Automation, industry 4.0, smart factories, algorithms and artificial intelligence. We are being told with increasing frequency that human work is being made obsolete. We are being told that all this change happens exponentially, that is: fast beyond our comprehension. Yet, we continue to put our children in education system which prepare for traditional jobs. Yet, we continue ourselves to train for traditional jobs; either to stay in them or to get them back. Millions are out of them for good; labor market statistics are being distorted by young adults kept longer and longer in tertiary education; and adults either retiring early or put into re-education programs which make them disappear from the unemployment statistics.
Exponential technological change implies that the secondary and the tertiary sector will follow the trajectory of the primary sector. Advanced economies employ less than two percent of their work force in agriculture. Similar numbers are to be expected for industry and service by 2030 with landslide changes starting in the next few years. It really doesn’t matter how you look at labor markets. Jobs disappear. The human being is being made redundant by intelligent machines. After 200 years of almost full employment, automation will eliminate most jobs for good.
That's absolutely great news and it's the best economic news on the planet these days; for two reasons: technological progress will provide abundance and that's exactly what we want an economic system to achieve; and humans will be set free from drudgery and toil, but there are two sets of challenges:
The solution to the economic challenge is a straight forward playbook which has already been read and understood by many contemporaries. We need a basic universal income which substitutes the social contract described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the outset of the industrial revolution. We need to close the gap between the thinning layer of the well to do and a broadening base of poor.
The solution to the social challenge is a different subject and the playbook is not clear at all. Voltaire said that “work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need” and right he was; but he forgot in his negative perspective that work gives man above all meaning in life. How will we provide meaning to 7 or 9 billion people who have been put out of their traditional jobs? If all this change on our labor markets happens exponentially, then we are flying against a concrete wall at hypersonic speed. We need to prepare ourselves and our children now.
The American author Andy Couturier has looked deep into the future of the most advanced economy on this planet. Japan is the most urbanized nation with over 96% of its population perched into cities and a consumer saturation which can hardly be matched by any other market. He profiles in his book The Abundance of Less ten Japanese individuals who are in some sense models that we can follow. These people have left behind the clockwork of our industrial economies and the obsession with consumption, but most importantly: they have found meaning in what they do outside the mainstream economic system. They live in genuine satisfaction, care for a small patch of land, grow most of their food themselves and balance their intellectual interests with a long-forgotten trade.
Couturier gives them in his book a platform to teach an important lesson; one that humanity should collectively listen to, because they point at a single solution for the main social and environmental challenges which we face in the 21st century. Could it really be that these sages can show us a path which brings all at once balance to our lives and the global ecosystem?
The Shanghai based social enterprise Green Initiatives has invited Andy Couturier to Shanghai to share with us his insights. Join us in this public dialogue about the future of work throughout June 2018. Starting on the World Environment Day, June 5th, Andy will tour with Green Initiatives major Chinese cities, where we will host moderated book readings and podium discussions in cooperation with resident communities. Get in touch with us if you want to host an event. Follow our updates on wechat, facebook and our website if you want to participate in an event.