The Rich and Their Robots Are About to Make Half the World’s Jobs Disappear


Two hugely important statistics concerning the future of employment as we know it made waves recently:

1. 85 people alone command as much wealth as the poorest half of the world

2. 47 percent of the world’s currently existing jobs are likely to be automated over the next two decades. 

Combined, those two stats portend a quickly-exacerbating dystopia. As more and more automated machinery (robots, if you like) are brought in to generate efficiency gains for companies, more and more jobs will be displaced, and more and more income will accumulate higher up the corporate ladder. The inequality gulf will widen as jobs grow permanently scarce—there are only so many service sector jobs to replace manufacturing ones as it is—and the latest wave of automation will hijack not just factory workers but accountants, telemarketers, and real estate agents. 

That’s according to a 2013 Oxford study, which was highlighted in this week’s Economist cover story. That study attempted to tally up the number of jobs that were susceptible to automization, and, surprise, a huge number were. Creative and skilled jobs done by humans were the most secure—think pastors, editors, and dentists—but just about any rote task at all is now up for automation. Machinists, typists, even retail jobs, are predicted to disappear. 

And, as is historically the case, the capitalists eat the benefits. The Economist explains: 

The prosperity unleashed by the digital revolution has gone overwhelmingly to the owners of capital and the highest-skilled workers. Over the past three decades, labour’s share of output has shrunk globally from 64% to 59%. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the top 1% in America has risen from around 9% in the 1970s to 22% today. Unemployment is at alarming levels in much of the rich world, and not just for cyclical reasons. In 2000, 65% of working-age Americans were in work; since then the proportion has fallen, during good years as well as bad, to the current level of 59%.

Those trends aren’t just occurring in the US, either. That second stat up there is from an Oxfam report entitled Working for the Few, just out this week. It was launched in tandem with the beginning of the World Economic Forum in Davos, in an effort to get the gazillionaires attending it to consider the gravity of their wealth. It finds that “those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1 [trillion], as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population.” Yes, you read that correctly: The 85 richest people have $1.64 trillion between them, the same amount of money as 3.5 billion of the world’s less fortunate souls. 

The trend extends beyond a few handfuls of the planet’s most mega-tycoons, of course: “The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world.” And they and their corporations are building robots that will have the net effect of letting them keep even more of that capital concentrated in their hands. 

As the Economist piece notes, there’s typically a disruptive cycle when new technologies displace old ones, and replace old jobs with new ones. But this time, that cycle is one-sided—so far, there are a lot fewer jobs being created in the new information-based economy than the old manufacturing-based one: Last year, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook were worth over $1 trillion combined, but employed just 150,000 people

All of this points towards an uncomfortable prospect: in our globalizing, technologically advanced, and inequality-laden world, we risk becoming the cyber-peasants tending (or loitering on, more likely) the feudal lawn of the machine-owning rich. Oxfam predicts incoming class struggles and social strife, and it’s not hard to see why—to ensure that the 99 percent of tomorrow benefit from still-accelerating technology, we’re going to have to push for policy adjustments that adapt to our mechanized world. Radical income redistribution is probably in order, even a minimum guaranteed income; ideas unlikely to prove popular to the corporate titans used to reaping outsized rewards.

We already have the agricultural, energy, and consumer technology necessary to recalibrate the world’s income scheme and resource distribution to make it more equitable. So as the rich and their robots start vacuuming up the world’s jobs, it’s social innovation we need now, far more than any technological gain.

2 Comments

  1. John Goodrich January 24, 2014 4:37 pm 

    Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert both say in a most unequivocal fashion that the level of automation suggested by Brian Merchant is nothing more than science fiction and that Moore’s Law , on which this exponential development of super-human computers , very advanced AI and robotics is based , is just a “trend” (Chomsky)

    It has to be very unsettling for a the majority of anarchists, socialists, communists and Marxists whose lifelong beliefs and struggles have been centered on a future in which (human) workers were to be at the base of a future bottom-up democratic society, to find that they are being blindsided by something that they did not and could not have seen coming until fairly recently.

    Marx hinted at it, Bakunin did as well and more currently Murray Bookchin more directly pointed to advanced technologies as being what will truly relieve humanity of the drudgery and mind-numbing labor that keeps the bulk of humanity from reaching higher and towards that egalitarian, democratic society .

    “Been a long time comin’ and it’s not far off
    Been long, long, long , on the way ….”
    ( Nicodemus the slave”)

  2. Joseph Valentino January 24, 2014 4:16 pm 

    where to begin?
    we don’t need “the rich”
    or their money
    or their “jobs”
    i realise that it’s easy to get brainwashed by a system that one lives in, but still: one must everyday of their life refuse passive acceptance of ideas, and scrutinise everything that comes one’s way, concept-wise
    ie, question everything, always
    we don’t need money to get anything done
    the idea that we do, is a fallacy slipped into our consciousness through incessant messaging
    money is an idea
    it is not a neutral idea
    it comes loaded with axiomatic rules
    it comes with an inherent pecking order
    it is the tool of a hierarchical management system
    it is meant to enslave, not to liberate
    what would the 99% do without us
    let’s show them

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