The Coming Unemployment

Sometimes it's necessary to translate from the language of people who are fully under the indoctrination known as "economics" to the language of people with common sense.

For instance, economists speak of "natural" unemployment.  According to the fanatical ideologues, even in a healthy economy, there will be some level of "natural" unemployment - perhaps around 4 or 5%, but it goes up and down according to economists' whims - and indeed, for such people, if unemployment sunk below this number, this would actually be a sign of an unhealthy economy.

Now let's be clear about this: "unemployment" here refers only to people who are actively seeking a job - it does not include "discouraged" workers, who have given up looking.  Nor does it include, for instance, retirees, students, young children, independently wealthy people who choose not to work, the sick and injured, etc., etc., none of whom are considered "unemployed" because they aren't considered part of the work force.  (For a long time, by the way, women were not counted as part of the workforce, and thus not considered unemployed, partly because of sexism, and partly because one man used to make enough in wages to house and feed an entire family, likely with many children.)

No.  This "natural unemployment" refers only to people who need to work, who want to work, who are actively looking for a job and can't find one.  Economists think it's good to have a few of such people around.

"Natural unemployment" includes "frictional" unemployment (people who are temporarily "between jobs" - which, fine, sure, that seems reasonable... maybe you just didn't like your co-workers, or maybe you had a vision and decided to change your life and seek your dream job... who knows?), "surplus" unemployment (people who have been forced out of employment by an unfunded mandate), and "structural unemployment".  It's structural unemployment that I want to focus on.

Structural unemployment comes in two flavors: one is a mismatch of skills - a worker has a certain set of skills, but local employers are looking for a different set of skills.  The other is when a certain occupation gets eliminated altogether.  In practice, there's a lot of overlap between the two.

Where are all the video rental store employees?  Or the switchboard operators?  For that matter, there used to be lamplighters that would go all around the city, before the advent of electric light.  Before electric alarm clocks, there were "knocker-uppers" that would go around and wake people up to go to work.  If you've seen the movie "Hidden Figures," you know that there used to be a job called "computer," who would do massive amounts of mathematical calculations, until they were replaced by... computers. 

The elevator operator is an interesting and representative example.  It's not that elevators ceased to exist, and therefore elevator operators became obsolete.  Quite the opposite: it's that elevators became much more common, the controls became more sophisticated and easier to use, and most of all people became more comfortable being inside them without an authoritative operator to make them feel safe, and so people started operating their own elevators.

Similarly, in grocery stores today, more and more people are performing their own check-out, thus gradually eliminating the job of the check-out clerk.

One by one, or a thousand by a thousand, more and more jobs will be eliminated.  I've already written about this, but I just found out about a new one: sonography.  "The Butterfly Network" (which sounds like the title of a bad 70s sci-fi movie) is now selling pocket-sized, handheld, wireless ultrasound devices, which link to an app on a smartphone, for less than $2000 (compared to hospital equipment, which easily costs tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars).  So now you can do your own sonogram.  That's great, and it means that millions of people will have access to medical care that they may not have been able to afford even a few years ago, especially in the developing world.  But it also means that professional sonographers are exposed to a new pressure that makes their position and their economic security all the more precarious.  Sonographers!  I'll bet that every person who went to school to study to be a sonographer thought that with that kind of training, they would always be in demand, that they would never be out, hat in hand, desperately looking for a job.

There's a name for this: it's called the end of the middle class.

The "professional-managerial class" described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich always had a tenuous existence, as the Ehrenreichs themselves acknowledged in "Death of a Yuppie Dream" (2013).  At the same time, many people in industrial jobs and service jobs are also in danger of having their positions eliminated.

If a sonographer is not safe, then truly, no one is safe.  Is there any job in the world so secure that the advance of technology cannot threaten people with skill-mismatch?

Every time a job gets eliminated, the economists will pipe up to say, "Don't worry.  Remain calm!  All is well!  Let's not be alarmist here.  Look at history: there have been many times that technology has eliminated jobs.  But every time, technology ends up creating more jobs than it eliminates.  There's nothing to see here.  Move along."

And, sure, they're right, that has been true in the past.  But now it's different.

Technology grows exponentially.  People think that "exponential growth" means "growing really fast," but that's not true.  Exponential growth is really, really slow - much slower than linear growth - for a long time.  Then it gradually speeds up, and eventually it overtakes linear growth, and from then on it just gets faster and faster and then much much faster and then way faster and it never slows down and linear growth can never catch up.  It's perfectly plausible that society could absorb and retrain workers whose jobs have been eliminated in one or two fields at a time, as has been the case for decades if not centuries.  But that was when the linear growth line was outpacing the exponential growth curve - probably from the beginning of human history until, roughly speaking, the 1970s.  Is it really reasonable to expect that somehow all of these problems will be magically solved when jobs are being eliminated for millions upon millions of workers across all sectors of the economy at once?

