On Toil

Last night, 60 Minutes carried a segment on the replacement of humans by machines — like back in the mid-1800s with the so-called Industrial Revolution.  Back then, back-breaking stoop-labor was supplanted by machines, but in the process, the men and women who performed that stoop-labor were kicked to the curb.  With no source of income, many fell into destitution and died shortly thereafter.  Of course the ones who kept their jobs suffered too; pay was cut and what benefits as existed were eliminated.  More destitution.  Then came the unions with the resulting war (literally) between the Vanderbilts and the poor beasts who toiled in their horrible plants and factories.  While the unions helped, there was still a large imbalance between the fellows and gals who carried their lunches and the folks who lunched at the club.  But it wasn’t quite as one-sided as you might think; some displaced employees came in and busted-up all the machines.  These folks became known as the Luddites.

Now comes the 21st Century and the machines are once again on a tear.  The problem today are robots.  They are doing the work heretofore reserved for human toil, and doing it cheaply.  A guest on last night’s 60 Minutes said that his company’s robots, which become worn out and are replaced every three years or so, can do a human’s work for a prorated “wage” of $3.50 per hour — less than half the minimum wage for humans.  The only “benefits” his company needs to provide the robots are oil changes and grease jobs.  Of course, this $3.50 is about what a Chinese will make for doing the same work by hand, so there goes his job too.

The big social problem coming out of this phenom is what do we do with all the people replaced by these robots?  We already have an underclass of chronically unemployed men and women who used to do the work robots now do.  And it isn’t just the proletarians either.  There are millions of high school and college grads who can’t find jobs and live with Mom and Pop.

Out in the street there’s a clangorous throng milling about.  It consists  of people unable to find a source of income, and they don’t like it one little bit.  The guy on 60 Minutes said this trend will only accelerate.

What to do, what to do.

Let me offer one possible solution.  Back in the early 1970s, I became acquainted with a patent attorney.  One afternoon, he and I were looking into the future and postulated the very problem we are now encountering.

For example, I have a nephew with a law degree who can’t find a job in any law office anywhere in Illinois.  Even the old grunt-work of reviewing depositions, something young lawyers used to do for a living, is now done by a robot.  I know a woman with a Bachelors in math who has resorted to flying a cash register at Top Foods.  In fact, Top Foods has installed some robotic cash registers (you’ve seen them) so she fears Top will install yet another and hand her head.  The way things are going, the vast majority of Americas will end up living in poverty and squalor while a few swells will live in undreamed of splendor.  America will be worse than France the time of its Revolution.

We need to rethink the whole idea of toil.  Toil can no longer be a lifetime thing.  Thanks to the robots, the little work humans must do themselves needs to be spread around.  Egalitarianism at its finest.

To pull this off, we need to take a tip from the U.S. army; after enlisting, some junior-grade officer assigns you to some job for the rest of your hitch..  Well, in our new world, this will happen to everyone.  All all young people will be assigned some job or other — a job unsuitable for robotization — for, say, fifteen years.  At the end of fifteen years, everyone will retire with an adequate yearly stipend a la Social Security and bennies like Medicare.

It will be just like Old Dixie; slaves beyond counting serving their masters to the bitter end.

Retired at age thirty-five, some folks will surly sit on their asses, but most people will want to do something.  With thirty-five or forty years at their disposal, people will be free to create and enrich their own lives as well as the lives of everyone else.  Humankind will be a master class living in luxury on the backs of dumb mechanical brutes who work 24/7/52 without complaint.

In these future times, people may want to work, but one will have to work.

Think of what humankind will become, once we are freed from toil.


One Response to On Toil

  1. Stephen H. Sparks says:

    Hey Tom,

    This is fascinating! We humans can wind up as do gooders like us making a difference for others for most of our lives. Not a bad idea…


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