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Many people set who they are and others by what jobs they do, how they make their living. As more and more jobs are being taken over by computers and robots there are 'fewer' jobs for others. Yet we still expect them to work. Currently there really still are plenty of jobs for everyone, though many are jobs a lot don't want.

But in the future more and more jobs WILL be taken over by some kind of automation system. Everything from serving your fast food meal to typing your correspondence and filing your taxes. Even buying and delivering your new socks when the old ones are about worn out to your specifications. Even farming, at least on large scales, is incredibly automated now, and will likely to continue, allowing for less and less personal input.

  • How will society change to switch to a 'non-working' society?
  • Where the majority of people don't have to do anything to 'live'?

It could still be an option, and those would likely still get greater privileges. But

  • How would we transition from mostly everyone needing to work, to very few needing to 'work'?

Some food for thought. Humans Need Not Apply

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jan 20 at 3:16
Just to confirm, you are asking about the very beginning of the process, as it happens? Not the end result as in the Culture? Really interesting question. Something I've been wondering, as the current power structures seem to be wilfully blind to the possibility. – Whelkaholism Jan 20 at 10:45
Larger quota of people who can be used for social planning and policing and control of the diminishing percentages of the population who are skilled and specialized enough to do the few jobs still not obsolete. They would be motivated doing so as it would give them something they would be really starved of ever since their own presumable failure in school : a chance at a sense of social influence. – mathreadler Jan 20 at 16:08
Any further comments will be deleted. Use the chat room above. – Tim B Jan 20 at 19:55
A little surprised no one has mentioned Star Trek. Picard: "We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity." – Mr. Brooks Jan 21 at 23:05

14 Answers 14

up vote 6 down vote accepted

How will society change to switch to a 'non-working' society?

Taking an economic look at the situation, all jobs in the first and almost all jobs in the second and most jobs in the third economic sectors will be replaced by robots/machines. But that leaves the whole quaternary sector open for "work", also there are some services from the third sector you won't be able to replace with robots.

Future jobs

But what types of job will be available exactly?

  • Most importantly, the jobs providing the infrastructure for the robots to do their work (mostly programming them or underlying machines)

  • Also quite important: content generators a.k.a. entertainers (in all possible variants, politicians and teachers as well as movie stars and singers)

  • Depending on some preferences, there might be some jobs where contact to humans might be socially prefered (e.g. healthcare).

But most of the listed jobs (excluding the content generators) require you to have at least a higher education. Also, nobody likes to work without any recompensation. So what incentive can you provide to someone to get the education and then do their job?

It has to be some kind of privilege.

Currently, you do work in order to cover your basic needs, and nearly everything after achieving that goes into some form of showing off "hey, I can afford to do XY!", or in other words, you earned the privilege of being able "to do XY". When the need to cover your basic needs disappears, all that's left is privilege.

The current privileged ones (a.k.a. the wealthy)

But wait... Why would the current privileged ones "allow" for their privileges (e.g. wealth) to be taken from them? Why not try to control who will be privileged in the new society?

In order to be able to do the "most important work", you will need to get some higher education and access to specific knowledge beyond that. So, whoever controls who can get educated and/or access to knowledge will be able to control who will be eligible for privileges in the future!

And this fight over the control to decide who will be eligible for privilege has already started (e.g. look at US university tuitions).

The "unprivileged" ones

These people will be the ones most important before and during the switch. If the government/society fails to provide them a socially acceptable way of getting their "basic needs" covered, there will be revolts. Even if this would be handled "perfectly", there's still a good chance some minor uprisings will happen (since the social shift from "I have to work to be able to live" to "I am free to do whatever I want" might be too extreme for some).

But once things cool down, I guess that the hunt for ways to kill time begins. What would you do if you wouldn't have to work/cook/clean/... anymore? What would you do in a month? What about in a year?

The content generators

In order to keep people calm before, during and after the switch you will need good entertainers to distract them (or, later, to give them something to do in their free time). While theoretically anyone can become a content generator (youtube/blogs/...), the most important ones will be the ones who can influence the masses. Those will probably also get some privileges (either as "bribe" to keep them from turning the population against the privileged ones or from the "entertained" population themselves).


