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A World Without Work


John Markoff’s Times feature from yesterday on robots replacing human labor left me deeply depressed. Increased advances in robot technology has begun to pay dividends for corporations who can replace industrial workers with fast and inexpensive machines. As Americans, I guess we are supposed to celebrate these kinds of things since we are in love with a vision of technological futurism that will make our lives increasingly perfect. And it’s not as if assembly line jobs are any great shakes. Unless you are unemployed.

To me, the future seems to be, in a world where bosses rule with total control, one of massive unemployment in the face of continued technological advancement. The 1% can get even more money while the masses suffer the long-term degradation of institutionalized poverty.

Of course, my pessimism flies in the face of national mythology. After all, as one electronics executive noted in the linked article, “At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” Hey, I can answer that question! My own pedantic forestry history would like to remind people that the modern chainsaw wasn’t developed until the 1930s, by which time the Paul Bunyan myth was already fully integrated into logging mythology. But whatever. The technological changes that rapidly changed the nature of work in timber beginning around 1890 did make many jobs obsolete. But there was a difference between the past and now, and especially the post-war period of chainsaws and now. Earlier technological innovations did throw people out of work but with growing industrial capacity, actual overall job loss tended to be mitigated by other factors. Long-term unemployment resulted more from rapacious capitalists throwing the nation into long-term depressions than technological displacement. In the end, and especially in the post-war Northwest, there were jobs for everyone in logging, regardless of technological displacement. We cut a whole lot of trees in those decades.

But we have reached a new phase in economic and labor history. The overall growth in the industrial sector simply doesn’t have much room for massive numbers of poorly-educated unemployed blue-collar workers. As we’ve seen with the huge employment disparities between college and non-college educated people in this country since 2007, the decline in industrial labor means that work options are severely limited for many people. That’s hardly going to be different in China, Mexico, Honduras, or any country where assembly line labor takes place today. What will happen to millions of Chinese workers when they are thrown on the streets? Their government certainly won’t take care of them.

We had decades of industrial growth thanks to Keynesian economics and unsustainable use of resources, enough to provide work for people displaced by technological innovation. When that era ended and when industrial labor was sent abroad, Americans managed to keep the charade of stability and growth going through cheap credit and ballooning home prices. That’s burst and we have no answer 5 years into a stagnation. The advance of robot labor hints that this is the future for the working-class around the world. The incredibly propulsive growth of robots in so many sectors of the economy suggests a world with less and less work. A utopian might argue this is good–if everyday people benefit from increased leisure time and the wealth the robots create. But that’s not going to happen. Rather, long-term unemployment around the world seems far more likely.

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  • snoey

    It’s time to build some pyramids.

    • SEK

      And then demolish them.

      And then rebuild them.

      And then demolish them.

      And then rebuild them.

      • I built a castle. It soonk.

        I built another one. IT soonk.

        I built a third. It caught fire, toppled over and then soonk.

        But the fourth one stayed oop!

      • Holden Pattern

        I don’t know. They might trap time, and then where will you be when you destroy them, with all the old relatives wandering around and complaining — they’re not likely to want to go back.

    • aristocracy of labor

      The answer is always yoga entrepreneurs.

  • BigHank53

    What will happen to millions of Chinese workers when they are thrown on the streets? Their government certainly won’t take care of them.

    I’ll beg to differ here. There’s more than a handful of economists claiming that China is keeping its currency artificially devalued in order to keep the foreign investment–and all those jobs–coming to China instead of Vietnam and Thailand and Africa. The ruling elite in China knows exactly what happens when there are too many hungry Chinese peasants: they overthrow the government.

    • RedSquareBear

      But can only continue as long as the cost of a unit of Chinese peasant labor is sufficiently lower than the cost of a unit of robot labor (“or labot”), adjusted for whatever currency manipulation you wish. At some point it’ll be cheaper in absolute terms to employ robot.

  • Geee, you know…I seem to recall somewhere around twenty years ago there was a guy who was President who suggested it might be smart for the nation to invest in, say, education, for workers whose jobs were threatened by advances in technology, only to be laughed at and ignored.

    What was his name again…Clitonn? ClinT Eastwood? I wish I could recall…

    • ploeg

      The problem is that the jobs that are being automated include jobs that require education (or at least, used to require education). The technologies that are used to automate these jobs might not be as sexy as robots, but they are out there. So in the end, you have a degree (and probably some amount of debt) only to find out that there’s no job growth in your field of choice and nobody wants to retire and lose their medical insurance.

      The solution, for better or worse, will likely require a general rethinking of our values as a society. Education alone probably won’t cut it.

      • That’s the current situation, true, but retraining during the nineties would have gone a long way to giving those who are suffering the most now from obsolence a chance to improve their skills and compete.

        Put it this way: as an analogy, if you took typing in high school, you’d have a shot at being a secretary today, even tho there are no typewriters in general use anymore. And to boot, you’d be able to acquire some nominal level of computer skills that might help you grasp other concepts in other phases of using a PC, like a spreadsheet program or Powerpoint or some such.

        • ploeg

          Put it this way: as an analogy, if you took typing in high school, you’d have a shot at being a secretary today, even tho there are no typewriters in general use anymore.

          Funny, that. I’m hard-pressed to think of a vocational category that’s more endangered than “secretary.” Nowadays they’re called “administrative assistants,” but they’ve become increasingly rare since the early 90s. Insofar as they still exist, they’re typically busy doing things other than typing. Most everybody at my workplace is expected to type their own damn memos, reports, etc. At one prior workplace, the function of the “administrative assistant” was to guard the door. As soon as management was comfortable with the badge reader controlling access, that was it for her.

          • ploeg

            I mean, not to discourage anybody from learning to type, but learning how to type very quickly and use office software isn’t a reliable path to steady employment anymore. You need to have those skills and a bunch of other skills too.

            • Analogies are not supposed to exactly reflect the situation, and the point I was making was, having those typing skills twenty years ago and employing them continuously as workplace technologies developed would have situated a secretary (now admin) in a position to learn additional computer skills as the technology and job needs intersected.

              • The secretary might have a better shot with a decent employer who allowed for constant training, but that’s a big wish in a lot of places. I can think of a lot of admin spots that can now be replaced by something like this. Sometimes I get mail in other languages: I run them through our photocopier, which sends a scan to me, I do some OCR, and run it through Google Translate. That last still needs some work, but it’s good enough and bye bye translator! (Not only that but I feel an obligation to sidestep the translator: why cost somebody more money?)

                The masses of industrial workers may not have the ability to learn on the job, and funding for training is hard to get. The retraining would be awesome if it was there, and if people wanted to hire old people who used to supervise the transit of cans down a chute into admin spots.

                A relative used to be a real live Madison Avenue Mad Man, alcoholic and everything. He was working on a Hershey campaign and discovered that there was a worker who counted almonds in the Hershey Bar of that variety. So he proposed a campaign that went “If there are less than X almonds in your Hershey bar, we’ll fire this guy”. Good for Hershey for not taking it up, but if your last job was counting almonds (and you’re older) you’re unlikely to get the admin job ahead of someone who has previously done similar work.

  • Steve LaBonne

    Who is supposed to buy all the stuff that the robotic factories produce?

    • YOu can’t fool me: it’s robots all the way down.

      • Anderson

        Yah, unless they have lots and lots of robotic consumers ready to shop, this seems like a diminishing-returns problem.

        • Richard

          If there is no demand for the product being manufactured by robots (because the unemployed or under employed workers can’t afford them), then there will be no investment capital for robotic factories. The reason robots are being used is because they reduce manufacturing costs. This leads to lower prices and increased sales and increased profits. If there are no increased profits to be realized, then there is no reason to invest in robotic factories. The scenario Erik envisages – more and more robotic factories, less and less consumers to pay for the products being manufactured – doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

        • Ramon A. Clef

          Thank you. I was trying to remember that story.

  • Malaclypse

    But we have reached a new phase in economic and labor history. The overall growth in the industrial sector simply doesn’t have much room for massive numbers of poorly-educated unemployed blue-collar workers.

