Matthew Prestifilippo

This conversation is closed.

Everyone can be happily unemployed.

As more and more jobs can be done by automated processes, we need less people to work. We have pizza shops/restaurants that are completely automated. We can rent videos out of a vending machine, or streaming. Will it get to the point where technology is so efficient that we will have barely any work? This could crank up the unemployment rate, but is that necessarily a bad thing? How will we cope with this?

Some clarifications:
Let's define work as something you don't want to do. Some examples would be cleaning, washing dishes, cooking, assembly line jobs, work in a coal mine. If there is something you want to do, like cooking, because of curiosity, or any other reason, then that's fine. If you want to do journalist work, then good! Perfectly acceptable. I don't envision people doing nothing. I'd imagine people would still want to watch the olympics, have fashion shows, comedy shows, etc.

The gist of the idea is to point out that sometimes things get more efficient, like in Mick Mountz warehouse, or in farms where a ton of food is produced by fewer and fewer people. So just because a company is growing, or a farm is growing, or a warehouse is growing, doesn't mean there are more jobs. It could be more cost effective to have computers/robots do the work that humans really don't feel like doing every day of their lives. So if we go with that trend, that would mean fewer jobs are available even though the population climbs?

Edit:
Also, instead of an absolute 100% unemployment rate, let's consider a 40 or 50% unemployment rate because of technology. To put that in perspective, the Great depression maxed out at 33%.

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    Jan 30 2012: @George Kong, "What's the difference between jobs and hobbies as you describe those jobs?"

    the fundamental difference is the motivation. if you do something for the sake of it, it is a hobby. if you do it for its fruits, then it is labor. and if you do it so you can sell the fruits of your labor to someone else, it is a job. of course in reality, things are mixed sometimes. but that should be our definition.

    "In a post-scarcity future where all things are provided "

    my argument was exactly that this will never happen. you can satisfy all present needs, but new needs appear in their place. and the best way to fulfill such needs is cooperation. hence, labor and jobs.

    "there are behavioural incentives to doing things beyond just simple monetary gain."

    this is a false dichotomy. the real question is self service vs social behavior. "monetary gain" is nothing else then a fruit of exchange, an acknowledgement of your efforts helping out a fellow citizen. if you imagine a world with no jobs, you imagine a world with no social cooperation.
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    Jan 29 2012: it will never happen. suppose everything is provided by machines. food, clothing, houses, vehicles, games, whatnot. so people are just sitting around. soon, a pair of people will have the idea that some of them serves the other some way, any way they can come up with, while the other serves the former with something else. say i write a poem, and you recommend me a cool way to decorate my room. or i show you how to kill the mega boss in a silly computer game, and you give me a dozen of crystals in another computer game. this is work. the is the division of labor at its purest form.

    to live in a world where nobody works would mean that nobody has any idea how to improve things and/or nobody is willing to cooperate with other people to achieve such goals. i doubt that we, humans, lose our wonderful imagination one day.
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      Jan 29 2012: I agree with you, but I think the original poster of the discussion meant what we define 'work' to be, from an economic perspective. (go to a location each day and get paid per hour fo doing so etc etc)

      I think its possible that in the future (mentioning star trek again) that most people can be unemployed in the classical sense, but still live fulfilling lives and being a productive member of society (I think voluntary work and doing things for a lack of financial gain provides an example for this).
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        Jan 29 2012: cutting hair is a job? singing is a job? shouting out what happens in a sport event is a job? playing football is a job? teaching people how to decorate a room is a job? we have all of these today, and they are considered jobs. but if you told someone in 200bc, 800 or 1600 that these will be actual paid jobs in the future, they wouldn't have believed you.

        in the future, we will have different jobs. like the ones i have mentioned. after all what is the definition of a job? job is something you do not because you want, but because you want something in return.
        • Jan 30 2012: What's the difference between jobs and hobbies as you describe those jobs?

          I mean... both jobs and the fruits of hobbies can be productive and provide value to both those that work on them, and those that enjoy the outcome of the labour.

