Thursday, April 28, 2011

What is left for people to do?

One of the great quandaries of the past few hundred years has been, what should all the people be doing?

First it was obvious. You had to eat after all, and it took most of the people working most of the time to make that happen. Most people worked on farms as they had for centuries. A few were hunter gatherers.

Then we started getting really good at farming. Now all of a sudden we didn't need so many people. So the people moved from farms to factories. Then we invented robots. The decline of manufacturing in America is not how most people portray it. It more closely resembles the decline of farming than, say the decline of the typewriter industry. It isn't that America doesn't make stuff anymore. We just don't need nearly the number of people to make all of that stuff now that CNC machines can do what a really good machinist was once needed for. So all of a sudden people had to find something else to do.

Standing behind a counter and taking people's money, selling things, taking care of kids and construction were good options people had. Now those jobs are slowly going the way of the farming jobs.

The last time I was at a movie theater I payed a machine rather than a person. The last time I got money from the bank it was from a machine rather than a person. The last time I bought a book it was from a machine rather than a person. I could easily have bought my food from the grocery store and the gas in my car from machines if I chose to do so. I don't even think it would be difficult to buy everything you use without ever interacting with a real person. So it seems clear that standing behind a counter to take people's money will not be a common career path in the near future.

Another one of the big career paths in the past was being a housewife. This career path seems to have been dying off as well. Smaller families and better home appliances turned that from a challenging full time profession requiring constant work, into watching television while you wait for the kids to come home from school. I don't envision millions of women returning to this way of life unless there are some very odd shifts in the world.

Now that so many people like me use the internet to research anything we want to buy, then simply buy it at the cheapest place possible sales jobs are becoming less common. While it is less publicized than some of the other careers there really is less and less place for salesmen in our modern society.

Construction is more complicated. It seems to have mostly collapsed because demand maxed out while raw material prices were high. I envision that it will come back as land prices get cheaper. However, once again we are getting really good at construction. More and more work is done in a factory by robots, than quickly assembled into a final product on site. Just like cashiers, factory workers and farmers we won't be needing as high a percentage of our population working on construction projects unless we decide to build a whole lot more ambitious projects than we ever have before.

There are still some professions that have grown. Research, health care and college education come to mind. Still, I have trouble seeing these professions getting much bigger. More likely it will be something completely new.

I don't actually believe that we are yet at a golden age of robot assisted utopia where no one must work. In the short term what seems to be happening is that a few people who are highly talented or just lucky enough to break into the job market are making out like bandits while everyone else plays World of Warcraft. This may very well continue, we have been inventing better and better entertainment devices which may lead to more and more people dropping out of the labor force to enjoy them. There has been a several hundred year history though where old jobs became obsolete and new ones rose in prominence though. I rather expect something more interesting than people just working less and playing video games more, but that really does seem a plausible future.

If we end up that we actually need less people to provide the necessities of life than ever before, than I am less and less concerned about taxes. If only a few million Americans are needed to keep the rest of us supplied with food, clothes, healthcare, housing and other necessities than the best thing to do may simply be to tax the heck out of those people and use to proceeds to employ the rest of the population to do something interesting and useful. Space travel and environmental mitigation sound like two good options. Unfortunately I see it being more likely that these people will be employed to spy on people, imprison people, go to war(another profession robots seem to be dominating), or just generally make more red tape to prevent the few million people actually doing work from being very efficient.

It appears that slate is going to have a series of articles about this very subject. The economist has a good article about America's inability to provide jobs to people without significant education.

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