    So Robotics differs from King Ned Ludd’s [*] looms how, exactly?

    [*] Note: I don’t consider the phrase “Luddite” to be a pejorative, and I am referring specifically to the smashing of looms which were used to replace hand-weaving.

    • mark f

      A movie about an indestructable loom that came from the future to weave John Connor a new sweater would probably suck.

      • I just hope the indestructible loom locates itself in Pawtucket.

        • Davis X. Machina

          But will it have indestructible fruit?

        • DocAmazing

          If only for the limericks that would result.

          • elm

            There once was a loom from Pawtucket
            That made cheap cloth by the bucket.
            But the good jobs were lost
            And the workers got tossed
            And the bosses said we could suck it.

            • Linnaeus


  • Cody

    Well, I would think that this isn’t a bad thing overall. However, in the current climate it would be a disaster. In general, if the economy expanded information-wise to make up for the short fall in production work it would be a net positive as the necessities would become very cheap to buy.

    With the current 1% motto; I find it unlikely there would be any jobs for the poor. Maybe we can just let them die off? Probably something wrong with their genes anyways.

    • bob mcmanus

      Google “Four Futures” by Peter Frase at Jacobin.
      Posits replicators.

      The last future, the one where the elite want to stay elite, but don’t need many workers anymore, and are running low on natural resources is called…exterminism. Starts out in gated communities with security guards, ends with a world population of a few hundred million.

      This is the one I expect, within the next couple generations, say 50 years.

      • Davis Lydon III

        Thanks for the mention of the Peter Frase article. Here’s the link for others.

        It seems hard to predict what will happen at the confluence of all of these intersecting streams of history: (a) the technological revolution described by this robotics takeover, (b) the natural coming to an end of capitalism that Peter Frase describes, (c) the seemingly obvious collapse that will come once we are deep in the throes of climate change, and (d) the marked decline in our productive capabilities as we fail to accomodate the peak oil (and peak everything) futures.

        And while it seems hard to predict, it does seem to bode some truly horrible times to come.

  • Evan Harper

    As tempting as it is to just make fun of Erik Loomis for his bone-deep rejection of anything resembling economic literacy, I think I’ll just play it straight, and zoom in on the mistake:

    Earlier technological innovations did throw people out of work but with growing industrial capacity, actual overall job loss tended to be mitigated by other factors.

    “Growing industrial capacity” is just another way to say “technological innovations throwing people out of work.” It’s not about “other factors” at all. Inventing a new process that produces things more efficiently both throws people out of work — because they’re no longer needed to work the old, inefficient process — and creates new work for people, because the wealth created by the new process is realized as demand for all sorts of other goods.

    Why does a job that hasn’t changed much over the years — being a schoolteacher, say — pay so much more today than it did say 100 years ago? It’s because, even though teaching hasn’t changed much, innovation in the rest of the economy means that those who would hire teachers are now competing to lure potential teachers away from other jobs where productivity has increased. And “where productivity has increased” is just another way of saying “where evil capitalists have deviously invented machines to do things in place of workers.”

    There never was any series of happy co-incidences that just happened to prevent new technology from throwing everyone out of work, and there is no risk that this time the co-incidences will fail to happen.

    (But, in all fairness, Loomis has to have heard this all before… probably dozens of times, in an increasingly strained and exasperated tone. So on some level it’s insulting to even explain it to him. The real issue is why he just refuses to believe it.)

    • I’ll ignore your insulting assholism and respond anyway. Because “growing industrial capacity” does not mean “technological innovation throwing people out of work.” It means that we made so much stuff in the post-war period that the employment market could absorb those job losses in other fields. Are you saying the same conditions exist today? And if so, what could possibly be your evidence? Moreover, if the rise of robot labor has the transformative impact the many people quoted in the article say it will, who will buy all these things if so much labor is out of work? Where does all of this labor go to work? And why hasn’t U.S. labor without college educations been able to partake in economic success?

      You could answer all these questions. Or you could be an asshole. I suspect you will opt for the latter.

