A World Without Work?

by Bill Johnston

The July/August Atlantic Monthly speculates about the coming disappearance of work. Senior editor Derek Thompson has surveyed the technological landscape and concluded that self-driving cars, ubiquitous robots, and "shrewd" software will eventually lead to

a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.  

Hmmm. Haven't we seen this movie before?  

Indeed we have, Thompson admits.  But this time, he says, it's different. 

It's not. 

In the centuries since prognosticators first heralded the end of work, work has stubbornly proven them wrong. Many technologies have decimated once-common professions. Looms replaced weavers, tractors replaced farm hands, computers replaced clerks. But somehow, the number of jobs, and the proportion of people who work, just keeps growing. 

For example, the number of full-time farm workers dropped from more than 6 million in 1910 to fewer than 500,000 in 2010, even as the number of mouths to feed tripled. Other occupations have disappeared entirely.  In 1910 there were 110,000 "messengers and office boys," 98,000 "telephone operators," and 80,000 "hucksters and peddlers," according to the Census Bureau. Gone.

But over the same century, the number of nurses grew from 82,000 to 2.6 million, truck drivers increased from 46,000 to 1.6 million, and social workers went from 19,000 to more than 600,000.

This pattern of job growth exceeding job disappearance has continued in recent decades.Since 1970, computers have destroyed millions of manufacturing and office jobs, as assembly lines were automated and office tasks went digital.

Nevertheless, employment soared, often from occupations that barely existed in 1970. In that year, there were so few software programmers that government statisticians did not bother to count them. In 2014, they counted 1.5 million.  

The explosion of new jobs has not been confined to technical occupations. "Fast food and counter workers" was not an occupational category in 1970. In 2014, there were 3.6 million such jobs. 

Overall, employment rose from 80 million in 1970 to 135 million today, and the proportion of the population who work went from 39% to 42%. 

This pattern seems likely to continue, no matter what technologies we invent. Humans want to work. Societies and their institutions want people to work. The economy is organized around work. Income is substantially tied to work. Some jobs will vanish, but millions of yet unimagined tasks will become jobs.  

Perhaps smart robots will someday put everyone on unemployment. And perhaps we will all go to school until age 30, work in a high-paying job for a few years before retiring at 35. But, if our history is any indication, we'll most likely find something to keep us very busy.