Multitudes of Smoke

The thoughtful ramblings of a space goat and his alts.

What Happens to All the People ?

Posted by Smokimus on August 9, 2013

This post will have little/nothing to do with gaming or WoW. I’ve been thinking about this issue for awhile and this is as good a place as any to get these thoughts out of my head.

What is going to happen to all of the people displaced from “productive society” with our continuing technological advances?

I had been thinking about this issue before and then I read this article.

In the western world, we seem to be in an era of redefinition where the traditional measures of individual and community success are becoming less and less valuable. Yet, the impact of some of the conditions that are being measured can be profound. Specifically, I’m thinking about – unemployment. For most of the western world (North America and Europe), we seem to be on a path of accepting that double digit unemployment rates are the “new normal”.

I’m concerned that this may in fact be the case.

Many jobs that were done by human laborers in the past are being done with many fewer people, thanks to tremendous technological advances made over the past 150 years. Previously, there had been a pattern of displacement, caused by a technological advance, followed by a readjustment and economic growth. Think of the transition from horses being the primary form of non-people powered transportation to trains and automobiles, as being the primary way to move people from one destination to the next. Certainly, the auto industry produced 1000s of additional jobs compared to the jobs lost by people who made a living from horses.

This pattern of displacement and readjustment, where the technological advance ultimately produces more jobs/economic growth than what it is replacing may be slowing down even though the pace of technological change is accelerating. I think this is part of the answer to the economic growth we are seeing in the west while unemployment rates remain historically high.

If this is the new normal, how is society supposed to accommodate what may be a class of permanent unemployed/underemployed?

I believe that almost everyone has the ability to add value to their community, but what is supposed to happen when the special skill a person has isn’t valued by their community? What happens to the ditch digger when their community doesn’t need a ditch digger? What happens to attorneys/doctors with specialties that aren’t needed anymore?

Do you hang your hat on retraining these individuals as they come? Do you force these people to relocate? I’m not sure these are viable solutions in a situation where you have more and more people competing for fewer and fewer jobs.

I do think that part of the solution will be the redefinition of “productive” in the context individual contributions to a community. We will need to have a larger discussion on what we value and how that value is rewarded.

As an aside, the concept that one must work 40 hours per week to be fully productive is a relic of the Industrial Age that is in some need of adjustment. For many jobs, the idea that you can measure the value of the work done by the time it takes to do it is absurd.


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