      Also, school teaching pays so much more than a century ago because of labor unions negotiating better wages for teachers. And it still doesn’t pay well, unless your vision of the great present and future is a highly educated worker pulling in $35K with $60K of student debt while under pressure to increase test scores in order to keep her job.

      • mpowell

        I agree with some of your concerns, but I really think technological progress is a red herring here.

        The continued success of our economy and our society is really dependent on two important factors: demand management and fairness/equity of outcomes. Labor economics/politics is fully concerned with the latter, which is your strong suit. With a strong labor force we will also get better demand management as the economic benefits of technological progress will acrue to those who actually spend money (as opposed to just the rich), but we are dependent on this happening. I understand why you are concerned with technological progress because it seems to reduce the availability of blue collar factory jobs that were traditionally the backbone of the middle class. But I would request that you consider that this was always a very hollow success for the american labor class. Any actually wealthy society is going to be primarily a service economy. Today it is nearly 70% of the economy. That represents wealth. That represents the fact that only 30% of the work we do is in producing the physical goods we live with. The rest goes to enhancing our lives in other ways. And in any healthy, wealthy society, you need labor fairness for the 70% of the employed class that are not in manufacturing. This has always been the case. The 50s was great for blue collar white men, but let’s be realistic: the union model of that era was never going to extend that kind of labor fairness to anything close to the entire workforce because it was not driven by a vision of worker solidarity unless you were white and male. We have always needed a model for achieving labor fairness for the service sector as well and robotics has only made this need more apparent.

        Even then, the economic data I am aware of only has the median worker in the US holding steady over the past 35 years at worst. So even in the face of the failure of the union model (which elites would have been pushing for with or without robots and cheap foreign labor), technology has not made us worse off.

      • CD

        This would be more persuasive if you would take account of the fact that employment really does shift, quite radically, over decades and centuries, and that substituting capital for labor has been going on for an extremely long time.

    • Cody

      I’m just going to point out that apparently your idea of success is how much teachers pay. I’m willing to wager you make a lot more than teachers do.

    • Jason

      The comment by Evan Harper is nicely representative of the ridiculous but widespread conviction that the economic theory of capitalism depends upon no special empirical assumptions–IOW, that there is no possibility of background conditions changing so that capitalist economies cease to function in exactly the same they previously have (or more usually, as they are imagined to have). It’s social science as comforting metaphysics, designed to sooth the consciences of the 1%-er’s who read the Wall Street Journal.

    • Why does a job that hasn’t changed much over the years — being a schoolteacher, say — pay so much more today than it did say 100 years ago?


      You think teaching has been a stagnant field over the past century?

      Wow. I’m floored by the Todd Akin-level of ignorance this statement entails. You must wear Velcroed shoes.

      • salacious

        Relative to say, industrial production? Absolutely. There haven’t been the big returns to scale in teaching that there have been in other sectors (although the internet may or may not change that eventually).

        This is a well recogonized phenomenon, not some normative statement about teaching. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baumol's_cost_disease

    • Malaclypse

      Why does a job that hasn’t changed much over the years — being a schoolteacher, say — pay so much more today than it did say 100 years ago?

      Because you are too stupid to understand inflation and how that impacts salaries, apparently.

      • Assuming Evan was talking in real terms and not nominal (big assumption, I know), I’d imagine that unions had something to do with teachers being paid a more decent wage.

        Though I’d be interested to see a comparison of what educators earned 100 years ago compared to today, and how that varied from cities to small towns. I’m sure 100 years ago there were rural one-room schoolhouses where the teacher was paid in food by the local farmers.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Welcome to the servant economy. Seven billion people. Six billion of them buskers and manicurists.

    • Will the robots want manicures?

      • wjts

        No, but robots love shitty acoustic guitar versions of “Wonderwall,” so the buskers’ll be just fine.

      • Hogan

        According to my extensive research, robots do drink beer. Maybe we can all open breweries.

        • Sherm

          I was expecting Bender.

          • Hogan

            Click on “beer.”