We all can imagine science fiction scenarios in which artificial general intelligence has wiped out 100% of jobs.  Kai-Fu Lee is more conservative: he's only estimating that 40% of jobs will be eliminated by AGI.  But let's be really, really optimistic.  Let's imagine, just for the sake of argument, that structural unemployment only goes up to 10% of the world population, so that 90% of jobs are safe. 

Ten percent of the world population.  That's more than the population of the United States of America, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Mongolia, and Japan combined.  Let's call this population "the Ten Nations of the Unemployed".

Just imagine that seething mass of people, living, raising families, all of them completely unable to get any job whatsoever - and completely through no fault of their own.  They're trying - desperately - to get a job, any job, and they have education (which they're probably still paying for) and training and experience. But the jobs have simply ceased to exist.  What kind of pressures would that put on the world economic system?  On the criminal justice system?  On world politics?

Is there any way to provide for the welfare of a population that large, if they have no means of employment?  To raise them up to the middle class?  Or even to maintain their existence as a permanent underclass?  

Not only would the Ten Nations be an intrinsic humanitarian disaster, but they would put an enormous pressure on everyone else.  Think, first, of the people who have the lowest-paying jobs.  The "reserve army of labor" of the permanently unemployed would constitute a huge labor market for employers to choose from, so that if anyone made trouble at work, they could be fired instantly, and a member of the Ten Nations would be ready to take their place.  Thus no one who is lucky enough to have a job will be willing to stick their necks out, and people will be unwilling to struggle for higher wages and other benefits.  So we can expect the lowest-paid workers' wages and benefits to fall, their turnover to increase, and their expectation of advancement or promotion to drop.  But the same can be said for the next-higher rung of wage-earners, above the lowest-paid - for essentially the same reasons, they too can expect wages and benefits to fall, as the people immediately below them compete for their jobs.  And so on, up and up through the pay-scale.  Thus the coming unemployment will send shockwaves of stagnation and loss of income, especially versus inflation, up through several economic strata.

But that's just to start with.  As years go by, the Ten Nations will lose, or never learn, the skills and habits necessary for employment.  Decades, lifetimes, generations into the future, there will be an increasing number of people who no longer know what it is like to have a job - and don't even know anyone who has a job.  This will mark an unprecedented transformation of human psychology and social group dynamics.

Another obvious consequence will be immigration.  Those who cannot find work in one country will try to move to a country where economic opportunities exist.  The result will be one of the most massive human migration patterns in world history.  And this will intersect with the coming ecological catastrophe in a variety of ways - see the separate article I've already written on that.  As a reaction against that, we can predict that those countries where jobs are still available to clamp down on their borders with renewed force - and it seems inevitable that the result of such nationalism and jingoism will be a new wave of wars.  (Expect a hotspot to be, once again, the Balkans.  It's always the Balkans.)

There will almost certainly be an epidemiological aspect to this issue as well.  If people, desperate for employment, constantly have to be on the move, we can expect shifting populations to carry diseases, just as the Europeans brought small pox and other new pathogens to the peoples of the Americas in the 16th century.

War, poverty, famine, pestilence, death - forgive me if my prophecies are tending a bit toward the apocalyptic.  But in addition to all of that, there's an existential dimension to this problem.  For many people, a job gives them a sense of purpose and meaning.  Even if, somehow, we figure out how to keep the Ten Nations of the Unemployed fed and clothed and housed and given the basic necessities of life, how can we possibly deal with the wave of ennui and anomie that is bound to ensue?  This is not a rhetorical question.  Think of the people who work all their lives, and then die a few months or a few days after their retirement, as though they will merely living for their jobs.  Without anything remotely resembling employment for hundreds of millions of people, what reason will they have for getting up in the morning?  
Does only nihilism await?  Or will we witness a flowering of completely new varieties of human meaning?  Can we expect new religions pop up, or new cults?  New art and cultural movements that make the hippies and the punks seem like minor episodes by comparison?

Again and again, these days, I keep thinking of Robin Hanson's The Age of Em, in which the development of brain-emulating artificial intelligence reduces humanity back to the level of subsistence farming.  Even if that scenario does not play out and we never have the kinds of machines he envisions, many of the economic and social effects of this kind of exponential growth in productivity are already beginning to appear.


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