This is the first episode in a six-part video series about the future of work. Follow the series at vox.com/shiftchange.
The scenario is a mainstay of science fiction: Humans engineer themselves into obsolescence, creating a vast class of unemployable people. In the optimistic scenario, we spend our time reading, painting, and enjoying each other. In the darker version, we sink into permanent poverty as the owners of the machines keep all the wealth to themselves.
Every few decades this forecast pervades conversations about the future of work, and it’s always been wrong. Automation has ruined lives — it hasn’t ruined the labor market.
We find ourselves in another era of automation anxiety right now. Futurists like Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, argue that the technology in development today is fundamentally different from everything that came before and will be substantially more disruptive. Silicon Valley executives are calling for a basic minimum income to support the workers they’re certain their inventions will displace.
Economists tend to be much more skeptical. Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute dismisses fears of technological unemployment, pointing to data that suggests this particular scenario is nowhere in sight.
Fortunately, we don’t need to divine the future of the labor market in order to prepare for it. And we don’t need to look beyond the current economic trends to see a society ill-prepared for whatever comes next.
To learn about this debate, watch the video above, and read “The automation myth” by Matt Yglesias.