13 facts about work in the age of automation

In the 21st century human labor and, as a consequence, the foundation of the society will be changing dramatically due to the rapid progress of information technology. The shift will likely be similarly wide-reaching as the industrialization. Unfortunately, debates about the opportunities, threats and necessary steps often turn into arguments about ideology and world views, instead of objectively acknowledging the facts and proposing constructive, unbiased actions.

But what are those objective facts by the way, that apply no matter one’s view of the world and of the economic system? I’ll try to collect a few of them which, from my point of view, should represent the basis for a consensus.

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  • Dozens of millions of jobs will disappear within the next years and decades due to automation and the progress in what commonly is referred to as “artificial intelligence”. Unlike in the past when only repetitive and low-skill jobs were replaced by computers, going forward, all skill-levels will be affected.
  • Especially the automation of degrading job types (such as doing the same monotonous task for 8-10 hours straight with only few breaks) is, from an objective perspective, a very good thing. After all, they are nowadays considered unworthy of a human being.
  • The majority of jobs is made up and not essential to the day-to-day survival of humanity (“bullshit jobs”). That’s ok but too often ignored. People have always been excellent at inventing new kinds of jobs that no one before would have guessed were needed, and they’ll keep doing that.
  • The amount of human labor directly required for the survival of humanity will keep shrinking thanks to automation.
  • What’s in the interest of the national economy is not necessarily best for the society and the well-being of the individual. From a national economic perspective, a call center sales agent who scams old people into purchasing highly overpriced services employing deliberate deception is considered a better and more productive citizen than someone who writes music at home all day long and occasionally plays at a local pub in exchange for a few free drinks and some tip. The latter person would be labeled as “lazy” since he/she does not contribute to the GDP and might even receive welfare benefits from the state.
  • The general criteria for what is being considering a “job” (in contrast to hobbies, side projects or leisure activities) is whether the individual receives a direct monetary remuneration for the task. That however makes the term more fluid than what’s often recognized, since every leisure activity can be turned into a job if someone would finance it. You probably are aware that some online gamers have managed to create and monetize huge audiences that watch their live-streamed gaming sessions. This is how “lazy” suddenly becomes “productive”.
  • People’s performance is generally best if they put their time and energy into something which they are passionate about or at least enjoy doing. Those who are stuck in a job which they despise or find entirely non-stimulating usually don’t give 100 percent.
  • In a fictive scenario, if you would offer all salaried employees to switch to an occupation of their choice while keeping their pay, many, and possibly even the majority, would choose a different job than their current one.
  • Generally, self-employed people work more than salaried workers, but on average they are more satisfied with what they are doing.
  • Humans who face existential fears and who have to put all their mental and physical energy into finding ways to pay their bills and put food on the table might become creative in that endeavor, but don’t have any capacity left to come up with long-term career strategies and ideas. That is one of the reasons why people keep working in jobs they are unhappy with: They cannot or don’t want to afford major, strategic risk taking due to the constant lack of cash.
  • The opposite type exists as well: An individual who thrives when the pressure to succeed and the negative consequences of failure are becoming intense. I claim that most people are not operating that way.
  • The trend of so called “on-demand jobs” which connects non-employed free agents to customers through online platforms such as Uber or Lyft means that an increasing number of people lose the benefits and social security of permanent jobs, exposing them to bigger risks. At the same time, their autonomy and independence from the duties of a traditional job increases as well.
  • If you put all ideology and moral judgements aside and just look at what’s technologically and economically feasible, then it is a fact that today’s wealthy countries could, in theory, afford to satisfy every person’s very basic needs at very low collective costs. Thanks to automation and economies of scale, digitization and innovative technology for low-bureaucracy, highly efficient administration (such as the Blockchain), welfare costs could be reduced significantly while having a much better impact. Unlike 100 or even 50 years ago, rich countries could theoretically ensure that no individual needs to face the fear of going hungry or having to live on the streets.

Whether the automation becomes an opportunity or a threat fully depends on which conclusions modern societies draw from this status quo.

Here you can read this article in German.

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