In his 2023 book The Art Thief, author Michael Finkel makes the essential economic point that art consumes resources including time “without providing food, clothing or shelter.” Stop and think about that.
Art is what happens after our basic needs are taken care of. Or as Finkel puts it, “art is the result of facing almost no survival pressure at all.” Absolutely it is. What animates life doesn’t always provide the essentials without which there is no life. Art is a consequence of prosperity, not a producer of it.
Where it gets interesting is that Finkel was largely writing about the 20th century thieving of art that had been produced in the 16th century. It’s fascinating to consider in the present mainly because it’s a known quantity that life was much shorter in the 1500s, and it was far more uncertain. Potable drinking water wasn’t remotely abundant, nor was food. It’s quite something that some of the talented from centuries ago were able to move beyond survival in order to create beauty.
That some faced “almost no survival pressure” in the 16th century arguably carries major implications for retirement in the 21st century. The speculation here is that it’s set to change right before our eyes, and in ways that analyses of retirement haven’t kept up with.
Those analyses focus on dollars saved, or not saved, and whether what’s being saved is enough for retirement. To read retirement commentary is to see piece after piece with tips about “How to Save $1 Million for Retirement.” The commentary is dated, and will have limited relevance to the retirees of the future.
To see why, consider the pin factory that Adam Smith visited in the 17th century. Smith observed that one man working alone could maybe produce one pin per day, but several men working together could produce tens of thousands. The crucial lesson from the pin factory is that work divided enables rampant specialization in concert with staggering productivity surges. Please think about this with the proliferation of automated activity.
As robots and machines become more and human-like in action, the productivity of actual humans will skyrocket. Think once again the pin factory, but think about it with men pursuing specialized activity alongside millions of machines around the world. From there, consider all of this with the pairing of human thinkers with machines increasingly capable of thought.
It signals a future defined by abundance that will make the present seem impoverished by comparison. Put another way, the future will be defined by almost no survival pressure. We’ll live exceedingly well for smaller and smaller amounts of money. That’s the stuff of progress: necessities become a very inexpensive certainty, only for the profit-motivated to search for new luxury items to democratize. Think the pocket-sized supercomputers that a growing percentage of the world own.
It’s a reminder that $1 million in savings might not be relevant to the retirement of tomorrow simply because the number is rooted in costs of goods and services priced in 2023 terms. Watch those costs implode in concert with a surge in the availability of everything.
Only for the news to get better. That which automates human effort leads to specialized forms of toil that people can’t get enough of. Applied to the future, retirement will not only be cheap, it will also come later as work more and more reflects our unique skills and intelligence. In reporting his book, Finkel even interviewed an art-crime professor. A country with art-crime teaching jobs is one where retirement is increasingly delayed.