AEI’s Michael Strain contends that, at least for the next several decades, it is highly unlikely that artificial intelligence (AI) will all but eliminate human jobs. This is largely due to the “creative” side of creative destruction. Innovation creates wealth, wealth creates demand, demand spurs employment. The amount of work to be done always increases. Over the short, medium, and even long term, it’s very likely that this time is not different.
Strain’s musings on the distant future are, to me, the more interesting part of his argument. What happens if AI achieves what its most passionate advocates believe it is capable of: a world of abundance that renders work entirely obsolete? Forget flying cars and imagine a world in which human beings have nothing they must do to meet their material needs. As Strain asks, “I receive a great deal of fulfillment and satisfaction from my professional activities, but the primary reason I get up and go to work each day is to provide for my family. Without the need to put food on the table and money in the retirement accounts, would we get up each day with the goal of bettering ourselves and our communities? Or would we fall to the darker angels of our nature, with unoccupied time leading to boredom and dystopia?”
Recent history suggests this is not an idle concern nor one we don’t already have experience with. As the collapse in male workforce participation over the past several decades demonstrates, we have already reached a level of wealth that makes it possible for millions to not work without fearing for their physical survival. Our safety nets are strong and, with $28 trillion sloshing around the economy, people find ways of housing, feeding, and clothing themselves without working. But life without work can be downright disastrous when looked at from standpoints like physical, mental, and social health.
A rendering of a super-abundant world can be found in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in which human beings of all classes struggle not to survive but to find meaning, purpose, and dignity in a world where material survival isn’t much of a factor. Similarly, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, the dystopia isn’t the product of war and famine but of normal human beings lacking outlets and opportunities for their creativity and intelligence.
Most of our education, training, and workforce development policy and programs are oriented toward the “survival” side of the equation: how do we assure that new and incumbent workers have the skills they need to remain economically relevant? This obviously is useful in keeping people in jobs that pay the bills. As the problem of survival recedes, issues of thriving and flourishing—emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually—will take on ever-greater significance. At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization; from what we can tell, it is no more optional than the rest of his pyramid, and ignoring it can be, in its own way, as destructive as other, more tangible forms of deprivation.
The super-abundant AI future, if it arrives, will do so gradually. Perhaps male workforce disengagement is a sign of things to come. If so, we may need to revive and revalue the noneconomic contributions of work to human well-being—the way it provides purpose, structure and meaning—rather than rely only on dollars and cents to measure what work does.