Of course, I'm possibly describing the most optimistic version of that future. It might never get there because of wars, or the "privileged" ones controlling enough military firepower to suppress/get rid of everybody not needed to keep the robot infrastructure intact. This can turn bloody rather quick in a multitude of ways, and I'm not having enough time to describe every one. For example

  • the monetary system might or might not break down

  • global warming could be too much of a threat

  • conflict between "privileged" and "unprivileged" might be too strong

  • education doesn't have to be restricted

Generally, "post-scarcity" is not really achievable... We can get close with efficient roboters, but some things will always be scarce.

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Very impressive answer! Thanks! – bowlturner Jan 20 at 16:51

I question your premise. Who says that human labor will become unnecessary? People have been predicting that this will happen since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution -- some predicting a utopia of leisure, others a nightmare of unemployment and poverty, but either way. Yet today, 250 years later, most people still have jobs.

It is certainly true that machines can greatly multiply human productivity. And so the reasoning always goes: Today it takes about 995 people to produce all the food and clothes and houses and so forth to support 1000 people, so almost everyone is employed. But as technology advances, soon machines will do half the work, so 500 people will be able produce enough to support 1000 people. Then the other 500 will be unemployed. (Or in the optimistic scenario: So we'll all only have to work 20 hours a week.)

The flaw to this reasoning is that it assumes that human desires are constant. If, adjusting for inflation, your grandfather lived on \$20,000 per year, and you make \$50,000 per year, than it inevitably follows that you should be saving \$30,000 per year, or giving it to charity, or something. But in fact, that isn't what happens. As incomes go up, we consume more. When I was a boy air conditioning was a luxury for the rich. Today 87% of homes have AC. When I was a boy most families had one car. Today my family of 3 has 3 cars and I don't think we're that unusual. Cell phones weren't even invented then, no one had them. (A small number of rich people or people who really needed them had radio phones.) Etc, I'm sure anyone could extend this list.

In a thriving economy, when new machines make a job obsolete, people don't become permanently unemployed. They get new jobs producing products that were rare or unknown before. And the standard of living for everyone goes up a little.

Yes, the process is not always smooth and easy. Some individuals who lose their jobs in old industries find it difficult to get jobs in the new industries.

Machines are wonderful at mindless, repetitive processes. But unless and until an artificial intelligence is invented that truly rivals human intelligence, machines simply cannot do jobs that require creativity or flexibility. (Dittos to @vogie there.) An automobile is an amazing machine: the engine will spin round and round and power the wheels with incredible speed and efficiency. But when it breaks down, do you take it to a machine to have it repaired, or to a human being? We are a long, long way from having robots that can repair a car. I wouldn't be shocked if in my lifetime someone invented a robot that can, say, change oil. Even that would be hard, as it would have to adapt to drain plugs and filters being at different locations on different cars, but I don't doubt that it could be programmed to recognize an oil filter and a drain plug -- especially if manufacturers helped it along by putting some standard, recognizable markings on them. But a robot that you could bring it a car and say "this car runs rough and stalls, please fix it"? Wow. Like wow. I've seen some efforts at "expert systems" to help diagnose automobile mechanical problems. They are nowhere near the abilities of a human mechanic. And the ones I've seen still require a human to manipulate the tools and interpret the results of each test.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Vincent Jan 24 at 17:54

What "will happen" is exactly what's slowly happening today, just far worse.

The rich will get richer, and the poor poorer.

I think the movie "Elysium" (with Matt Damon) more or less encompasses the outcome.


As you've pointed out, a lot of jobs, from manufacturing, to agriculture, to the service industry are disappearing due to automation.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Someone still needs to design those automated processes. To maintain the robots. However, the person who gets fired from their minimum wage job at McDonald's and gets replaced with a dispensing unit is not necessarily going to turn around, go back to school, and get certified as an electrician or engineer.

More likely this person will go on unemployment, and then slowly slip down the rungs of society as they fail to find another job with their limited skill set.


The more such people are replaced and fail to find jobs which pay as well, or don't find a job at all, the more stress the whole system comes under.

