U.S. News & World Report retirement columnist Rodney Brooks recently penned a piece about what raising the retirement age might mean “for you.” No doubt the subject matters a lot to those near retirement age, but the speculation here is that it likely won’t meant much to the 60 and 70-year olds of tomorrow.
Brooks’s column came to mind while reading a Wall Street Journal profile of ChatGPT creator Sam Altman. In the profile Altman professed his support for guaranteed income in the U.S. given his belief that remarkable advances like the one he’s brought to life will erase all sorts of work. Altman is surely right about artificial intelligence powerfully destroying countless sources of income, but that’s why he’s arguably incorrect about the future need for guaranteed income.
To see why, it’s important to consider the evolution of work in the age of machines. It’s been all about job destruction, but most certainly without the bread lines. Figure that human beings toiled as farmers for almost all of human existence, only for the tractor and other mechanization of past human effort to destroy the work done by nearly every living human. Was this poverty-inducing? No.
The simple truth is that job destruction is a powerful sign of economic growth. That is so because investment is what precedes economic growth, and investment is all about producing more and more goods and services with fewer and fewer labor inputs. The paradoxical reality is that job opportunities are greatest where jobs are most rapidly being destroyed. Yes. Say it over and over again: job creation springs from job destruction. Work emerges from investment that erases old work forms.
Which is another way of saying that progress born of investment unearths all new ways to work. The internet, like the tractor before it, had a profound impact on how we work precisely because the internet erased so much of the toil we did before it reared its beautiful head.
Ideally this helps readers see why the guaranteed income that Altman thinks necessary, will not be. It also hopefully explains why retirement will have dated connotations in the not-too-distant future.
To see why, think once again about humans working in concert with machines. Their productivity soars. This explains why so few “hands” are required to produce staggering amounts of food for Americans and the rest of the world. It also shows why the former luxury that is the car is so common, and with the present particularly in mind, why supercomputers can be found in the hands of the world’s richest and poorest.
Which brings us back to ChatGPT. What we know now is that humans cooperating with other humans in specialized, mechanized fashion around the world can produce remarkable amounts. Imagine then, how much humans will produce if thought can be multiplied in the way that production has, and continues to be multiplied?
Realistically, it’s impossible to reasonably contemplate what’s ahead for the same reason that someone living in 1900 could never have properly speculated on the myriad pleasures we enjoyed in 2000, let alone in 2023. The only reasonable speculation is that a multiplication of thought has the potential to make the abundant present appear wildly impoverished by comparison. This happy truth carries with it important implications for retirement. Good ones.
Indeed, if rising mechanization of production and thought renders much that we enjoy (and that we don’t yet know we enjoy) an inexpensive, foregone conclusion, the corollary to the latter will be that work really and truly becomes an individualized reflection of our individual genius. In other words, soaring production born of the multiplication of robotic hands and brains signals work for much, much more of the human world that won’t feel at all like work.
Applied to Altman, guaranteed income won’t be necessary simply because the work of tomorrow will be something we can’t not do. And since work will be defined by joy, retirement will be what more and more of us avoid.