          It's that one isn't performed for the purposes of 'economic' or 'monetary' gain. In a post-scarcity future where all things are provided - what exactly is the need for economic or monetary differentiation? People will still have their drives and desires - but freed from the burden of economic pressures, provides them with the freedom to delve into the subject as deeply or as broadly as they desire.

          The desire to have a 'jobless' future is a recognition that there are behavioural incentives to doing things beyond just simple monetary gain.
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        Jan 29 2012: You hit the nail on the head, Xavier. I updated the idea summary if that helps Krisztian. My idea is not trying to change the philosophical nature of jobs. It's about not having to go to a job (which may be working in a sewage plant or bussing tables) in order to survive. And we wouldn't have to do that because robots/technology could cover it for us.
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          Jan 29 2012: i came here to explain to you how human effort works, and what cooperation on the labor market is. i came here to explain that today's "sweat and tears" jobs are just as luxurious and easy peasy in the eyes of our grands, as the jobs of the future will look like in our eyes.

          but it fell on deaf ears it seems. you dismissed it as "philosophical" and claimed that i need help. that was a complete waste of time on my part.
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      Jan 30 2012: I hope you are right looking around my country it seems that humans can lose it.
  • Feb 3 2012: Have you heard of the Venus project?
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    Feb 1 2012: Actually, you have posed a most important question, Matt. I heard a distinguished labor economist on Pacifica Radio the other day -- you'd never hear it via the mainstream media -- that the rush to digitize and automate has been so profound in the last decade that no amount of retraining or reschooling will get the unemployed jobs, at least not in America. Moreover, even recent schooling, even a graduate degree, is no longer a guarantee of employment. Most college students now graduate as diploma'ed debtors.

    In some places the thrust to automate crosses the line where it's simply cheaper to employ put-upon wage slaves. That's the case with those wonderful Apple products we love to use that are manufactured by workers sleeping under their machine benches in China, the better to be called out for a midnight run to satisfy an order from an Apple assistant sales director in Latin America. Merely "a job" isn't everything, it's true.

    The upshot is that your jobless or worse-than-jobless future is coming at us a lot faster than anyone anticipated, with harsh constraints. It's not something that elites like us who can devote time and money to TED like to ponder, but in fact we are on a strongly determined path leading to a technologized future that only the wealthy and their robots will enjoy. The crowded rest of the species will scrape by in its gas lamp-lit 22nd- and 23rd-Century hovels and yurts, probably without public services, scratching out livings like the majority poor in India and the poor plurality in China and Brazil, our era's supposed economic wonders.

    In the face of such despair irrationality will be irresistible, a host of pie-in-the-sky, contending religious manias, and wars -- historically, an oft-paired couple -- battling over resources, belief systems, and vendettas.

    The status quo will promote a rapid dystopian descent. If there's a future utopian alternative, Matt, we have to enunciate and fight for it now. It won't get easier. We must try
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      Feb 3 2012: You appear to have a thorough understanding of the situation, can you discuss your business plan?
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        Feb 3 2012: Regrettably, I haven't a plan, let alone a business plan. Perhaps a revolution? But then, revolutions have always been about controlling the means of production to enable some and deprive others. Have you any ideas?
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          Feb 3 2012: Yes. So many that I must now let them escape the confines of my skull.

          Did you not say that you were about to risk thousands of dollars to establish a company?

          Two problems, 1) "Revolutions" can mean anything now that hypesters have abused language into meaninglessness. We have "revolutions" in skin cream and dog food. Marx has been dead for some time now, his manifesto is over 150 years old. "Revolutionary" thinking is in order here, but tell the troops to leave their pop-guns at home, storming the castle is not an option.

          2) A more minor point: TED conversations don't reply past 3 (or 4?) deep. Lousy for on-going conversations, particularly with long-winded geeks like myself. I think replying to my first response to your post will allow continuity.
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        Feb 3 2012: Dived the world into sections by watersheds, the populastion in each sends its reps up to regional and global governments.
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        Feb 3 2012: TO ZAZ::

        Oh, I thought you meant a plan for the world. My money is invested in a new company based in Sweden, bringing together media, technology, and an abiding respect for sustainability as a guiding principle in life. We're going to do some interesting things with knowledge transformed.

