The Threat of Automation: An Empty Tomorrow

The United States’ unemployment rate is proudly at its lowest since pre-Obama years, at a whopping 4.2 percent last September. This excludes millennials, of whom 37 percent are entirely unemployed, and 28 percent are not in training or education either. Earlier this year, a factory in Donghuan, China launched an experimental program to completely automate its assembly line, laying off 90 percent of its staff and replacing them with robotic counterparts, resulting in an immediate productivity rise of 250 percent, alongside international uproar. Luddite alarmism about robots taking jobs is nothing new, of course. The term “luddite” comes from the early 19th-century textile workers who smashed textile machines over the fear they would be forced out of the job market by said machines. Ironically, they eventually were. The sole difference between the luddites of almost exactly two centuries ago and the workers of today is that the only thing standing between corporations and the automation of hundreds of millions of international jobs is public outcry; whenever a corporation downsizes or automates its factories, despite enormous performance improvements, public relations disasters result. At the same time, American corporations have realized something: when they expand and their workers slowly die or retire, they no longer need to hire replacements.

The rise of automation and the jobless workplace is not a problem for our parents or teachers, it is our problem. Corporations don’t need to fire employees to automate; all they need to do is stop hiring, and they have. The advent of the jobless society is slow, steady and ultimately only destructive to our generation and its inheritors. A college degree is no guarantee either, even one from a prestigious institution (cough cough); millennials maintain their cripplingly low employment rates despite having almost a third more college graduates than the silent generation, and twice as many as baby boomers. There is, to tell the brutal truth, no remaining insulator against the fact that almost all major industries are in the process of automation. We stand at the precipice of a tomorrow where never-before-seen percentages of Americans will be permanently unemployed, and there are no easy solutions left. 

The rise of automation isn’t something that can be fought; corporations and even entire nations that attempt to stand against it or legislate it down will ultimately falter and fail against those who do. Having accepted that, the focus ought be on solutions, which, unfortunately, are few and far between. The most common “solution” presented is Universal Basic Income, a system in which all citizens are given a basic, livable stipend, but all this offers is a basic safety net for a jobless world. It does not answer the fundamental question of how a society, where a large portion of the population is idle, can function. From what we know of idle society, it is one of the greatest threats to a nation there is. The Great Depression, which hit particularly hard in Germany, played a major role in Hitler’s rise to power. Idle populations, in what few historical instances they occur, are discontent and unfulfilled ones. Theoretically, a society largely supported by automation – the society we are heading into – might be able to provide for the basic financial needs of all its citizens. But what it cannot do is fill the sense of purpose and passion that a career creates. Lacking this fundamental aspect in our lives, and worse than that, the implication it creates of a world where there is neither reason nor drive to study, self-improve or work at all, is terrifying when given any serious examination. I can offer no overarching solutions, which I leave in the capable hands of better men and women than me: our trustworthy all-American politicians and CEOs. The only advice I can give in an empty tomorrow is to continue to improve oneself, even without the palpable goal of money or career advancement dangling perpetually just ahead. But to a wider society, that’s no solution at all, and the empty tomorrow is one that is catching up with us very, very rapidly.

Contact Max Goldenberg at [email protected].