This article is based off our first podcast Episode 1: Automation and Work in the 21st Century.
Ideally, automated technology should take on the roles essential for human survival (farming, transportation, manufacturing) while leaving humans free to pursue leisure, arts, sports, and family activities.
Time and energy not spent farming and manufacturing for example could instead be devoted to personal fulfillment. But living in a capitalist/consumer-based economy means that goal gets altered by capitalist market forces, altering the role of automation.
While automation boosts productivity, that hasn’t translated into less work or increased wages for labor. Instead, it’s helping to create more work in the form of new — and largely less-fulfilling — jobs.
Today many conservative politicians rail against the threat to jobs from immigrants, or the outsourcing of jobs to other nations, but they — and even democratic politicians — rarely touch on the role automation plays on the job market or its role in boosting or lowering the wealth gap.
A report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (PCEA) predicts that a bevy of white and blue collar jobs could be disrupted by automation if current trends continue. Americans could likely see the loss of increasingly higher-skilled positions to automated technology.
This begs the question, “What will result from the loss of these jobs if not increased leisure time and lower costs for goods and services by automated technology?” Past trends offer some insight as to what could happen.
Labor and market trends over time
In the 19th century, automation boosted low-skill workers’ productivity. This increased the average quality of life for most Americans, while decreasing inequality overall.
While low-skilled workers benefited most from this economic flattening, technological development undermined many higher-skilled workers, such as artisans. “Many skilled crafts were replaced by the combination of machines and lower-skilled labor. Output per hour rose while inequality declined, driving up average living standards. The labor of some high-skill workers was no longer as valuable in the market,” the PCEA report says.
Every technological revolution brings winners and losers, but the winners outnumbered the losers through the 18th and 19th centuries — a rising tide lifted all boats.
The broad-based benefits of technological change didn’t last. By the 20th century, advances in automation replaced many of the types of low skill or repetitive jobs they once aided — switchboard operators, filing clerks, travel agents, assembly line workers — and began to help high-skilled workers increase their productivity. This increased inequality.
“Computers and the Internet have raised the relative productivity of higher-skilled workers and eliminated lower skilled, routine and predictable jobs,” the report says.
Looking forward, market forces could cause AI to replace the higher-skill jobs they aided in the previous century and helping an ever smaller higher-skilled sliver of society up their productivity, further increasing inequality.
“The winner-take-most nature of information technology markets means that only a few may come to dominate markets. If labor productivity increases do not translate into wage increases, then the large economic gains brought about by AI could accrue to a select few,” the report says.
The report concludes that government regulation and social efforts can guide AI away from the most extremes of these outcomes. People should seek skill training in new areas, that skill training should be widely available and education should be advanced.
There is no absolute certainty over which jobs will be replaced, but the jobs most threatened are the ones with lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers. “Automation will continue to put downward pressure on demand for this group, putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on inequality,” the report says.
While the market historically creates more jobs than it destroys — and usually at an admirable pace depending on the rate and concentration of losses — the report only apologetically mentions that the role of AI is to actually eliminate the need for unfulling and unnecessary employment, instead of focusing on what new types of jobs may be produced.
Indeed, the proliferation of automation hasn’t translated to less work, it’s created new jobs and longer hour work weeks.
Much ado about working
David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, bluntly calls the types of jobs created in capitalist markets in the wake of automation “bullshit jobs” in his article “Why capitalism creates pointless jobs.”
“Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter,” Graeber says. “Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.”
These are jobs that provide money to the people that perform their duties and the companies they work for, but offer little-to-no personal fulfillment for the people who work them — jobs that if they vanished from the earth would not impact humanity’s survival odds or quality of life.
“A report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 shows that over the last century, the number of workers employed in critical roles — industry, farming — has collapsed while ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ have tripled. In other words, productive/essential jobs have been largely automated away,”Graeber says.
These are the types of jobs that capitalist markets produce and are most likely to be created as automation technology advances. Without trying to sound too much like a dystopian future novel, a society largely engaged in this type of employment is subject to being morally and spiritually damaged by lifelong extraneous tasks. We’re already starting to experience this, Graeber says.
Like Graeber, the PCEA report sees the writing on the wall, but, unlike Graeber, seems apologetic for doing so.
“In theory, AI-driven automation might involve more than temporary disruptions in labor markets and drastically reduce the need for workers,” the report says. “If there is no need for extensive human labor in the production process, society as a whole may need to find an alternative approach to resource allocation other than compensation for labor, requiring a fundamental shift in the way economies are organized.”
“Although this scenario is speculative, it is included in this report to foster discussion and shed light on the role and value of work in the economy and society,” the report says before shifting to talk of the need to simply keep people employed above all else.
“We should not advance a policy that is premised on giving up on the possibility of workers’ remaining employed,” the report says. “Instead, our goal should be first and foremost to foster the skills, training, job search assistance, and other labor market institutions to make sure people can get into jobs, which would much more directly address the employment issues raised by AI than would universal basic income.”
Pinning hope on party lines
In the meantime, the powers that be remain divided about how to adapt the global economy — and society more generally — to potentially radical changes in labor demand and the distribution of the fruits of AI’s labor.
Some, especially those on the right given their penchant for an unregulated free market, might be content to allow the 21 century to slip into the extreme end of the PCEA report consisting of the haves and have nots — a neo-feudalist world order, with the return of lords (the small minority of owners of the machines) and serfs (the rest of us).
It remains to be seen if the left can offer a vision that can maneuver through the deadlock of nationalist, polarized politics and spread the benefits of human ingenuity to the many, not just the few.
For their part, the PCEA offers a more moderate approach, arguing for efforts to “modernize the social safety net” as well as “building a 21st century retirement system, and expanding healthcare access.” Strengthening unions, rationalizing tax policy – these are noble goals, but can they succeed using the tools of 20th century neoliberal economics to solve 21st century problems?
Political parties have thus far refrained politicizing the issue of automation. Citizens would do well to discuss the issue amongst friends and family whenever jobs, immigration and inequality are brought up, because after an issue has become part of a party’s political agenda it becomes immune from constructive criticism by the other side.