Can we run out of work?
Donald Trump's supporters fear so. For them, the Rust Belt is the future unless things change. Many futurists also see the end of work as a result of mechanization, and argue for giving people a basic income because if work is unavailable, we need to give them the means to survive.
I can see their point. Employment in manufacturing throughout the industrialized world has fallen dramatically over the past few decades. A stubbornly unemployable underclass, often made up of poorly educated men, haunts our societies and our politics. Some academics are arguing that almost half of existing work is vulnerable to mechanization, including much hitherto unassailable human brain work. In a few years, we won't even be driving any more as machines shunt us away from tasks we have so far performed for ourselves.
This scenario of vast armies of purposeless human wraiths wandering the Earth, however, is not borne out in the real world.
First, the idea that there is a fixed amount of work is quite wrong, making the fact machines do a growing amount of work irrelevant. Work is necessary to satisfy human wants and needs, and these are infinite.
Every time you picture the addition you want to put on the house, the pleasure you could get from the latest computer gadget, or how to find the money to keep your aging mother in safe and humane care, you are thinking about work that you want to have done that isn't being done now. Want to learn a language, travel abroad or get off the bus and into a car? These are all unfulfilled human desires and therefore sources of demand for work not now being performed.
Second, the obstacle to having this work performed is that we are not rich enough. The available resources are already occupied just producing what we currently consume. But mechanization allows us to produce more with less and therefore to satisfy more human desires. As the Adam Smith Institute's Tim Worstall points out, when 95 per cent of all people had to work the land so that everyone could eat, hardly any labour was available for other purposes. Mechanization of agriculture in Britain helped to create a society in which 10 per cent of the population can work for the National Health Service. In the U.S., technologically unjustified employment fell in old industries, such as rail, steel and autos, so that hundreds of thousands of people could be employed at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Wal-Mart.
Third, understanding that all work is created by human need and desire means that the distinction between goods and services is meaningless. The idea that "great" societies make "things" while services are somehow an inferior second cousin done by people who can't get a real job is nonsensical. The need for intangibles, such as mental stimulation or culture or art or entertainment or accountancy, is no different in principle than the need for things. But because we must satisfy our physical needs first, only wealthy societies with high degrees of labour-freeing mechanization can afford a vast creative class of chefs, musicians, painters, videographers, graphic designers, hackers, bloggers, yoga teachers and service entrepreneurs of every description. That's why open societies that welcome dynamic creative change are better for people, especially if the growth change generates is used in part to help everyone make the transition from the old to the new. Here is where we are not yet getting it right.
The final reason work will not disappear is one of the most basic cravings of people: to relate to one another. Outside family, love and friendship, work is probably the most important way we do this. We see the value in what we do reflected back at us by the value other people attach to it. That is why being unemployed is so soul-destroying, whereas when we work we feel valued. And no amount of social welfare can hide that fact, however justified and invaluable it may be in helping us get training or tiding us over temporary bouts of unemployment.
As chansonnier Felix Leclerc put it, the best way to kill a man is to pay him to do nothing. Work is an indispensable part of a life worth living, and the market test (are people willing to pay me enough voluntarily for what I do that I can live in dignity) isn't social Darwinism. It is how we signal to each other how to make the most economically-valued contribution to the well-being of others. No machine can or will change that.