A few years back my sister’s husband died after an unexpected illness. My sister, who was in her early 50s, experienced a devastating loss at a relatively early age. To her good fortune, my brother-in-law left behind an adequate pension and their mortgage had been paid off, so she didn’t have to bear the burden of having to work to make ends meet. And she didn’t—for a while, anyway.
After a period of mourning and adjustment, however, my sister decided to return to work. I asked her why, and this was her response: “There were only so many movies I could go to, only so many TV shows to watch, only so many trips to take. I just needed something to do.”
Now you may ask, what does my sister’s loss have to do with the impact of automation on human employment? Consider this: As automation replaces more human labor, fewer people will be required to make the economy function. Many of those whose labor is no longer needed will be left unemployed, sitting at home deprived of the thing that gave their lives meaning and structure: a job. And without a job, many will be left adrift—not just economically, but also psychologically, living a life without meaning or purpose. That which made their lives worth living will be gone. The implications of a population put aside by automation and living a life without structure or meaning are significant.
Allow me to elaborate.
The Need for Structure in Day-to-Day Living
Human beings are not born with the instinct to organize their waking hours. Anybody who has a 2-year-old can tell you, a child will run around all day until he or she drops. It’s up to mom or dad to say, “It’s time for breakfast, “It’s time for lunch,” “It’s time for a nap,” “Bedtime’s coming; put on your pajamas and let me read you a story. Good night.”
Children need structure imposed on them from an external source. That’s how it is. This role is filled by a parent, and later in life the school in the form of structured activities performed at usual times. By the time a youngster enters high school, most will have a firm sense of how a day is organized.
This sense of organization transfers well to the workplace: A good employee respects the structure of the day. She arrives on time, does the tasks for which she is responsible, communicates the status of her tasks, respects the time of others and meets the time demands made upon her. Whether you work in a factory or a law office, being able to operate effectively within the structure of the workday is essential to one’s economic and psychological well-being. There is a certain comfort that comes from knowing where one is going to be on Tuesday and knowing what one will be doing.
So, what happens when the job goes away? How does one organize himself or herself without something explicit to do? As my sister said, “There are only so many TV shows to watch.”
Let’s take a look at the extreme.
Providing Structure Where None Exists
When I was a young man, before I got into programming, I was a counselor at a secure detention facility for adolescent boys. This a nice way of saying I was a guard in a kiddie jail. Most of my day was spent supervising the movement of teenagers who had committed very serious crimes. When I say supervising their movement, I mean that in the most literal sense. The job of my squad was to make sure the residents woke up on time, dressed in their rooms and were ready to go to school. Then, we called for lineup. The boys lined up and were counted. After count, our squad moved the line to breakfast and then onto the facility’s school. Once in school, we stood at the back of the classrooms to supervise the residents. If a student acted out, we removed him from class. At the end of the school day, we did the lineup again and went back upstairs. The residents went to their rooms. Then they lined up for the exercise yard. At 6 p.m. we lined them up again and went to dinner. After dinner, we moved the line upstairs. At shower time, we moved the line to the shower room. The day was very structured, to say the least. Day in and day out, everyday was predictably the same.
And you know what? It worked.
The residents responded to the structure. Most grew to accept the routine. They went to school and got a little smarter. Three square meals a day made them a little healthier. These were boys who had been left to their own devices since early on, mostly because of neglect. They had little sense of how to organize a day. They just did whatever popped into their heads. And sometime what popped into their heads was an armed robbery or felonious assault. In terms of the ability to organize themselves, most were at the level of a 2-year-old—a scared 2-year-old. Not surprisingly, the predictability of events and presence of supervision made them feel safe. Once, I asked one of the residents why he was there. He said with surprising candor, “Because I want to be.”
When a Job Goes Away
Granted, adolescent incarceration is an extreme example of imposing structure on someone’s life where no structure exists. But, what happens to a person when a job—the basic agent for organizing one’s daily life—goes away?
Here’s what happens.
Some people die prematurely. A study of Shell employees found that those who retire at 55 are 89 percent are more likely to die in the 10 years after retirement than those who retire at 65.
Others have increased rates of substance abuse. A study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates that 17 percent of unemployed worker suffer from substance abuse—twice that of those who are employed.
Or, they spend more time sleeping and watching TV, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Clearly, having a job is better than not having a job. Financial considerations aside, it’s the way by which most people organize their day. As more people become displaced from the workforce because of automated labor and are living without the demands of daily work to structure a day, more of the population will feel adrift. If the trends described above stay true, there will be an increase in substance abuse, TV watching and death rates. They also may look to other external forces for structure, such as political movements that promote order, rank and predictability.
So, what are we to do? In earlier versions of this article, I included a call to action to revamp, maybe even revert, the educational system to focus more on the arts and humanities rather than the baseline skills required to get a job. I planned to point out that artists, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs don’t need to a job to structure themselves. They always have something to do. They have an internal ability to organize themselves in the pursuit of short- and long-term goals that are their own. As we move toward full automation, these folks are going to do just fine.
Anyway, that’s what I planned to propose in the earlier versions. Now I just don’t know. I am not sure we have the social or political will to address the problems that are on the horizon. The highly educated people who have good analytics skills and a creative outlook will find paying employment. But, as trends indicate, those who are paid to follow instructions and perform redundant tasks will be replaced by robotic automation. They will go home. They will watch unlimited amounts of movies and TV on Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. They will play games on the internet, for a while anyway. Then, one day they will come to realize that there are only so many movies to watch and so many games to play. The appeal of an unstructured life will wane. They will want something to do and have no idea about how to make that something happen.
So the questions at hand are these: Will we fortunate ones—particularly those of us in IT, the people who are implementing the automation—watch from the sidelines? Or, will we come to understand the consequences of automation on human employment—and in doing so, will we be become part of the large-scale solution, devising ways that help those that are going to be displaced think different and be different?
I hope so.
This article is the last of the series, The Impact of Automation on Human Employment. Here is a list of the previous articles: