The Future of Work

In Sunday's Washington Post, first-rate economic historian Gregory Clark lays out his dystopian case for greater redistribution in the future. Basically, unskilled labor will become worthless with increasing automation and robotic technology:

In more recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

I recently carried out a complicated phone transaction with United Airlines but never once spoke to a human; my mechanical interlocutor seemed no less capable than the Indian call-center operatives it replaced. Outsourcing to India and China may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come -- to machines. And as machines expand their domain, basic wages could easily fall so low that families cannot support themselves without public assistance.

I think Will Wilkinson does an admirable job here of explaining why this outlook is excessively pessimistic. But what I'd like to address is the question of what will these people be doing, if not manufacturing.

Now, I don't think it's incumbent on technological optimists such as myself to answer this. Two hundred plus years of the Industrial Revolution have taught us that labor market adjustments will eventually take place. But I'd like to take a stab at it anyway: Where will the new jobs come from? (Note: I'm leaving aside scenarios such as true, human-or-greater level AI. I'm talking about "mundane" technological progress here.)

Myself, I think it's pretty clear, actually. The growth sector of the future is in personal service. As automation reduces the cost of physical goods, the relative value of things like massages or even basic housecleaning rises. In the robot-dominated future, no capitalist is going to want to waste his scarce time cleaning or cooking. He'll outsource that, and it's difficult to imagine robots taking over cooking for a long time.

Is that a society we want? Many people of an egalitarian outlook seem to recoil at the notion of servants. Myself, I don't find it particularly bothersome; I do not find plowing through exams as a grader much more dignified than being a chauffeur would be. Nevertheless, it's not about what I would want, it's about what society will look like. And I think the future is servants.

Does anyone else want to take a stab at it? When robots handle manufacturing, what will the low-skilled do?

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This is not a new problem.

This is not a new problem. But progress cuts both ways. On the one hand it may eliminate jobs. On the other hand, it makes keeping up a certain standard of living cheaper.

What is the price of a service? It's somewhat related to the cost of the service (depending on the amount of competition and scarcity), but it's as much tied to the value to the buyer. Is it better to be an excellent waiter in a restaurant with very poor patrons or is it better to be a mediocre waiter in a restaurant with very rich patrons? The answer seems obvious. The implications for the relative value of "unskilled" labor in the future seem obvious as well.

Also, I think the term "unskilled labor" is unhelpful. Merely because someone does not have the "right" credentials or does a job that at first pass seemingly "anyone" could do does not mean that job is "unskilled". The fact that you include massage in your list, for example, is more than a little insulting.

Moreover, the idea that the "solution" here is servants is a bit silly. Almost no one wants servants any more, and very, very few people will want them in the future. Servants make economic sense when the majority of labor is unskilled; when transportation is more expensive than real estate; when the relevant tasks are complicated, personal, and time consuming; and when population densities are low. Exactly the opposite of the trends of greater industrialization in the past and in the near future. "Unskilled" workers in the future will still work jobs just like anyone else, they'll still live in their own homes. And they'll still get along just fine with a quite excellent standard of living, even if they're not as affluent as some others.

Also, I think the term

Also, I think the term "unskilled labor" is unhelpful.

Unskilled is probably a poor word choice, although I don't mean it to be insulting. Massage is a terrible example, you're right. That said, while become a top waiter certainly takes practice and dedication, I'm not sure I'm willing to just throw up my hands and say there is no qualitative difference between that and being a plumber or teacher. To me at least, the latter two take more time to reach a minimal level of competence.

Almost no one wants servants any more, and very, very few people will want them in the future.

If you're talking about Jeeves the butler, then perhaps. But look in any exclusive, wealthy neighborhood, and look at who does the landscaping. It's not the owners. And that's what I'm talking about in by a "personal service" economy. (Whether you call them servants or independent contractors is to me immaterial, although I realize the words have baggage. Substitute freely.) I don't think that it will take the form of live-in servants.

"words have baggage"

I realize the words have baggage. Substitute freely

"masseuse" -> "physical therapist"
"cook" -> "restaurateur"
"chauffeur" -> "taxi driver"
"servant" -> "web-based services entrepreneur"

I think the trend is away from hierarchy (the servant/master relationship) and towards peer-to-peer (participants in a voluntary transaction). The cost of real education is dropping significantly. This trend is hidden--those previously certified to have received expensive educations are trying to maintain monopolies granting future certification, but I think the education cartel model will go bust pretty soon.

"Where will the unskilled go?" They will get skills. And if they are not interested in getting skills, they will probably manage to scrape enough together to buy a $10 iPod and sit in a mall with their friends all day watching youTubes and buying the occasional 25 cent meal from a food court vending machine. Or, they'll be fishing from their $2 bass boat and grilling the day's catch on the beach. After all, your scenario started with with the assumption that we had super-productive robots, right?

To turn super-abundance into a dystopia, you would have to go to some pretty extreme lengths. Perhaps have some central planners with devious techniques to regularly round up the abundance and blow it up in a desert somewhere, while at the same time keeping monopoly control over production and brainwashing the serfs so they don't realize what's happening. Basically, you're worried about "the present of work", not the "future".

Just to clarify, I don't

Just to clarify, I don't even think that a "servant-based economy" would be a dystopia, even if you're right that it wouldn't happen. Frankly, I think making my living as a private tutor for some plutocrat's kids rather than as a teaching assistant would be a step up, even if it is more of a hierarchical relationship (with me at the bottom).

"On the other hand it is

"On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite - just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone's physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes "treatment" to cure his "problem." Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals."

- Ted Kaczynski


This is basically the same thesis presented in Vonnegut's "Player Piano." It's absurd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is, if machines can do everything for us, then eventually even the poorest among us will have machines/robots/computers etc., to service their needs, including the production of food, security, etc.

It takes one callous, backwards son-of-a-bitch, to imagine a human race that would intentionally deny such luxuries to the poor and destitute. And if this *is* the case, that the greedy capitalists keep *all* the robots to themselves, then there's absolutely no hope left for the human species.

Are you responding to me or

Are you responding to me or to Clark? I've said repeatedly that I do not view increasing mechanization as a problem, and certainly not as a dystopia. Moreover, I don't see how what you said contradicts me. I think living standards will increase across the board. But how will the "machines/robots/computers etc" be paid for? I'm suggesting one mechanism by which that might take place, although you shouldn't read too much into my rather idle musings about hypothesized technological advancements decades down the road.

The conspiracy folk say that our owners

intend to reduce the world's population to a half billion and that the bird flu scare is part of the plan, see

Alternatively, I predict that the civilized nations are self-segregating into into an intellectual/owner class and a grunt class. In the bad old days every social class, religion, ethnic group . . . had a cross section of winners and losers. The old mixed marriage social barriers in the civilized nations are gone. Our young people are mating on the basis of IQ, ambition, and education. The losers are mating with losers.

The nature of poverty has changed in the civilized nations. The working poor, even the welfare class has every sort of consumer goods as the millionaires but at a much lower quality. The BIG difference is medical care . . . and the rich people don't have to stand in lines.

The welfare class will explode in size but increased productivity will supply sufficient food, clothing, and housing to maintain them. They will be pacified with sports and cheap booze and totally ignored by most of the upper class, just as they are ignored by our owners. In other words, a voluntary "Brave New World."