Fewer taxes are being paid. More unemployment is being handed out. More food stamps. Fewer people can afford the luxuries they may have once had, not to mention healthcare.

This will drive up crime rates, as people are driven to desperation.


The people who own those automated businesses are going to keep getting richer as they sell their products to anyone who can afford them.

The poor, however, will have nothing to their names. We're seeing this happening even now, as more and more manufacturing jobs are outsourced to Mexico, and various other Asian countries. Globalization has made the average Western manufacturing worker unemployable - who would want to pay decent wages, benefits, vacation days, etc. when they could be paying some Chinese worker (who sleeps at his workstation) a buck a day?

As the rich get richer, they will, more and more, seek to be "removed" from the presence of the common masses.

There are actually many articles exploring this phenomenon. For example, note the recent trend of airlines offering more and more luxuries in 1st class (caviar, anyone?), while putting up more and more physical separation between their those sections and the economy ones.

Another example is that companies are looking at putting new Concord-style jets in the air. No one but the rich would be able to afford the very pricey tickets. The list goes on and on.

The rich already live the kind of lives that the rest of us could never even dream to experience. Look at the luxury in which the likes of the Kardashians live, compared to what 99% of Americans can afford. These are not the sort of people who would give up a massive percentage of their wealth in order for the unemployed masses to live with dignity.

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@bowlturner - when you look at the lifestyles of the truly rich (not necessarily the Kardashian air-heads, but the ones who are truly powerful), you'll notice that they don't really belong to any one country. They have estates all around the world, global corporations, etc. For them borders are simply an inconvenience, and hence the many free trade agreements being passed, which hamstring the economy, yet we're told are good for us, even while evidence points to the contrary. These people are so removed from us that they may as well live on a different planet. – AndreiROM Jan 19 at 19:14
Doesn't this answer inherently imply a failed transition? It certainly wouldn't be a stable socioeconomic situation and probably wouldn't exist for very long. – Avernium Jan 19 at 19:34
@AndreiROM It’s a recurring theme of history that people always think the ingredients of their time are different, therefore history won’t repeat itself. People have breaking points. And that same gullibility that you describe can be easily co-opted by even a single person who wants to turn the many against the few. – Avernium Jan 19 at 20:12
Are the poor getting poorer? I would say the the bottom 10% are gigantically better off today than the bottom 10% in the 1500s (in terms or resources available to them). I agree that the rich poor divide may be getting larger but not in absolute terms; i.e. The rich are getting richer really fast and the poor are getting richer rather slowly – Richard Tingle Jan 19 at 21:04
"Another example is that companies are looking at putting new Concord-style jets in the air. No one but the rich would be able to afford the very pricey tickets." - note: this sort of thing helps to move money back from the rich people using the airlines to the poorer airline employees. Unless it's a fully automated airline of course. – immibis Jan 19 at 23:40

There will never be a non-working society from top to bottom. Just like the visions of the future from the 1950s showed the office worker of the year 2000 lounging on beach due to the labor-saving devices, that did not come to pass... there will be advances, and certain instances of repetitive physical labor will be largely replaced by machines, many others will not. Anything that requires flexibility or creativity, in design, repair, even something like cleaning houses or weeding, will still be in the hands of people.

And even at that point, note that this won't be universal across the planet. Just like there are people living on less than a dollar a day in India and parts of Africa, while what is considered "in poverty" in the US and certain European countries includes thousands of dollars a year, and can include an air-conditioned home and various devices. You will have a population that can live off the work of their father's father, just like the life of luxury that the children of Sam Walton, the Rothschilds, or the Du Pont family live in, but that will still be far from the norm. For example, the person who invents the burger-flipping robot will be wealthier than the burger-flipping robot maintenance technician, who will be wealthier than someone who used to flip burgers.

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Machines can do one thing really well... but they are not flexible. Your Roomba can vacuum, sure, but they can't dust, or clean the fans, or baseboards, or even pick up toys or shoes before vacuuming. God knows it can't do the dishes or scrub the tub, or cook a meal. That's the main problem. Would you rather spend money on a literal pile of different housecleaning robots (along with maintenance costs & storage), or hire a maid a handful of times a month? We're eons away from the robo-nanny from the Jetsons – Vogie Jan 19 at 19:55
I think your focus is too narrow. Machines may not be flexible, but robots are the epitome of flexible... – bowlturner Jan 19 at 20:00
@bowlturner Are you assuming this is a post-singularity world? A robot may have the potential to be flexible, but short of an artificial intelligence, the intensive programming and testing required to make a robot replace a human's inherent flexibility in tasks would be monumental. – Avernium Jan 19 at 20:04
Not really. All robots that we have now are geared for a purpose in mind. We've been creating "robots" since 1928, but the first time a robot has done "Various household chores" was this past week, nearly a century later. . The prompt said nothing about a post-singularity AI, just automaton systems replacing 'work'. – Vogie Jan 19 at 20:06
@bowlturner, needed is relative. In ancient Sumer, no one would have thought someone would need electricity, yet today a house without electricity is considered legally uninhabitable in large parts of the world. – Joe Jan 20 at 4:29

Your premise that economic creativity suddenly halts is flawed.

Once new technology is introduced, it opens a whole new vista of opportunities, which will require humans to create, manage and produce.

And, this will not be a complete change overnight. It will come along gradually, so you are not going to end up with millions of people suddenly without work.

Micro Example

You see this at a micro-level in software development projects - scope creep - once a business user "sees" what can be done with feature "X" they then also want feature "Y" which is built on "X". But, until they could see and experience feature "X", they never dreamed feature "Y" existed.

Macro Example

You can see this with automobiles. Automobiles put out of work carriage makers, horse breeders, coachmen, trainers for the coachmen, and many of the allied suppliers - to make horse whips, feed, etc.

But, although that is all true, the rise of the automobile led to new industries - everything from road builders to suburbs (more house building) to a vacation industry, oil refineries, gasoline delivery systems, car dealers, car makers, bureaucrats to regulate automobiles from creation to selling to driving, new laws to govern and police to enforce. They also made it possible to engage in new kinds of warfare and new reasons for warefare, healthcare (ambulances actually get to the hospital in time to save the patient) and the ability to transport goods across continents. (American Land Bridge for example.) And, then of course, the knowledge used in creating automobiles was used elsewhere for additional automation, which opened even more economies.

In other words, a MASSIVE new economy replaced a much smaller one due to automation.


From a worldbuilding perspective, lets assume that many repetitive tasks can be optimized and automated. Business now relies upon and trusts this automation. It will still need people to manage, secure, troubleshoot/fix, improve, and protect. It still needs people to direct the robots and automation software. These workers are still human and will be working in the digital world or a blended digital/mechanical world. Robot and automation manufacturers will still need humans to design, build, test and sell and fix their goods. That implies that someone is making the tools and software to be able to create the robots in the first place.

But, that is all mundane. Let's look at what robots/automation might be able to do to create NEW economies (besides their own):

  1. Robots could be used to create new living spaces for humans. They would be ideal to create, maintain and secure those facilities - underwater, in space, artic or antarctic, underground, etc. All of those would need supplies and materials that have to come from somewhere.

  2. Energy - lots and lots of robots and/or computers will need more and more energy. Self-propelled robots should lead to some way to improved batteries (e.g. cell phone batteries). New energy sources will need to be built or discovered to power all of these robots. As that happens, all sorts of new, currently unknown devices could be built.

  3. Product distribution - being able to order a good and have it delivered QUICKLY to my house vs me having to go get it, will provide a bigger market for people to sell and an incentive for people to buy (easier to buy, have it in hand more quickly). This itself will lead to new industries and expansions of other industries. Small, cottage industries now have an easy way to reach customers that might otherwise just go to a superstore to buy their goods today. Tons of possibilities here - like giant, automated transport planes - which can go much faster and be built differently because they do not need to accommodate humans.

  4. Advancements in automation in programming should help programmers build better software faster - like the 3d programming system in Iron Man.

  5. Automated transport - one of the blockers to "flying cars" isn't just the technology - but the idea of piloting a vehicle. If a robot were to pilot an automated vehicle, then a flying taxi is not out of the question - nor is a fast moving train - at least for local service to an airport or between cities or even within a city. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities for entertainment, vacations, product transport (fly fast and high) and manufacturing, as well as, legal, policing and militarized usages.

  6. Digital alternate realities - with 3d visors (or whatever) and an automated/intelligent controller, humans could entertain themselves walking around and interacting in very creative worlds - worlds that have to be designed by other humans. More crude versions might be sex robots that are programmed and seeded daily with "ideas" from companies that provide them.

  7. Movies/books - if the automation software is of sufficient capability to say read your mind enough to form images and follow your thought patterns, people could make their own movies or animations or books or just sending a simple message to someone else. Some might give them away for free, but others might sell them, and still others might do what youtube users do today.

  8. Parts and supplies and accessories for your home and/or personal robot - a whole market for that would then exist.

Basically, automation and robotics permit more human creativity to be shared and spread greater than before. The actual limits to that are less constrained than the automobile, and therefore, one would expect much larger and more widespread economic impact than what the automobile did.

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Actually my premise was not that economic creativity halts. My premise is that automation will leave the vast majority of humans with out 'productive' labor to 'earn' a living. Most of your post actually supports that. – bowlturner Jan 20 at 15:13
The way I interpreted what you were saying is that a large portion of people would be out of work - due to nothing to replace the lost jobs. That's how I assumed that economic creativity halts - and was the basis of the post - that NEW and DIFFERENT jobs will take the place of old ones. So, you are correct that people cannot stay in their current jobs and those people would be out of work. But, overall, a new, bigger economy will take its place - employing more people - just like automobiles did. – Prinz Jan 20 at 15:17
That's where I disagree. I believe that automation will happen faster than any new job creation. Leaving more and more people scrambling for fewer and fewer paid jobs. Not everyone can be a maid in someone elses house. – bowlturner Jan 20 at 15:22
Past performance does not guarantee future results. The warning you see on every stock prospectus. – bowlturner Jan 20 at 15:23
The bulk of working people went from Farming to manufacturing, to the service industry. Where do they go when the service industry is automated to a large extent? It is beginning now. It started with automated phone services, and ATM's now self checkouts, and self served food kiosks exist. – bowlturner Jan 20 at 15:51

This has been speculated on a lot. My answer is different from the other answers: there are types of work that people do not want automated and those are the "hands-on" things like healthcare, personal care, teaching and therapy.

So what do we see? As technology makes more health care possibilities, there are more people needed to do those things. Healthcare is a rapidly growing sector of the economy, not only because "our health is bad" (arguable), "people live longer" (because medical progress has made it possible), but primarily because a lot of it cannot be automated and people do not want those things automated.

Over time that might shift. All the teachers might be replaced by computerized learning systems (with a few people tasked with setting them up and running them). Therapy could be replaced with AI guided conversational systems. People could get used to lots of medical care tasks being done by automated systems (I have a $40 blood pressure machine right here...) So, as the culture changes, even the human-faced work might get abstracted away.

If you want the ultimate picture, look at the movie "Oblivion": a couple of people taking care of autonomous drones. People will always be needed. (Well, two of them anyway.)

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Shame nobody wants to see past the financial constraints of our current system of rich and poor, so I'd like to offer a society where it does work.

Imagine we have robots that can do everything we currently do - including robot maintenance and even construction (so robots mine the ore to make metal to make more robots that repair the robots that do stuff as well!). I also assume we have unlimited energy from whatever source (fusion? solar? who cares!)

Once the sunk costs of making such an infrastructure have been paid for, you have a society where everything is taken care of for you, leaving all the citizens with nothing to do except for the things they want to do. We have more and more free time nowadays (compared to a worker in the industrial revolution, we don't have to work 16 hour days for pennies, or workers in agricultural times where all day was spent working). So we watch/play sports, research histories, write commentary on internet blogs...

