What will the future of work look like? It is a question that is being asked by many people — not just by economists, but by political scientists, labor organizers and everyday people alike. The reason for the popularity of this question has to do in part with what we see happening to labor in the marketplace. Go to a Walmart around here and you will find multiple self-checkout kiosks where you input the items you want to purchase through a scanner instead of employees scanning the items for you. Automation of this kind has the capacity to disrupt the economy for the worse, as I have previously written. But must it? I don’t think so. In fact, I have come to realize that automation reframes the question asked above. Instead of “What will the future of work look like?” the question has become “What will the economy of the future look like — and will it even be recognizable?”
It is important to note some economic theories. Automation generally has a tendency to disrupt industries and cause unemployment when no further employment opportunities are created from it. A useful example can be found in various American industries right before the Great Depression, when technologies for mining and manufacturing jobs had become so advanced that a large number of workers that were previously employed were no longer needed. We may see a parallel situation in today’s automation of goods and services. The number of jobs required to build and upkeep these kiosks likely do not even begin to replace the jobs that would be lost once automation accelerates — and it will continue to accelerate. Some estimates state that more than 40 percent of all jobs may be lost to automation by 2030.
The people who will be most greatly impacted by automation are not the ones deciding whether their jobs should be automated. In the present socioeconomic situation, no one is clamoring for a computer to take their jobs. This may be due in part to an attitude of the “dignity of work,” that one only deserves to provide for oneself if they are a productive citizen — that is, they must “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” This attitude has rightly met challenges in the recent past. Even in states with minimum wages of $15 an hour, it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain oneself against economic pressure from rent, food, health care and so on. This is not to mention the wealth inequality in the country, which is at its greatest divide since before the Great Depression. Workers do not choose automation. Those at the upper end of the wealth distribution stand to gain tremendously from it — their gain, our loss.
There is no question that this arrangement will lead to political, social and economic upheaval. It would do so regardless of whether the management or the workers decide the future of the economy. So who should decide it? The status quo of management and CEOs calling the shots is clearly untenable. Instead, workers should have control over which industries get automated and to what extent. They also shouldn’t have to worry about the aforementioned economic pressures, as the productivity of machines is greater and lasts longer than the productivity of human workers. This is what I mean by reframing the question. Automation has the capacity to reshape the fundamental nature of the economy as we know it, for good and for ill. The present reality of automation can and will lead to economic catastrophe. It is not unreasonable, then, to want an alternative.
Jacob Hanna is a junior majoring in economics.