What Will Happen When All the Jobs Are Gone?

Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Even though we’re in the midst of a tech revolution that has led to the loss of many jobs, at the moment most employed Americans still go to work at jobs that have been around for a long time: They’re nurses or cashiers or retail workers, and so on. But what’s going to happen if technology starts gobbling up these jobs as well, breaking us out of the employment cycles to which we’re accustomed and leading instead to a long downward trend in the availability of regular work?

That’s the question Derek Thompson explores in a fascinating cover story in this month’s The Atlantic. It’s about “A World Without Work,” as the headline reads, and the piece is very much worth reading (it also serves as a very useful complement to Jennifer Senior’s article from January about what people may be giving up as the center of work life shifts away from traditional offices).

To be clear, Thompson is measured in his article; he doesn’t think Americans will wake up tomorrow to find that robots have seized all their jobs, given how many of these jobs have so far resisted the advances of robots and software. But Thompson does see signs that this sort of shift is on the horizon, that as computers get more and more sophisticated, they’ll increasingly encroach on tasks that have previously been seen as humans-only — driving may be a near(ish)-future example — with profound effects on the labor market.

The bulk of the article teases out the possible effects of all this from both an economic and psychological perspective, and Thompson uses Youngstown, which is still dealing with the fallout from a period of devastating job loss that followed the 1977 shuttering of Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works mill, as a case study.

Summing up the whole thing, which you really should read in its entirety, here are the hypothetical best- and worst-case scenarios for post-work America:

Best case: Gradually, every level of society starts reorganizing to account for the fact that most people no longer have access to regular work. At the local level, there’s a heightened emphasis on the sorts of civic institutions — community centers, churches, or whatever — where people can gather to socialize, search out work gigs when they want or need them, and find meaningful ways to spend their days. Eventually, a guaranteed minimum income, or something like it, is enacted to make sure that everyone can maintain a decent standard of living despite their lack of access to work. Abandoned office buildings are turned into useful communal spaces; parents, freed from much of the obligation of work, can spend more time with their kids, and society benefits as a result.

Worst case: None of the above happens; there’s no real shift to acknowledge the fact that the days of traditional work are over. All the most devastating financial and psychological effects of unemployment gradually roll across the country, with the most economically precarious regions hit first. Owing to political gridlock and concerns about the “lazy” unemployed benefiting from the few remaining “hard workers,” there’s barely even an attempt to build a safety net that can catch people who are dislodged from traditional work schedules. Blight and the other tolls of unemployment spread across the country, while a shrinking few continue to enjoy a bigger and bigger chunk of the highly automated economy’s output.

These are, of course, highly stylized, dramatic versions of the future that sit at the far ends of the scenario of possible outcomes, and reality will likely fall somewhere in the middle. Whatever happens, Thompson’s article is a useful early step in figuring out what to do about the momentous changes we may be facing in the decades ahead.