When looking at the prevailing trends and forecasts related to automation and technological unemployment, it’s clear a crisis-level conflict is coming to many developed countries, but it’s not the kind of conflict many pundits think it is. It’s not going to be billionaire Nick Hanauer’s torches-and-pitchforks scenario of income inequality, for example, where we had better find some way to keep the 99% from rioting against the 1% elite (Hanauer). Similarly, it’s not going to be that huge expansion of unemployed population that will require some centralized economic intervention like the universal basic income, where everyone, not just the unemployed, receives a dividend from the government. It’s a very different kind of crisis heading our way. But before we identify what it is, let’s look at a quick sample of those automation trends and forecasts and get a feel for the two horns of the current dilemma, as it’s framed.
According to a recent article in The Economist, “47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation” (Automation). But it’s not just the manual labor factory jobs at risk; big data, analytics, machine learning, and similar technologies are poised to impact “legal, medical, marketing, education, and even technological industries” (Alton). There seems to be broad consensus on this point, but two primary perspectives on where it goes. On one hand, Moshe Vardi, professor of computer engineering at Rice University, “foresees unemployment as surpassing 50 percent by 2045” (Matyszczyk). On the other hand, James Bessen, an economist at Boston University, notes that “while electronic discovery software has become a billion-dollar business since the late 1990s, jobs for paralegals and legal-support workers actually grew faster than the labor force as a whole, adding over 50,000 jobs since 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of lawyers increased by a quarter of a million” (Bessen).
And so the debate has been framed in the collective consciousness thus: in the future, new technologies, specifically automation, will either eliminate jobs, and create a widespread crisis of the social and economic order, or else will create new jobs we haven’t imagined yet, preserving our livelihoods, social structure, and global economy. Rather than come down on one or the other side of the debate, I’d like to suggest the crisis has less to do with technology than most think. While I will grant that the nature of the technologies coming online are unprecedented, especially advanced artificial intelligence, humans have used technologies of one sort or another to solve problems and create value for thousands of years. No, technology isn’t the problem. To think that technology is taking “jobs” from human beings is a failure to understand what’s really going on. We have a larger structural and conceptual issue coming for us: the breakdown of the concept of employment. Technology taking jobs isn’t the problem; the problem lies in what we think a “job” is, and what it increasingly isn’t.
More specifically, the coming crisis, if there is really to be one, will be a crisis of meaning, not of livelihood, and this is the key distinction. In the debate on technological unemployment, most commentators equate employment with livelihood, and it has certainly been that in our legacy capitalist system. It is natural to think concretely here, that if there is less demand for humans in the workforce, there will be more human beings who lack a means of livelihood, the means to acquire their material needs. So, it’s also natural to think we have to determine how to make sure those livelihood means exists, either in other, new jobs or through some systemic correction like a universal basic income.
But the “job” in our developed capitalist society is more than a livelihood. Setting aside for the moment the idea that it’s a social relation, a contract between capital and labor, a job is most importantly a morally loaded social concept derived from what Weber called the Puritan Work Ethic, where the work a human being does is tied up with Christian concepts of virtue. As Noble notes, “the emergence of that rational ethic, indispensable to the development of industrial capitalism, was closely associated with the rational religious ethic of the Puritans” (125). The following excerpt from Weber sums up how close employment (or “calling” in Weber’s terms) is bound up with moral (and thus social) virtue:
“The working life of man [sic] is to be a consistent ascetic exercise in virtue, a proof of one’s state of grace in the conscientiousness which is apparent in the careful and methodical way in which one follows one’s calling. Not work as such, but rational work in a calling, is what God requires” (quoted in Weber, 126).
And yes, the moral power of the Puritan work ethic not coincidentally reinforces the exploitative nature of the social relations that preserve class distinctions in capitalism, as it equates metaphysical virtue with social obedience in selling one’s labor through employment.
Even today, this close equation of employment (in the capitalist economic structure) with virtue, or to put it more plainly, being good and valuable, is one of the most powerful unacknowledged social forces in modern Western cultures. A study from Northeastern University found that employers exhibit a strong hiring bias against job seekers who are currently unemployed (Ghayad), and unemployed people have been targets of other, less-formal expressions of prejudice and exclusion as well. Unemployed recipients of welfare benefits are often perceived as disadvantaged and morally suspect, stereotyped as lazy and borderline criminal, often, in the United States at least, with racist overtones (Schneiderman). Despite the fact that our cultural and religious views no longer reflect the old Calvinist strictures, the employment-related biases of the Puritan Work Ethic persist, against all evidence that hard work, wealth, and virtue are in any way statistically correlated.
In our cultural unconscious at the present time, then, jobs are sacred, and having a job, building a career, working hard — all of these things create social status, self-esteem, and legitimacy. When jobs disappear because human labor is not needed in the quantities it once was needed, it’s not the missing livelihood that becomes the crisis. We can likely fix that, economically, if we have the will to fix it. Corporations, actually, may find motivation to support universal basic income schemes, as they may need consumer spending to support their operations. Regardless, as the future unfolds, and technology expands in the way it has the potential to expand, automation, artificial intelligence, and other advanced technologies will not only replace jobs, these technologies may provide material abundance at a level we’ve only dreamed. Tech guru Peter Diamandis, for one, believes this technological bounty is certain; his book The Future is Better Than You Think is an extended paean to the abundant future. And if technological abundance happens, fewer “jobs” will be needed, and we’ll have to give up our religious attachment to employment as a source of human value.
Finally, as humans in developed global capitalist cultures, we simply depend too much on the “job” to give us personal meaning. And that’s not just an individual issue; it’s a potential collective issue too: our religious attachment to “jobs” may do more to damage our environment and broader economy than widespread unemployment. The attachment to “jobs” may lead policymakers to invent myopic, damaging schemes such as reopening coal mines so that former miners can work. Since most mines are automated now, policymakers would have to prohibit automation in those industries. They would also need to stimulate coal demand by promoting dirty energy in the face of advances in efficiencies and demand for clean energy, as well as a need to protect the environment. Leaders also may need to financially subsidize such industries as coal in a global market environment where commodities like coal are cheap. In other words, such schemes would work against market forces to create sloppy, unsustainable solutions in order to preserve the “job” economy. As meanwhile, younger generations have entered the “gig” economy, becoming youtube stars, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads, reinventing the concept of work to fit their own aspirations, and thus abandoning the biases of their fathers and mothers. Ironically, then, in the future, we may have to abandon “employment” in order to prosper.