  • The Pale Scot

    It’s not just manufacturing, consider service industries like completely automated fast food restaurants, a truck inserts a box container into the building and robots and order kiosks do the rest with only a telephone for complaints. The technology is close to making robots that can pick fruit and vegetables, the software and hardware is already here, waiting for the inevitable increase in CPU speed. Much of what lawyers and pharmacists do can be done by robots.

    Society will somehow have to re-invent itself to accept that most people will never have a paying job. Along with how to distribute the things robots make (who’s going to be able to buy sh*t without income from a job) society will have to change the morality ideals of work and personal value. That is going to be much harder than figuring out the economics.

    • mpowell

      This is actually not a very difficult issue at all. If we really get to this point where we have excess labor, we can just create a national minimum income. And it won’t cost us anything because robots will be doing the work. But we don’t have excess labor problem right now. We have a demand management problem.

      • The Pale Scot

        “we can just create a national minimum income.”

        If it would only be that easy. The whole edifice of right wing social belief is based on valuing people by how much money they make. Can’t figure out who’s “blessed” when the majority isn’t even working. The Calvinists, which is a significant portion of the population, won’t accept it. It will be climate change denial on steroids.

        • mpowell

          The reality is that we are not anywhere close to this outcome, though. I can’t project what politics will be like in 1 or 2 generations, but I’m pretty sure both parties will have changed significantly by then. Given that 70% of the economy is already service sector (and there is plenty for people to do!), I don’t think robot factories imply that we’re close to a post labor economy. That is still quite a ways off.

          • The Pale Scot


            It’s going to happen much quicker than you think.

            This series of articles detailing how robots will replace pharmacists, doctors, lawyers. The higher paid professions are actually the ones that will be targeted first.

            In Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee bring together a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that technological progress is accelerating, and that this trend has deep consequences for skills, wages, and jobs. The book makes the case that employment prospects are grim for many today not because there’s been technology has stagnated, but instead because we humans and our organizations aren’t keeping up.

            It’s not just the difference in wages to capital investment. Robots remove the expenses related to managing people. You can ditch a VP or two by contracting the HR dept. and replace a layer of middle management with a repair and maintenance contract.

            • Paul Campos

              Uh oh

    • JoyfulA

      In the late 1970s, when the insurance company I worked for was immensely boosting productivity with computers and word processors, the talk was of running out of work for people to do and the assumption was that there’d be three-day work weeks and a general sharing of the available work: less time on the job and the same salary.

      That the world didn’t go in that direction, I suspect, has something to do with the 1%.

    • GFW
  • Jonas

    I have it on good authority that in 2024 the Bell Riots will set us on our post-work future.

    • John (not McCain)

      Then we just sit back, wait for the Vulcans to show up, and it’s paradise until the end of the Federo-Cardassian war.

    • sam

      I’m just grateful we’ve so far avoided the Eugenics Wars.

  • UserGoogol

    I find it staggeringly unlikely that a post-labor economy would be able to last very long without a liveable universal basic income of some sort being introduced. If people are completely and utterly unemployable and devoid of income in a world full of wealth, that is a radically unsustainable situation which have to end quickly one way or the other. There are some rather unpleasant ways that could be resolved (the poor simply die off leaving everyone left over rich, or alternatively, perhaps some sort of bloody global revolution) but in comparison a guaranteed minimum income could be done by some comparatively modest liberal incrementalist expansions to the welfare state. If “not being a robot” becomes a disability, then that’s a rather large faction which should be much harder to marginalize than existing disabilities.

    • BigHank53

      Believe it or not, the Dead Kennedys visited this topic over thirty years ago.

      • Sherm

        Now that we have the neutron bomb…

        • Bill Murray

          We got the neutron bomb,
          We got the neutron bomb
          We got the neutron, gonna drop it all over the place

          Yer gonna get it on yer face
          Foreign aid from the land of the free
          But don’t blame me

          We got the neutron bomb,
          We got the neutron bomb
          We got the neutron, don’t understand you don’t know what you mean

          We don’t want you we want your machines
          United Nations and NATO won’t do
          It’s just the red, white and blue

          • Sherm

            “Efficiency and progress is ours once more
            Now that we have the Neutron bomb
            It’s nice and quick and clean and gets things done
            Away with excess enemy
            But no less value to property
            No sense in war but perfect sense at home:

            The sun beams down on a brand new day
            No more welfare tax to pay
            Unsightly slums gone up in flashing light
            Jobless millions whisked away
            At last we have more room to play
            All systems go to kill the poor tonight

            Kill kill kill kill Kill the poor:Tonight

            Behold the sparkle of champagne
            The crime rate’s gone
            Feel free again
            O’ life’s a dream with you, Miss Lily White
            Jane Fonda on the screen today
            Convinced the liberals it’s okay
            So let’s get dressed and dance away the night

            While they:
            Kill kill kill kill Kill the poor:Tonight”

    • Jason

      I wish this were true, UserGoogol, but most of human history says otherwise. Or at any rate, it says that societies can be a hell of lot more unequal even than the one we’re in now, and stay that way for a long time without imploding. E.g., serfdom.

      • UserGoogol

        Inequality in general can be sustained, but the exploitation of labor is an entirely different kettle of fish from no labor at all. The relationship between workers and the elites can be exploitative, but there’s still a symbiotic relationship going on. Workers still get something out of the relationship, (access to land, or capital, or whatever) so they have a certain incentive to go along with the system even if it’s horrendously unfair. But if the poor are completely worthless to the rich and the rich are complete worthless to the poor, that’s a far more precarious situation.

      • mpowell

        Human history has never been anywhere close to achieving a post-labor economy.

  • mb

    Here: Four Futures

    Hopefully we can avoid the exterminism you imagine.

  • Matthew Stevens

    Yeah, I too don’t see a substantive difference between this and every other industrial innovation. You’ll get the usual outcomes:

    1. Capitalists introduce labor-saving technology
    2. That sector’s workers are made obsolete and their lives are destroyed (let’s not sugar-coat this)
    3. Everyone else gets cheaper or better goods from this sector
    4. They use the money their save to buy more goods from other sectors, keeping employment levels the same, all else being equal

    Unemployment and inequality are due to politics, not technology: We don’t do enough to stimulate demand, and we repress labor unions, or capitalists ship jobs to areas that suppress unions.

    • See this all feels very utopian to me.

      Because the upshot of robot labor is TO REPLACE ALL LABOR. Previous technological innovations still meant work. Different work and sometimes worse work, but still laboring for money.

      Someone needs to provide an answer where the labor is going to go here. Your list above doesn’t show me how money is made if people don’t work.

      • Matthew Stevens

        Okay, you’re not talking about current conditions, you’re talking about an end-point when ALL human labor is replaced with machine labor. When even the management and repair of robots is left to robots, so no one has to work at all.

        In that case, either the capitalists live in robot-run wonderlands while the unemployed masses starve, or those unemployed masses storm the wonderlands and set up a communist utopia.

        Neither outcome is immanent, though, and both scenarios seem pretty remote to today’s problems.

        • I’m talking about 5-10 years from now when robots have replaced a significant portion of assembly line labor around the world and you have millions of people thrown out of work with no economic options. And that’s a process that is likely to only continue unless there’s new kind of work invented that robots can’t do.

          • MPAVictoria

            I don’t see why this is so hard to understand. What, if anything, are these former assembly line workers to do? Can anyone answer that?

            • Bill Murray

              they likely can’t even assemble their robot replacements

            • Furious Jorge

              Call center workers for when the robots break down?

              (Note: this is not meant seriously)

          • Matt Stevens

            They already have “replaced a significant portion of assembly line labor around the world.” The process has been going on for 30 years. So I don’t know why you think this is a new problem.

            • Davis Lydon III

              The nature of the technological achievement in robotics is qualitatively changing, and to those who have followed it closely, it’s leaping across a capabilities chasm in doing so.

              Machine vision is improving significantly. The type of machine to real-world interaction that was previously limited to other senses, has now crossed this barrier. Now machines can see, hear, touch, and smell. These ‘senses’, operating in concert, allow a much broader range of activities to be undertaken.

