And there is another group of people who, when the specter of technological unemployment gets raised, knee-jerk respond with, “But technology creates more jobs than it does away with!”
The first group wants to do away with jobs altogether. The second is comforted by the idea that this will never happen.
This dichotomy exists because the elimination of jobs has virtually nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with the fact that, on a global scale, we are all just keeping ourselves entertained.
Please know, I am not aiming to diminish anyone’s suffering. I’m not saying it’s entertaining to live through war or famine or disease.
I’m saying one of the fundamental questions each of us faces is how to spend the roughly 38 million minutes each of us has on the planet.
The economist John Maynard Keynes said, “I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years” (emphasis mine). He said this *checks notes* 93 years ago.
By the “economic problem,” Keynes meant our “absolute needs,” e.g., food, water, shelter. He distinguished these from “relative needs” -- those things we need in order to feel superior to others.
I reckon Keynes was spot-on. We’ve had more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet for decades. If we really wanted to, we could easily care for everyone.
That we don’t is not for lack of technology. It’s for lack of understanding what really motivates us.
Here, too, Keynes was insightful. “[F]or the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem -- how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares… to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
We spend so much time developing technology to do the things humans can already do, and so little time devoting ourselves to living wisely and agreeably and well.
The machine of our society is geared toward keeping jobs. We want low unemployment. Our social safety nets often come with the requirement to look for work -- and we say they’ve failed when the disincentivize people from getting a job. Universal Basic Income experiments demonstrate success by pointing out that recipients didn’t leave the workforce.
We do this because we know jobs are not just about money or putting food on the table. They are about keeping us entertained. They are about a feeling of purpose. They are about who we are.
What would the machine of our society look like if it were geared toward helping us live wisely and agreeably and well?
Without work, we would need to sit with the question of who we are. We complain about being wage slaves, but most of us are not prepared for the alternative. As Keynes said, “To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet – until they get it.”
He had a short-term solution: Keep working, if only to ignore our existential angst: “Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread… Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”
But he also had a long-term, utopian vision: “We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.”
We can only get there if we work out how to live wisely and agreeably and well. That’s our first job -- and we don’t need technology to get started.