Does the rise of the robots doom us all to unemployment? The answer is most certainly no. Provocative claims that the United States has reached “peak jobs” and will soon be a “post-scarcity economy” neglect an essential part of the reason why we work.
By now you’ve probably heard the argument that robots won’t do away with jobs because we’ll use them to do better jobs. That’s been the result of advances in technology throughout human history, and especially since the Industrial Revolution. So at least some of us – those capable of commanding robots – will have more productive jobs than ever.
But if robots are exceptionally good at their jobs, and we can use them to make just about everything, then another argument suggests that we won’t actually need to work. Many of us will choose to be creatures of leisure, free to think deep thoughts, or at least play games on our smartphones, while our earthly needs are tended to by machines. Such was the controversial yet eerily believable premise of the movie “Wall-E”, at any rate.
The problem with these predictions is that providing for basic needs is not the only thing that compels us to work. We also like to follow through on our ideas by achieving goals that make us proud, creating new products to improve our lives, and feeling the thrill of power and control. In short, opportunity to do all these things can be as important as material compensation.
It’s surprising that this simple observation has eluded the post-scarcity futurists. The idea that opportunity means as much as money is hardly new, and it is already being applied by companies and governments.
For instance, Google encourages its employees to spend one day a week on their own projects. Some experts believe that the ideas generated this way could not possibly make up for the cost of paying thousands of people five days a week for four days of work on corporate priorities. Yet the policy is likely to give Google a big advantage in recruiting workers, who undoubtedly appreciate the freedom to use the company’s resources as they choose. It may also allow Google to pay them less.
As chancellor of New York City’s public school system, Joel Klein also realized how independence in the workplace could act as an incentive for performance. Rather than pulling funding from failing schools, he took direct control of them. And rather than rewarding successful schools solely with money – which many did not need – he gave them more power to choose their own styles of education.
Even when the day comes that we can count on a comfortable lifestyle regardless of our income, we will still work to fulfill our personal goals and, of course, to keep up with the Joneses. Indeed, we’ve already seen a lifelike projection of this very situation. Those folks on “Star Trek” could make anything they wanted in their replicators and travel thousands of miles at the push of a button in their transporters, but they still put in a hard shift every day – and no one wondered why.