        As for lengthy conversations, granted. I was one of the charter WELLbeing in the first great online community -- and some would say, last great online community -- the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. There, people took pride in their literary flourishes. I still can't abide one line emails (unless they're very clever koans). Conversely, I overwrite, exhausting the average span of attention. So it goes.

        Zaz, here's to a humane revolutions that actually attain its goals,
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    Jan 30 2012: I am an orchardist and I can see the way of the future and it will be more mechanized and employee less people.

    The only way that that can be good is if the resulting production of food is so great that the value of it will drop to the point that we can feed everyone which would also require innovations in distribution and storage of course,the down side is we will not be able to afford our farms.

    The only thing that makes sense out of this idea to me is that if your job is replaced by a machine you should get a share of the factory or wherever's profits in lieu of your salary while being retrained.

    Of course I also feel that companies should be able to pay off their investors, not go on in indentured servitude too the stock holders forever.

    I think that the only way to make a world where n obody has to work succeed ,would be to make the bare necessities available (but unattractive) to all ;and jobs available to everyone. Jobs that change from time to time or at the workers request so that they could earn a minimum wage (above the welfare available to non workers) which would be a true living wage, including disposable income for luxuries. This wage would be available for everything from ditch digging and street performing to teaching or food service,.While real wealth would remain available to people who invented innovated or just tried real hard and had luck., to those who invested time and energy to master difficult and needed skills. In such a world the law would have to demand labor from its criminals instead of fines in money, and their would I am afraid be a strong temptation to slavery. The world would be ruled by the manufactures and controllers of the machines that did everything for us, and we would become so passive that we would sit while our planes were made into missles by men with box cutters rather than policing them ourselves.

    Perhaps the world you are talking about has been here for quite awhile really, and I am just noticing it.
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      Jan 30 2012: Thanks for trying to imagine my idea. I know it's kind of out there. You are trying to picture how a world work if it needed less currency. Good.

      I also get stuck at this point. It seems like there are some barriers that will keep us from moving from our current economy's infrastructure, but I am not sure what those barriers are.
  • Jan 30 2012: With automation you need ever larger number of people to deal with that growing complexity of computer and machine systems. You need business analysts, designers, testers, project managers, engineers, marketing etc. You need maintenance crew, repair crew, support etc. We need lots of people in factories creating gadgets because many people now own increasing number of devices.

    We also see progress in biotechnology, again opening large number of opportunities for research and development positions.

    Because of automation people have more free time. They want to be entertained. With cheaper technology and the Internet more people can create entertainment for others outside of major music/movie/game studios. Small companies and artists produce games, music and one-of products.

    We also see a trend towards local shops creating products using 3D printers with small initial investment. This will allow more people to become self employed producing small batches of products for special needs.

    Also people are starting to value more services that robots (at least for now) cannot replace. Tutors, advisers and other service professionals are needed. Healthcare is in need of nurses and nurse aids.

    I think we still have a few more decades before we possibly see much higher unemployment rates?
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      Jan 30 2012: That's a good point. I think this is one of the real barriers that will not allow us to get to the ~100% unemployment state.

      I think it would be a good exercise to figure out what services/products we truly need, see what we can automate or not, and see how we would accomplish these needs.
  • Jan 29 2012: What would be the result of large numbers of unemployed? Take a look at Wales--two decades ago when we visited there were up to five generations on the dole.

    What would we do with our time? Who would give us money for food, clothing, shelter, basic needs and entertainment? Being gainfully employed and supporting self and family is a basic human need. If one cannot support self and family, then what kind of character develops? Are there adequate present examples to observe?

    I question this idea of cranking up unemployment as being not "necessarily a bad thing".

    Do people feel better and are happier if able to be self sufficient?

    What say all?
    • Jan 31 2012: I think it is all about incentives. If you change the environment, you change the way people fill time. In a system that is stimulated by money you get depressed if you can not attain this symbol of status. In order to be happy you need material things, that is the driving force behind the economy. And this is very irrational in my eyes.