Of course, this wouldn't happen overnight, it would take a long time of revolution or struggles while the infrastructure gets built. Think of it like many other infrastructure projects - starts off as a rich mans toy, then becomes commoditised over time. Telephone communication is taken for granted today for example and is getting cheaper all the time. One day it could be paid for out of general taxation and delivered to everyone as a "basic human right" like some countries do with other aspects of society (eg healthcare)

Workers would have issues, and in the early days welfare would become more prevalent, as would "non jobs" (eg governmental paper pushing where jobs are 'created' by the government to give people work). There's a long hump between this situation and the time where robots took over all work, and there's a bigger attitudinal shift between welfare payments for the unemployed to welfare payments to all paid for by the productivity from robots. (we already see the beginnings of this today, some economists are suggesting scrapping welfare completely and replacing it with a basic income that is paid to everyone, letting those who want/can work, work to enhance their income. Over time the basic would increase, and eventually be replaced with some form of money-free society).

Very utopian, and we do not have the technology to start to think about getting there yet. When the technology appears and unemployment becomes a huge problem, then we'll see the current systems replaced, and then unemployment (or early retirement after 'doing your bit' for society) might be seen as a good thing rather than bad.

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I first heard and partook in debate on the "Basic Citizen Income" idea about a year ago. Since then I've heard it come up more and more - it really seems like an idea that is gaining momentum. +1 to this because I don't think automation will be the end of the world, and I like to think that there's light at the end of humanity's tunnel! – I Stanley Jan 20 at 11:18
@IStanley the problem is that it is expensive, even though the welfare budget is getting bigger. eg in the UK, £217bn is spent on welfare, which is £5,000 per working-age adult per year. Too low to live on, considering someone on minimum wage earns £12k pa. But hey, we spend £48bn on debt repayments so its something that could be a possibility if we ever put the economy back to normal. – gbjbaanb Jan 20 at 11:51
absolutely it's expensive! The point is that robot labour (particularly within the civil service) would dramatically decrease the costs of the government, particularly given that menial labour positions that would be the first to go are those that contribute the least amount of tax per head. Every menial job they no longer have to pay for is more money that could be put towards a universal income. The numbers might not add up just yet, but it's not beyond belief that it will without a major societal upheaval in the near future, – I Stanley Jan 20 at 11:57
@IStanley ah, true - but I was suggesting its not something we couldn't afford right now. I mean, we just need another £200bn and we could have it. Debt repayments are a quarter of the way there, and we'd be able to remove all the people currently employed by the government to administer the benefits system! Hmm.... :-) – gbjbaanb Jan 20 at 12:04

This can be good (no, the "work" should not be the sole purpose of one's life) or bad (mass unemployment and falling wages for many "human" workers).

In theory, avoiding the negative outcome is easy: gradual reduction of working hours for human workers. Unfortunately, this is hard to do politically and is done only under extreme circumstances such as those we experienced in the 1930s when we went from 60 to 40-hour workweek.

Given the productivity gains since then, we should have been at 20-hour workweek by now. Instead, few of us are forced to work too much and many of us don't work enough. ("Us" in this context means any human of working age as I believe this is a global issue given the global nature of the economy.)

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France switched to 35H/week, paid 39H. It doesn't work. Most people still work 39H, either getting compensated or not logging those hours. – MakorDal Jan 21 at 14:32
I would say it's a matter of how serious you are about making it work. It also helps if it is done globally rather than piecemeal, one country at a time. Given that we no longer work 60 or 70 hours a week as we did 100 years ago shows that there is a way of making it work. – ebhh2001 Jan 21 at 18:47

So at first I was writing an answer that presented a beautifully benevolent utopia where everyone is fed, clothed, housed and content...but then I realized that it was completely delusional so here is round two.

Everything will appear to change but very little will change in the system.

  • Humans will still have to provide some sort of value to something in order to 'get paid.' The getting something for nothing concept will keep bugging humans, especially those that have stuff.

  • Humans will be worth less to employers as they are no longer necessary in large quantities, you are going to need specialists.

  • There will still be the rich and the poor and the gap would likely widen. I say this because we have the ability (quantity and transportation wise) to ensure that every human on the planet has food, clothing and shelter and yet it doesn't happen.

