A future with no jobs -the most important social issue of our times?


I think the most important scientific issues of our times are climate change, energy sufficiency, and environmental pollution, but I believe that these will be solved by technology within my lifetime.

Recently, I have been reading a lot about a problem that will be caused by technological advances.

I read two books: Race Against the Machine ($3.99 on Kindle) and The Lights in the Tunnel ($3.95 on Kindle). They are both incredibly thought-provoking, and tell the same story: we are approaching a future without jobs.

Technological advances are resulting in more and more jobs being automated. Looking around me here in Japan I have seen petrol stations (self-service), restaurants (order from a touch panel) and supermarkets (self-checkout) directly replace workers with machines.

Amazon has replaced countless shops, and is in the process of automating their warehouses.

The latest thing in education is Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), allowing one teacher to deliver content to tens of thousands of students.

Foxconn, the company that assembles iPhones in China, is currently replacing it’s workers with robots.

Google’s driverless cars will eliminate taxi drivers, delivery drivers, and eventually driving schools, traffic police, and even street signs.

Increasingly sophisticated computer hardware and software will replace legal researchers, translators, middle managers, medical technicians, surgeons, and other knowledge workers.

So, as technology continues to improve at exponential rates, and human workers for jobs at both the blue- and white-collar levels continue to become surplus to requirements, what are people going to do? Are we going to have societies where 60%+ of the population are on welfare?

It’s terrifying.

I think I’m probably going to be okay, as I work in a public university in Japan (possibly one of the last sectors to face automation). Even so, I would be surprised if my job still existed in 15 years time.

One possible positive to come out of this is that Japan’s extreme demographics may turn out to be a blessing. When there is no need for a workforce, and unemployed people are a drag on society, a falling population could become an advantage.

Am I overreacting? This seems like the issue of our times, as it is going to result in huge changes to our social and economic systems, but it doesn’t seem to be part of public discourse.

I look forward to your comments 🙂


24 Jun 2013, 1:06pm
by David Lisgo


Interesting Ben. I myself don’t think that the science (or misuse of science) that got us in this environmental mess is going to get us out of it, but that is another several books.
University jobs must go online where they can reach far more people and reduce costs dramatically otherwise we are going to have the unemployed youth owing their lives to the banks as is happening already in the States.

I would like to see an official reverse in urbanisation but it doesn’t suit agrobusiness. People are either going to grow vegetables or vegetate in future.

Thanks David! That is definitely one future I can see for us -a move to somewhere rural and a vegetable garden 🙂

I just heard a TED talk on this.


Thanks Tom. Do you have a link?

Heh, the video didn’t show in my moderation screen 🙂

Interesting video. I will post it on the blog tomorrow.

Easy answer: nationalize the robots. Send everyone a monthly check.

Thanks Hoofin! I think that might work in Japan, but would require the country to nationalize everything. Could work 🙂

24 Jun 2013, 1:31pm
by Rob Dickey


George Jetson slaved over a few buttons, pushing one every 30 seconds or so, for a whole TWO hours per day!

But actually, I think certain human services will continue. Training and education will be important. Courtesans? It is the less-skilled manual labor and recycled services (e.g? Recorded Lectures) at risk.

Thanks Rob. The safest jobs are probably going to be creative and physical, as you say.

I think I need to retrain…

24 Jun 2013, 5:35pm
by Jonah Glick


Ben, I don’t think the issue of technology replacing humans is a completely dire situation. Jobs have been displaced in the past by technology and other new jobs were created. There is a long history of this. Of course, the experience that society has had with this has mostly been technology taking the place of blue-collar labor (for example automated assembly lines etc.) and the new trend is for technology to take the place of white-collar jobs more and more. This will be a challenge but machines and computers cannot build and sustain relationships, be creative or do anything spontaneously. Thus, I am not worried about this issue. However, I do worry about the growing inequality in the USA, UK and Japan actually. The richest are getting richer and everyone else is not making much progress at all. This is the big problem to think about and make sure politicians are doing something about.

Hi Jonah

Thanks for stopping by! I’d actually make two points in response to that:

-the difference with previous technologies is the speed of current technological development (it’s exponential, thus growing at ever-increasing rates) and the range of jobs where humans can be replaced. There are few, if any, categories of new jobs being created that employ significant numbers of ordinary workers

-the growing inequality seen around the world is precisely this issue. It’s the increasing share of profits going to capital and entrepreneurship, and the fall in the share of profits going to labour. Hence we have the current situation where corporate profits are at an all-time high, while employment and incomes are stagnant or falling

Check out either of the books in the post, they explain a lot 🙂

Changes are definitely happening and will accelerate, but we should be careful not to underestimate the power of human interaction. This is one reason I think it will take far more than 15 years for teachers–including university lecturers–to become obsolete, if that ever does happen. Education is about far more than simply learning “information.”

Possibly, Ryan. Probably for children. I have my doubts about language teachers for teens and adults, as I suspect there are far more effective ways to learn languages for an autonomous learner than with a teacher in a classroom.

On the other hand, once we have working machine translation and interpretation (the babel fish?) are we going to see the same demand for language learning?

[…] talked a lot on this blog about the coming jobs apocalypse and the conversation above got me thinking about how this will apply to teaching English as a […]


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