So Long As There Are Wants and Needs, There Will Be Jobs

So Long As There Are Wants and Needs, There Will Be Jobs
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With the growth of artificial intelligence (AI), many are worried that we may all be put out of work, replaced by robots. We can stop worrying. We’ll run out of jobs when we run out of goods and services we desire. Which will be never.

What modern capitalism and the prosperity it brings have given us is a continuing expansion of what we consider core goods. At one time, human beings sought essentially three core goods — food to fill our belly, clothes on our back, and a roof over our heads. But once technology made it possible to meet these core tasks using a far smaller proportion of our population, we didn’t suddenly run out of things to do. The revolutionary modernization of agriculture didn’t leave farm workers idle. It made them available to work in the industrial economy. The post-industrial economy hasn’t made factory workers redundant, it has made them more essential than ever to the increasingly automated manufacturing and service economy.

As fewer people are needed to perform core tasks, more are available to perform ancillary ones. And ancillary tasks have a way of becoming core to people, or at least to enough of us to constitute a sufficient market to provide full-time work for many. A century ago, few people took a vacation. Now, when we tell people we haven’t gone away in a couple of years, we begin the sentence with “Believe it or not ...” – creating jobs in tourism and travel. Decades ago, most workers toiling at their 12-hours-a-day, six-days a week jobs welcomed the opportunity of some free time at home. Now, we are sometimes embarrassed to admit we are taking a staycation – and spending our money in ways that foster other jobs. A century ago, who needed a gym membership? Now, some can’t do without it. It wasn’t that long ago that none of us had a cell phone, internet access or a computer. Now, they are seen as necessities. And they spawn new jobs that we wouldn’t have imagined 25 years ago.

Optional tasks quickly become seen as essential. And the fewer people we need to perform core tasks, the more people are available to perform optional ones. The notion of discretionary income is a relatively new one, at one time something that was available only to the wealthiest among us. Now, there are enough middle-class families with enough discretionary income that large companies seek to capture their allegiance by meeting their needs — with needs defined as things that used to be considered luxuries, or even impossibilities.

At one time, hiring a carriage was a luxury for the rich. In the 20th century, hailing a cab became a frequent activity for the middle-class. Now, ordering an Uber is a frequent action of most people with a smart phone, which is by far most people. In the next few decades, we will use self-driving cars instead. But the people who would otherwise be driving Ubers won’t be sitting on their hands. They will use the same sense of initiative to meet people’s needs in other ways. As long as there are people willing to spend money on things they feel they need, there will be people willing to do the work and/or make the investment to take it off their hands.

Will AI improve to such an extent that many will be left with nothing to do? Some have predicted that since the dawn of the industrial age – such as when Keynes pondered how we could deal with the long-term shortage of work – and those predictions have never turned out to be right. It is a problem that carries its own solution. We see an economy increasingly divided among the financially struggling, the rich and the super-rich. But more affluent people – including those millennials who design the robots that make many jobs redundant – means more people with discretionary income. How do they use it? One of three ways: They save it, invest it, or spend it – most likely a combination of the three. But no matter how they actually dispose of their disposable income, it creates opportunity for someone. When they save or invest, they make needed capital available for people who can use it to create goods and services. When they spend, they provide the market (and the revenue) needed to make those activities profitable. Essentially, they are expanding the list of core needs.

As AI makes it possible to meet more and more of our growing list of core needs, the list will just continue to grow. When it comes to consumption, the optional soon becomes the essential. Basically, in any developed economy with labor mobility, the list of things we feel we need done expands to meet the number of people we have to do them.

Will AI improve and grow to such an extent that humans will no longer be needed to perform core tasks, or even ancillary ones? In some ways, that would be a nice problem to have. It would create a modern-day Garden of Eden in which all of us could do only what we want to do, rather than what we must. But the end of work is also a problem we will never have to worry about. Because the list of things we feel we need will keep expanding as long as there are human beings with wants – and as long as there are human beings with the desire to earn income. Because we all earn a living meeting each others’ wants and needs, the opportunity to earn a living will survive as long as we do. People will continually find they have ways of doing things that robots can’t.

The things we want, and the way we earn the money to afford them, are intrinsically linked. That means the ways of making a living will swell with the constant expansion of things we consider worth spending our money on.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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