The future is unemployed—and maybe that’s not a bad thing

We must rethink the meaning of work

September 21, 2016
An exoskeleton robot operated by remote control (l) stands ready at the (DFKI) at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Bremen, Germany, 11 August 2016. The 115 kg heavy vehicle could be used for planetary exploration. Possible locatio
An exoskeleton robot operated by remote control (l) stands ready at the (DFKI) at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Bremen, Germany, 11 August 2016. The 115 kg heavy vehicle could be used for planetary exploration. Possible locatio
Read more: Are only poets safe from robots?

Do you think capitalism needs you? Your passion for the job, your unique insights—do you think they are so special they would survive a war against work?

If you do and you’re right, you’re lucky. But across history people have tended to internalise any long-term bonus as a natural right, until they can hardly imagine it being taken away. Many of us have come to assume that our economic system is obliged to serve up as many jobs as there are people wanting them. But it is becoming difficult to ignore the suspicion that its raison d’être has nothing to do with providing employment. And the consequences are enormous—not only for our economy, but for our fundamental assumptions about life and society.

At some basic level the classical link between the creation of wealth and the creation of jobs has been severed. In the era of high industry, all the world’s most valuable companies required enormous labour: General Motors, at its height, employed 800,000 people. Today’s companies are very different: though Facebook has a market capitalisation of $300 billion—seven times General Motors’—it employs fewer than 15,000 people. Facebook is an enormous concentration of new wealth, but it pays little in terms of wages. It is the perfect symbol of our era of work-without-employment: Facebook’s income is actually generated by the billion people who supply their journalism to the world’s biggest media company as a charitable donation.

But as with so many other transitions, this one was of little interest as long as it did not touch the western middle classes. It was the explosion of white-collar work, after all, that saved capitalism from the death predicted by Marx; and the memory of this middle-class explosion has stayed with the west ever since, supplying an unwarranted optimism about capitalism’s purpose. Even when the long-term assault on working-class jobs made abundantly clear just how little this system cared about providing “employment” the optimism of the middle classes—the chosen—did not falter.

But that is changing now the middle classes are the main target. Of course robotisation will continue to eat away at working-class opportunities: the advent of driverless cars, and its consequences for bus and taxi drivers is only the highest-profile example. But such data-led innovation will obviously have its greatest impact on intellectual labour. We realise that “artificial intelligence” need look nothing like what we thought—which was, essentially, us—and that it has already crept up on us through big data and analytical algorithms. These systems are evolving several million times faster than human intelligence, and it is obvious that the small edge that human beings still retain is vanishing as we speak. Bustling middle-class workplaces—corporate offices, engineering labs, even schools—will go the faceless way of airport check-in and supermarket check-out.

These technological possibilities only accelerate an economic—and possibly political—strategy that has been in evidence since the 1990s. One of the reasons for the shift of wealth away from percentiles 50-99 towards the top percentile, after all, is the replacement of great swaths of middle-class work by new corporate models: one needs only think of the hundreds of thousands of booksellers whose many idiosyncrasies have all been concentrated by Amazon into one algorithmic global monopoly.

Young university-educated people have had to recognise that employment growth is largely not in the intellectual labour that paid their parents’ way, but in the manual work that computers can still not touch: nursing, undertaking, cooking. But they have abandoned the hope of a job-for-life: they are entrepreneurs in the “gig” economy, selling skills online for short-term jobs, driving taxis for Uber, renting properties on Airbnb, hoping they will turn out to be Mark Zuckerberg rather than just plain poor.

Their last big hope of “traditional” middle-class employment is in computer science itself, where they can get jobs coding the end of middle-class employment. The numbers of computer science graduates in the US has grown by thirty percent a year for the last five years. But if there is one thing that computers will prove to be better at than humans, of course, it is writing computer code—so this last refuge will disappear too. Computers will design computers, and increasingly human beings will be superfluous to the conversations they are having with each other.

Since the global economy has run on the astounding consumer appetite of the western middle classes, their decline will rock the entire system. We should not rely on “new middle classes” to take up the slack: emerging economies are structured according to twenty-first-century economics, not twentieth, and they begin with the assault on middle-class work having already happened. They will never produce middle classes as large, wealthy and leisured as the west did in the post-war era—nor as willing to go into debt just to carry on consuming. So we should accept that growth will hit limits in the coming years. Small elites, after all, can obviously have nothing like the consumer impact of large middle classes: even a billionaire will not buy 100,000 fridges.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, after several decades of “globalisation,” during which innumerable local economies have been absorbed into one world system, there remain places with such devastating levels of unemployment. It is easy for those local economies to be destroyed, but it is clear also that the global system cannot make use of all the people so deprived of their livelihood. Several of the most unemployed countries lie in the world’s richest continent—Europe—whose great dynamism can nonetheless do very little for jobseekers in Macedonia or Bosnia.

This is most apparent in Africa, which has become the twenty-first century’s resource warehouse, a role which does not really require the African population. Youth unemployment has produced in Africa what the International Labour Organization has called a “scarred generation”—and it is most severe where global integration is most complete: close to 50 per cent in South Africa. Across the continent, great extents of agricultural land have been taken over (or devastated) by mining, industry and tourism, none of which can possibly sustain the numbers of people that traditional agriculture did. Tides of “development refugees” therefore end up in urban slums or on boats to Europe.

This system does not need all of us. Employing us, in fact, is an irritation whose eradication is already a main focus of innovation and investment. Unemployment will be the structural reality for very large numbers across the world. So what are we going to do?

For a start, we will need more complex ideas of sharing than those encouraged by individualistic welfare states. People who have substantial incomes will have to realise that there is no moral virtue attached to this fact—just as there is no moral stigma attached to lifestyles that produce no return. In a number of places in Asia and the Middle East I’ve come across academics and artists whose rent is paid by friends who work in advertising or finance.

Secondly, we will need to re-create local economies that are not monopolised by the global system at large. Increasingly, in Europe and America, there are communities that are opting out of the circuits of big capitalism: Totnes in England, for instance, is a “transition town” which has created its own currency in order to restore prestige and value to local labour and relationships. As the ranks of the “unemployed” grow, these experimental economies will also attract more involvement and creativity.

But we will have to go even further. For a long time now, and in many countries, social participation has been contingent on one’s willingness to do paid work. In a world without such work, this has to change. We need to find ways for the armies of the unemployed to participate as normal members of society. We need to see their unused time as a source of enormous potential.

After all it’s not as if capitalism has no issues! We have the most colossal problems, and markets cannot solve them. Someone needs to imagine new ways for us to live: new relationships with money, politics, nature—new kinds of human purpose—and who better than the millions of people whose minds are uncluttered by daily labour? Many of the ideas that preserved capitalist societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came from religion and literature—and we are once again in deep need of this “priesthood” to supply our ideals, our sense of direction.

We can think of it like the European monasteries to which aristocrats gave money just so that monks could think and pray on behalf of everyone else. Well-to-do families whose eldest sons inherited lands and knighthoods consigned other children to this structural “unemployment” which had its own parallel system of prestige and achievement. Another example, also from the church: the great numbers of educated men who went into the near-unemployment of the village priest, and who used their leisure to research and write about every subject under the sun.

Our world has used up the moral achievements of the past, and is now in a kind of moral deficit. We are dying from the lack of innovation. And we face a near future in which great numbers of people—many of them highly educated—will be structurally unemployed. Instead of seeing this as a problem, we should see it as the answer. How it will be possible to create a new “priesthood” outside of religious auspices is not clear. But what is clear is that we have to think again about what “work” is: for many of us will not have any work according to the contemporary definition, and yet there is so much “work” to be done.