      So you need to question yourself, what is self sufficiency? Today it is not a question anymore of simply going out with bows and arrows and hunt for some deer. Society is a living entity that grows and we need to look at the role of individuals within this entity so we don't create something that is not in balance with "lower classes". Not everyone can be happy, but i think we can do better.
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    Feb 3 2012: Matthew, your proposition is essentially correct, though highly understated. We're up against a century of anti-socialist propaganda and virtually unimaginable power wielded by relatively small groups. Here we are debating this subject on TED: a culture overwhelmingly dominated by the notion that capitalist entrepreneurs can solve all the world's problems with a more competitive company strategy.

    What did Cypher say after Neo had taken the red pill and was about to be disconnected from the Matrix?
  • Jan 31 2012: Humans are tool users. Because the human brain can easily incorporate new tools into its thinking, humans gain huge leaps in their productivity. Increases in productivity have the side effect of decreasing the number of people needed to complete work for a community. If a community's needs are sufficiently met, this will lead to members of the community needing to work less. If the work is collected into as few workers as possible, the remaining non-workers get to starve.

    Makes sense right? The natural outcome of human tool use and increase productivity is to kill off its species.

    Except that doesn't actually happen. Many mechanisms kick in to prevent that. We really don't like the idea of community members starving, so we'll do something to address the issue. Maybe we lower hours worked without decrease in benefit so more people can work, and everyone gets more free time. Or we innovate in job retraining so unmet needs of the community can be addressed more fluidly. Or maybe something completely new will appear.

    It would be nice if we could figure it out quicker though. We need a better tool for that too.
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      Feb 3 2012: Words like "community" are increasingly problematic for mental models such as you are describing.

      "We really don't like the idea of community members starving, so we'll do something to address the issue."

      This is true if the community is like a small primitive tribe, 150 or so individuals in close proximity. History shows that outsiders to the tribe don't matter as much. Prior to the recent explosion of telecommunications, particularly the Internet, it was just fine with many Western citizens that people in distant regions were starving.

      "Community" as a term can mean a small rural town where everybody knows everything about everyone else in town, or it can refer to you and me and all that dare to type into TED's servers. Think of how outrageously different is the "TED community" that includes people from all over the globe, never having met, with only these ASCII characters stored on a server representing thoughts we felt compelled to share.

      In one of Kevin Kelly's talks, he says "Get used to the impossible, because we're not ready for it."

      Our thinking on income distribution has to catch up to changes that we barely grasp or we are in for more waste and suffering on a large scale.
      • Feb 3 2012: I like your observation. Part of the inefficiency in coming to a solution is the variability of what people consider part of their community. The scale of compassion varies widely from letting drug addicted, mentally ill homeless go from one personal tragedy to another, while rallying to the support of earthquake victimes on the other side of the earth. It's both lamentable, and awe inspiring at the same time.

        Certainly we resist helping people that appear to have caused their own problems. Is someone unemployed because they are lazy and are waiting for the perfect job, or are they unemployed because their skill set has become obsolete and the investment required to restore their utility is out of their reach. Believing the former is not going to generate an empathic response.

        Maybe when I speak of community in this case, its "those people that are suffering from unemployment via no fault of their own". That oversimplifies a bit, but its something like that. To the extent the unemployed cross that line, that will catalyze some change. I really hope we can jump that threshold without any loss of life.
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    Jan 31 2012: This conversation skirts the reality that there are classes in societies and that the upper classes do not relish sharing nor do they wish for the lower classes to have time on their hands to seek equity or in the extreme cases, plot dissension and overthrow. What about the military now and in the future? Shall the soldiers be asked to calmly put down their weapons in order to become unemployed and wards of the state or large corporations? I'm sorry, this conversation is unreal. Now I have to get back to work. I'm about to risk many thousands of dollars to establish a company that creates many of the new jobs you suggest here. It's a very anxiety-provoking action. I doubt many people are going to want to make such decisions a part of their everyday lives, as suggested here. I doubt it very much.
    • Jan 31 2012: I think you are just as out of touch with reality. Class barriers are a side effect of a small number of sociopaths born into humanity being able to take advantage of much larger community that is humane. The majority of humans do not want other humans to suffer. We have built in mechanisms that reward kindness even to strangers. That humans dominate the global ecosystem is proof that we work together, not against each other.