              These calculating and sensing machines are now rapidly gaining the ability to move. Motility is a huge hurdle to overcome in automation, as it allows for work to be done outside of the fixed boundaries of the assembly line.

              The infrastructural element of the computing environment that has magnified all of these new capabilities is the ubiquitous network. Where individual machines worked in isolation in the past, today everything on the factory floor _and_ every other computing element in the entire value chain can talk to each other.

              To say that the process has been going on for 30 years and that this is thus nothing new is to lose focus. Look at it from the perspective of its internal evolution. It’s taken 30 years (longer actually) to incrementally build generation after generation of automation. This incrementalism, much like its biological counterpart in evolution, grows to a point where new forms of life are possible.

      • BigHank53

        In the last forty years, a fifth of the American workforce has moved out of manufacturing and into…something else. Lots of those something elses didn’t exist forty years ago: anything to do with computer networking. Or cellular telephones. Or optical fiber. The Web. Video games. Global positioning systems and their spinoffs. DNA sequencing and manipulation.

        And yes, most of the new jobs weren’t as well-compensated as the old ones, due mostly to the decline of unions.

        • Or they’ve moved into nothing and fallen off the employment rolls.

        • And please note that none of these jobs are for non-college educated workers, which is precisely the kind of work these robot manufacturers are looking to eliminate entirely.

          • Hogan

            I keep hoping we’ll rebuild those roads and bridges and water and sewer systems some day. Hard to robotize much of that.

          • Corey

            There are plenty of jobs for folks with vocational educations in the fields above.

          • BigHank53

            none of these jobs are for non-college educated workers

            You don’t need a degree to install connectors or splices on fiber optic cables. Nobody who sells phone contracts or video games or their accessories needs a degree.

            As it happens, I share your concerns. I just think you’re over-simplifying.

            • Curmudgeon

              You need people to sell video games?

              Content sales is moving to an online only model. Networks like Steam and Apple’s app store don’t need sales staff. The only fields with long term prospects in new media distribution are those associated with physically maintaining data centers.

              There’s no sales staff by definition. Google has proved that online businesses don’t need customer service. Software-level administration can be outsourced to any cheap labor jurisdiction. The only jobs left by a shift from store sales to online sales are for on-site hardware work.

              • The sales staff are people who do Apple’s work for it by reviewing the software.

                There are people behind the scenes, though, as Apple needs to maintain enough staff to refuse spots to apps it distrusts/dislikes.

    • The Pale Scot

      The difference this time is that almost all sectors of the economy will be affected at the same time.

      “Anyplace where you find humans engaged in repetitive tasks—even if those tasks aren’t all physical, and sometimes require deep intellectual problem-solving skills—there’s a fair chance they’ll be replaced by computers.”

      That leaves bartenders, designers (maybe) and artists.

      • Who doesn’t think we could design a robot who can make drinks.

        • The Pale Scot

          Depends, at a country club a robot would fit right in, at busy bar the bartender is part crowd control part ambience.

  • The Pale Scot

    The NYT article seems to be generalist re-write of this series of articles,


    More specifics given.

  • Light Rail Tycoon

    Abolish Work!

  • Anonymous

    When will robots replace Socialist college professors of useless subjects and third tier state universities? That’s the real question.

    • Hogan

      I see they’ve already replaced knee-jerk wingnut blog commenters.

    • Dave Dooley

      Someone finally recognized that URI has moved into the third tier. The bottom half of the second tier is within our reach.

    • The Pale Scot

      Everyone say HI! to Doug.

  • Steve

    Suggest reading Heinlein “For us, the living…”
    The idea was to put new money in at the bottom to soak up extra automated production, rather than at the top, as we do now. Everyone has a basic living standard, those who want to do more are rewarded with better things. Eventually, though, the lack of cheap energy will bring it all to a grinding halt.

    • Ooh, I don’t think I’ve read that one yet. If it’s how you portray the story, seems like a departure from Heinlein’s other stories (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, for example).

