In the summer of 1970 I had a cool teenager vacation job: writing computer programs for a trucking company in downtown Los Angeles. After I finished coding a new report, my boss asked me to share it with a small department’s employees. I told the fifteen people there what I had done. And I saw their horror as we realized that my report replaced what they had been doing for a paycheck.
I felt terrible about the consequences of my work. I felt angry with my boss who knew exactly what would happen. He had made me the unwitting messenger of bad news. I never found out the consequences, but we’ve all heard countless stories like this.
We are building and bringing to market machines that perform what were formerly high-level executive functions (e.g. financial and legal advice) and “job-safe” manual labor (industrial and service robots). I believe we are at a tipping point where the unexamined assumption that there will somehow always be enough paid work for people is breaking down.
Our children have a much harder time landing a “good job” unless they have an ever-shrinking set of high-level, constantly shifting skills.
It’s time to face an unpleasant reality. The notion that there will be enough paid jobs to allow workers to make a decent living may no longer be sustainable.
We need to seriously consider implementing universal basic income before we end up in a world where a tiny elite is paid for work and the rest has nothing to do and no income.
[Written after reading the New York Times article Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs.]
Photo attribution: Flickr user jurvetson