      The answer is not either extreme you mention, but somewhere in the middle. It can't be computed by one human, and is no doubt np-hard. We won't know the answer until we get there.

      So don't check out. Whether your innate wish is to see the death of all the week indecisive lower classes, or to see everyone healthy, happy and having fun regardless of their abilities, you really should continue to participate in working towards a solution.
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        Jan 31 2012: I'm hip to the argument that altruism wins the day, and perhaps it will one day, but the existing social structures do not reward altruism as much as they do self-interest. Capitalism is all about self-interest, at least as interpreted and applied in our culture.

        The "small number of sociopaths" you rightly decry happen in many cases to command control of the majority of the world's wealth and with it, the power to coerce including rendering someone unemployable. I hardly consider this statement of fact to be out of touch with reality, at least the reality of the majority of human beings alive today.

        I haven't checked out, I'm doing what I can to create new and humane employment. What I cannot condone is applauding unemployment per se, because at least today, at least in most cultures, not having a job is synonymous with marginalization and great human suffering.
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      Jan 31 2012: Hey Robert, thanks for your input. I hope I wasn't being offensive, but technically I am being unreal. When I say increase unemployment, I'm not trying to ruin peoples lives. I am just imagining a world where most work can be done by machines. So machines would take care of most of the work of providing food/water/shelter/transportation, and the rest would be up to you.

      I guess the problem with no employment is: How do we decide who gets what? You would no longer be able to earn what you get in any tangible way. That's a big problem with this idea.
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    Jan 31 2012: The best change in employment that I can see that is close to this idea is the development of a temp agency style of employment where workers could change jobs and work only as much as needed.
  • Jan 31 2012: the whole idea behind the current social economic system is that people have to be productive in this system in order to survive. This translates in getting money for what you do. In exchange you buy goods back from the companies and so that is the symbiosis that keeps everything from colapsing. So we would have to change the system so that every person on earth has the right to get basic needs for living. primarily food and shelter. Now we have these types of social structures already, but as soon as economic problems occur they cut back on these fundings. So I think the problem we are facing with this idea is that the basic right of living is dependant on how the current standards of the working class are being furfilled or not. So in other words to answer your question, if the economic chart is pointing up, yes. if it's going down, no.
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    Jan 31 2012: Jobs has to be then redefined. Be it new niches in production, making profit out of lifestyle, working from the internet.. etc. There are a lot of opportunities, we just have to situate ourselves correctly.
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    Jan 30 2012: That which is scarce is desired...most people believe that they would desire to kick back a few beers on a sun lounger for pretty much the rest of their lives because that is the opposite of what they're doing for most of the time. People who are retired often desire most a return to work and the feeling of utility and contributing to the whole. The unemployed will invariably desire work and the workers will invariably desire rest. People are rarely happy with their lot.
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    Jan 30 2012: Sorry got to add something:
    I dont really dream of a world where everyone does nothing, but i dream of a world where everyone is able to follow his dreams, what he wants to accomplish whilst not having to worry about it being viable from an economic point of view :o).

    So many talented and creative people are wasted on creating profit today i just cant stand it :-/
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    Jan 30 2012: Hehe thats the same thought i had ... wouldnt say im a completely socialist ... ok meeh i am :o).

    Well yes its true technology today reachs the point where it really stops us from working whenever i see unemployment rates rising i have to smile. Its unavoidable to redistribute production facilitys to the people and give each and every one a part of it.

