many countries in Europe such as Germany. It is mostly paid by tax income of companies and the medium to high earning middle class. The only difference is, that the government mindlessly forces unemployed people to find new jobs, despite the fact that the work does not produce any value. The mantra apparently is: We want you to work, doesn't matter that the work is not meaningful. The structuring element of work is supposedly enough.
I think this stubborn and totally senseless requirement to force people to work is completely outdated. It should be a human right to have the minimal necessity to survive in your country. Nobody should be able to force you to do work and put pressure on you. Nobody should have the right to stigmatize you based on the fact that you don't share the same Puritan work ethic.
Of course, if you chose to not work, you won't be allowed to:
- Own a car or motorbike
- Go to vacations or fly
- Buy fancy material objects
Nor should you ever have a right for any other luxurious things. The governments main task is to provide you with the bare necessities, while it should try to avoid to create new slums and ghettos by creating large housing projects.
Furthermore, the government should be allowed to force children to attend school for at least 9 years and make university tuition free.
Benefits of not working
What are the benefits of such a pressure free environment where your health, housing and food are guaranteed to be provided for?
First of all, you can freely chose to work in whatever fields you want. You can pursue your real passions, even if your sole passion in life might be to chill in bed all day long and do nothing.
If you want to work, there is always enough volunteering work to do in hospitals, elderly homes, parks or other public institutions. Maybe the government should even have the right to force the people to do such charitable work for 12 hours a week, when they decide not to work. I am not sure about that.
And most people will chose to find a job such that they can afford to go to vacations, buy consumerist goods or rent nice apartments. Those things are incentive enough for the majority of the population to find a profitable job. However, bare survival should not be an incentive in order to work!.
Problems of people not working
There is a range of possible scenarios that would happen when the supply of low skilled workers would rapidly decrease. This workforce would be inclined to not work low paid jobs anymore, because the free government assistance would have had the same financial purchasing power compared to the income of low paying jobs. So what would happen as a consequence?
Companies would increase the salary of low paid jobs while simultaneously increasing the prices of their goods. Hence, a supermarket still had cashiers and they would be paid better, but the items in the supermarket would be more pricey. However, because the workers are paid more, the incentive and pressure to automate those business processes would rapidly increase. This means that at some point, there will be supermarkets that are almost fully automated and the prices of the items can be decreases again to beat the competition. The competition either adapts or is defeated.
Another option is that the workforce from economically weaker countries will immigrate to those countries in order to do the jobs. This should be made illegal by the government, because it doesn't change the underlying problem.
Alternatively, if worker immigration was legal, the immigrants should have the same benefit as the citizens. Then the same scenario as above would happen. Therefore, immigration doesn't matter in this thought experiment.
What if automation does not reduce the quantity of work?
There are many experts that predict that automation and digitalization will not reduce the overall quantity of work, it will merely shift the labour markets towards a direction that requires workers to have better educations, higher skillets and more specific skills.
For example, around 40% of the workforce was employed in agriculture in the year 1900. Nowadays, only 2% of the US population works in agriculture. Does this mean that millions of people are no longer employed? Not at all, other sectors emerged and new business fields opened and demanded a large workforce.
Therefore, it can be argued that increased computerization leads to more demand in work, not less. As long as we don't have General Artificial Intelligence, the human brain is simply not exchangeable. And it's highly dubious that we ever reach the point of singularity.