2014-05-28

What Will The Economy Look Like When The Robots Take Your Job?

A future of automation could play out in many different ways--from a leisurely society where machines do the hard work for us, to a dystopia where the robots make us all bankrupt.

In the past 50 years, the number of people working in manufacturing, government, and agriculture jobs have all gone down or flat-lined. As technology infiltrates parts of the labor market that it could never reach before, employment of people who do repetitive or task-oriented jobs has seen less need for human oversight or action. And your job could very likely be next.

“In the next 50 to 100 years, I don’t think we have a job market in the way we’re used to thinking about it,” Andrew McAffee says. McAffee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His job is to research the complex relationship between business and technology, and he’s written books like Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. You could say that McAfee has a better grasp on the future than most, but he still says he and people in his field are not great at making accurate predictions.

“When I take the kinds of technological progress that I’ve seen recently and take them forward for two-plus generations, it honestly feels to me like we’ll be in a science-fiction economy at that point,” McAfee says. He believes the future will hold an abundance of produced material that didn’t need a single human hand to be created. “Farms, factories, logistics, transportation systems, decision-making systems; these are going to be massively automated.”

McAfee hopes that creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and aesthetics will remain the work of humans, but he imagines a world where that might not be the case. “I hope that we will still prefer the human touch to the robot touch in 50 years,” he says. McAfee and his colleagues at MIT are currently working on research concerning the job market in a shorter time, about a decade, but he says it’s really difficult to imagine what exponential technological advancement will produce. “There’s a huge difference between a 3, 5, or 10 years prediction, where I think our economy still looks kind of recognizable, and then 50 to 100 years.”

But if stuff is being produced without having a human being paid to produce it, would prices plummet? If you’re not paying someone to farm and transport food, it’s easy to imagine it being vastly cheaper. But McAfee says things will always have cost, because they have value regardless of the cost of production: even if it doesn’t cost anything to get gasoline from the Earth, people will still pay for it based on their need for it.

But perhaps the future workplace won't be quite so roboticized. Jonathan Rothwell is a senior research associate and associate fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. In his view of the future, the robots aren't coming to take (as many) of our jobs because the shape of the job market moves incredibly slowly.

“We are very far from a world where most occupations are automated. As it happens, many more people are currently employed as cashiers than as computer programmers or software developers. The point is that only a small handful of people are actually working on automation right now,” Rothwell says. It will be a gradual shift, as opposed to an overnight job slaying. “For security reasons, if nothing else, there will be a persistent need to perform valuable transactions in person with humans who cannot be hacked. It may be the case that automation will never fully replace even these easy-to-automate occupations, let alone occupational tasks that are more complex and less predictable.”

Rothwell points out that 10,000 Americans are still employed as telephone operators, even though most of us have cell phones now. He believes jobs for nannies, home health workers, and food-service providers may never go away. Auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, and similar trades will stick around, even if they end up employing fewer people in the future.

As for more cultural jobs, Rothwell thinks there will always be some desire to see humans perform live arts or see the results of human-made artistic endeavors. It’s easy to imagine that spending time with the arts might actually take up significantly more time in the future, as the progression of automation could make essential needs much less expensive, and people might not have as much work to do in general.

“In the best-case scenario, 100 or 200 years from now, the costs of many valuable tasks and products will have fallen dramatically--much as the price of electricity and transportation has--and the world will be much richer. There will still be plenty of things for humans to work on,” Rothwell says.

As McAfee pointed out, it’s impossible to know exactly what the future will look like, but trends seem to show that automation and a generally different kind of economy could be the case for America in the year 2100. The government may surprise us by fighting such innovation in an attempt to keep the job market alive, but cutting out the cost of labor will always be attractive for large corporations

According to a recent report from Intuit, more than 40% of us will be freelancers, contractors, and temp workers by the year 2020. The times are changing, faster than ever before. The future is a scary thing to talk about for those that are in the line of fire when it comes to impending automation. What will the world be like when we’re not needed anymore?

[Image: Car production via Shutterstock]

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