  • LeeEsq

    Matthew Stevens, the difference between the robotic
    Industrial revolutions and previous ones is one of scale.
    If the predictions are right. The robotic revolution
    Could wipe out jobs by the millions or tens of millions.
    The entire manufacturing and large chunk of the low
    to middle service sectors would be rendered obsolete.
    If this is the case then we need to do a bit more planning than just simply go forward and hope it works out. I’m not optimistic about this because it’ll require radical changes to human society.

    • Marek

      Fortunately, the other radical changes to human society brought on by climate change and the end of cheap energy may prevent us from having to solve this particular problem.

  • bobbyp


    Assuming infinite human desires constrained only by resource availability, your scenario seems to imply a ‘wider’ (‘bigger’?) array of desires could now be met by the new mix of available resources.

    The outcomes could vary greatly.

    If we had a distribution of these outcomes that was anything approximating just, we could all do with a bit more leisure and still enjoy a better standard of living.

    In the absence of this justice, I share your pessimism….and dystopia is in our future.

  • LeeEsq

    The low to middle level jobs that are most likely to survive are the ones where physical human content or some form of creativity is required. Very few people are going to want a yoga lesson from a robot. I can see even bell hops, maids, and other similar workers in hotels
    remaining human because people want the contact. Likewise, robots are going to be good at transactional
    legal work but horrible at advocating. It’s the jobs were human contact or imagination ate not essential that are screwed.

    That being said, industrial revolutions are rarely total or perfectly implemented. Lots of people still pay accountants to do their taxes rather than use turbotax. There will be gaps in the robotization of work

    • MPAVictoria

      “The low to middle level jobs that are most likely to survive are the ones where physical human content or some form of creativity is required.”

      I am honest enough to admit that I will likely fare poorly in our robotised future.

  • Curmudgeon

    How central banks manage demand matters much more to how displaced workers fare than you’re giving credit for.

    Mass unemployment through technological advancement is only inevitable if the economy continues to be managed to maintain a slack labor market in the interests of benefiting capital and limiting inflation. A sufficiently hot economy, if allowed to occur, will draw displaced workers back into the labor force into jobs that have yet to be robotized.

    Which is to say that mass unemployment is inevitable in practice–because politics cannot allow otherwise–but is not inevitable in theory.

  • bobbyp

    Dean Baker’s concluding remark on his review of the article:

    “If this new generation of robots ends up making large segments of the population worse off, it will be the result of deliberate policies. It is not the fault of the robots.”

    • mpowell


  • cold eels, distant thoughts

    I had the same pessimistic feelings after reading this article that Erik did.

    Perhaps I was doubly shaken when I read Richard Posner’s shockingly nutsy review of ‘How Much is Enough’ in the Book Review section. The book makes a case for shorter work days, perhaps a bit too richly solely based on some examples Posner points out. However Posner, apparently believing we are at full employment and not being familiar with the concept of ‘shift work’, becomes concerned that we well become ‘defenseless’, with soldiers only putting in 20 hours a week and with no weapons because of the short hours at the munitions factories. Ditto for police and fire protection.

    He then goes on to dream about what would happen if people only worked these short hours and created a necessarily less materialistic society as they now earned less. “If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time [people] would brawl, steal, overeat, drink, and sleep late” !!!

    I know he’s from the Univ of Chicago, but I was under the impression that Posner had etched out some reasonable standing as a thoughtful, real-life moderate.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    Someone with more economics background clarify this for me… From the Marxist perspective, machines cannot create value, just transfer value. So whereas workers might not assemble a car by hand, someone has to build the robots. The automation has to start with human action. Also, again according to Marx, since labor is the source of value, and thus surplus value, it is really impossible to replace all the workers. The cost of machines, as they become more complex and sophisticated, will exceed the cost of labor. Moreover, as workers are driven out of automated sectors, labor costs will fall, meaning the incentive to use manpower over machine power might undo some of the effects on labor.

    None of this is to say that the process wont mean the total disruption of the lives of affected workers, just that there is little prospect of a future without human labor as long as profit is still the driving motivation.

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