Less Work – What’s Next?
No matter what Donald Trump is promising, manufacturing jobs are not coming back to the United States. The nation’s manufacturing output is at an all-time high, though jobs in this sector have fallen dramatically. Robots and computers replacing humans are the new workers, and a way must be found to provide a living income for those citizens who have no jobs or low wage jobs that cannot sustain them and their families. Will everyone be provided with a base income from government? How will people occupy their free time?
The transformation to automation has been so stealthy that few people are aware of it happening. In Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, the author noted that “the symbiotic relationship between increasing productivity and rising wages began to dissolve in the 1970s. As of 2013, a typical production or non-supervisory worker earned about 13 percent less than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation) even as productivity rose 107 percent” …..In America in the first ten years of the 21st century, no new jobs were created when previously at least 20 percent had been generated in every decade after World War II.
There is no historical precedent for societies needing only a small percentage of its population working in order to maintain or advance its standard of living. An eight hour day and a forty hour week that are fairly standard in America for most workers is of relatively recent origin. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many workers toiled twelve hours daily and six days a week to earn subsistence wages. In France now, and some other nations, a seven hour day and thirty-five hour week is the norm in many industries. Sweden has already started experimenting with a six hour workday. Productivity from workers has increased and sick days and time off have gone down by more than half. People in the study are happier and more energetic compared to a controlled group. The increased productivity suggests that this model of a shorter workday could be effective globally, though it might be contrary to the values of some nations and hard to institute. Perhaps to keep unemployment at bay as computers and robotics improve, nations will gradually decrease to a twenty-hour work week or even less. And maybe there will be no choice other than having fewer people working. John Maynard Keynes foresaw this, predicting that a fifteen hour workweek could be expected as standard by 2030.
Perhaps given this situation, more individuals will be involved in creative endeavors, with an explosion of artists, writers, musicians, and so forth. An increase in artisanal efforts could occur as well, with organic farming, small restaurants with innovative owner-chefs, handmade furniture makers, potters, and various other craftspeople. Unique handmade goods may become more valuable and in greater demand than those mass-produced in factories. A New York Times article in 2015 noted that handmade goods were more desirable and considered chic, especially if they were of local origin.
Many people will find things to do that they enjoy and perhaps make some money doing them. But others who are unemployed will be dependent on private organizations or government to keep them occupied with some sort of tasks. This metamorphosis to a post-industrialized economy will occur not only in developed nations but over time will be a global phenomenon. Third-world countries will also become fully computerized and roboticized over the years, finding that it is cheaper than their once-cheap labor. Perhaps some people will spend more time on their educations, then devote their lives to arcane areas of research that interests them and a small coterie of enthusiasts. Perhaps a devotion to games or charitable efforts. Perhaps an obsession with sports, actively or passively. There will be time for everything.
However, though people will be living longer and healthier lives, the world will need fewer of them for the fewer jobs that require human roles, and nations may institute mandatory birth control to curb their populations as China had previously done. One possible benefit of this is that global warming may be reduced as the total number of the earth’s inhabitants drop. Though the time-line is unclear, at some point all states will undergo major transformations that will eliminate a large percentage of work and jobs, and challenge concepts of democracy. Is a minimum living income for everyone an answer to the increased unemployment that lies ahead? Are mandatory national service and make-work jobs solutions for some countries? Or perhaps to reduce social unrest, nations will limit the use of robots and computers to keep their citizens working.
Some countries are unwilling to face the inevitable changes head on, with either governments or workers wanting to maintain the status quo and refusing to try any adaptations to deal with the new reality. For example, French youth and workers were unwilling to allow the Socialist government to institute changes to the labor laws in 2016 to make jobs more flexible and the hiring and firing of workers easier, with demonstrations and protests everywhere. Workers are afraid that some of the benefits they have acquired over the years with strong unions negotiating for them will be taken away. But this is a necessity as they are working in a competitive global environment and cannot have it all anymore. Flexibility is the key to the current workplace as protective walls will not be able to offer the protection they want from automation and globalization. The future will be even more difficult.
Every nation needs to prepare for the changes that are coming. Think tanks, workshops, corporations, NGOs, and government agencies must delve into the problems and find ways to make life tolerable as work no longer dominates the lives of most of the world’s inhabitants. Whether the social impact will hit in ten years or half a century, it is unavoidable.
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