    In our current form of production cycles technology only supports few people whilst many have to suffer from its advance. As we cant stop technological advancement the only thign we can do is put it to its best use: helping the majority of people.

    thank you for getting my point... now start working at this project :o)
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    Jan 30 2012: It's true that human lost many jobs as technology developing, but we also get some new jobs which didn't exsit before. who will creat and produce the robot and computers ? It's us, human.
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      Jan 30 2012: So what if we consider a world where not all jobs are gone... that's probably too far fetched... but what about a world where we only have a need for 50% of the people to do work?
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        Jan 30 2012: in 1800, 90+ percent of the population worked in agriculture. back then, you would ask, okay, so there will be a time when machines and chemicals will help agriculture, so only 5% of the population can feed the 95%. what the 95% will do?

        look around. the time came when only 5% works in agriculture. do you see now what others do?
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          Jan 31 2012: You have valid data, but things have changed since 1800. People are living longer. They are able to retire (not work). Quality of life has changed because work is much less harsh. I think it will be even easier to the point where an even smaller percentage of the population has to work, or if distributed, we could work even less. I think it's possible.
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        Jan 31 2012: we can't stop the progress of technology development, when we can't adapt the changes of the society, or the world, there will be a revolution which can help us change our mind to adapt to the world and continue to survive in the world. DO something for our worries.
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        Jan 31 2012: "I think it will be even easier to the point where an even smaller percentage of the population has to work"

        yes, so? how would that invalidate what i have said, or how would that support what you have said? today, the total number of work hours are much less than it was in 1800. but it does not mean some people don't work at all. it meas that we all work less. i can imagine a future in which if you want only food and shelter, you have to work half an hour per day. you can do it today, btw, you can maintain a medieval lifestyle with very few work hours.
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        Jan 31 2012: When farm work dries up -- and in the face of global warming induced droughts, I mean that literally as well as figuratively -- people, especially young people without formal educations, leave the farm and go to the cities looking for work, driving down the wages that people already living in the cities base their lifestyles. What comes next is price controls and riots when the controls no longer work. Meanwhile the robots are happily churning away, reducing job opportunities across the board. I think what we're describing is a disaster in a world with more, not fewer people. BTW we don't retire happily, at least not in the USA. The house is mortgaged or gone, you get no pension, Social Security is pathetically slim, and being marginalized economically, your opinions are not eagerly sought out. There is no TED for people who can't participate in the discourse. This is very blue sky thinking, okay for the net, no so practical in the material world.
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    Jan 30 2012: There will aways be costs to living - without paid employment people will need to depend on family, charity, state benefits, scavaging/squatting or working for transferable non-monetry goods or services such as the LETS scheme.
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      Jan 30 2012: I don't think that's what Matthew really meant. I do see his idea almost in a very rounded Anarchist way, like this: If the machines can just assume every position in repetitive and with no cognitive aspect (as he puts it - "something we don't want to do") then people would be "free" to choose and follow their callings.

      I just think that in his discourse there's is a confusion between menial tasks and employment.
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      Jan 30 2012: So if our current economy got turned into a LETS economy, do you think that the unemployed world would be possible? I guess there would have to be a place where there is no "cost of living." People would just live in a certain place because the availability of what they need/want is there.

      I know I sound contradictory in that people are trading... isn't that work? Well, yes. But I feel as though it would be much less work available with technology. The shipment, the packaging, drilling, farming... All things that could be run with very little human interaction.
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    Jan 30 2012: The misconception about this is that the economy stays the same size, it does not it grows. You can take a Luddite perspective on this but the truth is that the jobs just go to other products or services, even by off-shoring more jobs are created than lost. Despite the income disparity trope personal income keeps going up, by statistic.
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      Jan 30 2012: Unemployment rates do fluctuate, and the Great Depression happened. Although we did recover. Until we had our recent recession. You may be right though, I don't know.

      I also think that some jobs are complete garbage. I know many "managers" that just go on vacation for 80% of the year. Or other managers that just read emails all day. Pretty close to nothing as far as work goes. I feel like those jobs shouldn't count.
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        Jan 30 2012: I am correct. The problem is the media can only sell advertising if they dramatize things (fires and mayhem always take the lead) which has little to do with gaining an understanding of how things work.

        Managers more often than not earn their pay, competition does not allow for what you describe, I'm sure there are anomalies but they are just that.
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    Jan 29 2012: Buy art!