  • Humanity will remain divided. The concepts of relative deprivation and duhumanization come into play will take generations to kill those reflexes (if we can at all).

While it is potentially possible for humans to come together and share the bounty of the new machines and technology we create in this area odds are it simply won't.

In short, the answer to your question could be,

1. We reach a post scarcity time on Earth and everyone lives with the freedom to pursue whatever interests them...yawn.

2. The wealth gap rises as conditions deteriorate for the majority of humans who are not longer needed as labor. Eventually the world is ravaged by disease conflict and uprisings leading to the ultimate extinction of mankind.

3. Same as number two except a hero who starts off working for the government realizes the system is broken and leads the common folk in a rebellion to makes sure all humans are equal and they have a big socialist dance party with exactly equally sized pieces of cake.

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You got a +1 for making me smile if for nothing else! :) – bowlturner Jan 19 at 22:06

Shocker #1

We already live in a post-scarcity society.

No one (in first world countries) needs to work to survive (granted, some fall through the cracks and this survival may not be pleasant). There are government assistance programs that ensure that the unemployed are taken care of.

Our society still requires most people to work and most people still do work. They do so for many reasons, some of which you already stated:

  • A sense of identity
  • Improved benefits, luxury goods, etc.
  • Social aspects (job prestige)
  • Advantages for their children
  • A sense of accomplishment (at the age of 45 my wife is going back to work because it is something she's always wanted to do).

Shocker #2

People living in a post scarcity society are all around for us to observe.

I realize our current society is not what you meant by living in a post-scarcity society. However, there is a group of people who can demonstrate how people's lives might be in a post-scarcity society.

These are the retire early folks. These are people, who through a variety of means, have accumulated enough wealth that they have no need to continue working.

What do these people do?

  1. Some work (professionally) anyway.
  2. Some work on personal projects (hobby farms, auto rebuilds, raising kids, raising animals, etc.)
  3. Some enjoy nature
  4. Some take up new hobbies and interests
  5. etc.

Basically think of all of the things you might like to do on a long vacation and this is what early retirees do.

I belong to a board of early retirees (because I plan to be one) and can say that their interests and activities are as diverse as HAM radio, dulcimer competitions, hobby farms, going back for additional post-secondary education, simply reading, and more. What people do will be as diverse as there are people.

The interesting thing is this. Once people achieve the ability to retire early, many do not, they continue working (for a while). Most jobs go through phases: sometimes they're enjoyable and sometimes they're not. People able to retire early typically stick with their professional jobs until they reach one of the "not enjoyable" phases. At that time, they retire because they no longer need to put up with the "bs".

I've lectured at elementary schools about topics related to my profession. So I think doing something like that would be fun, or perhaps serving as a volunteer docent at a favorite museum.

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I disagree a bit with point #1, but I agree whole-heartedly with #2. – bowlturner Jan 20 at 15:54
Yeah, I'm not saying being unemployed is pleasant, only that unlike 100-200 years ago having no viable means of support doesn't sentence you to death. – Jim2B Jan 20 at 15:56
Yes we are moving in the right direction. – bowlturner Jan 20 at 15:59
Quite true. Some time in the mid-20th century the developed world reached a point where there is enough basic sustenance -- food, clothing, shelter -- for everyone to survive, and mechanisms to make it available to the non-working. Along with retirees, another category are people who, from choice or not, live on welfare. Do they live lives of luxury? No. But they're in no real danger of starving to death. – Jay Jan 21 at 4:46
We're not quite is post scarcity as housing is still an issue – Separatrix Jan 27 at 11:02

I posted an answer in which I rejected your premise. Now let me post an entirely different answer in which -- for the sake of argument at least -- I accept your premise.

What happens to the unemployed people?

One: They starve.

Two: There is some mechanism to provide them with a decent life. The government or private charities gives them money or provides free food and housing or something.

Three: There aren't huge numbers of unemployed people, but rather everybody becomes partially employed. Maybe the average person works only 5 or 10 hours a week and that provides all the income they need for a comfortable life.

Three sounds great, but given the premise may be the least likely. If robots are doing all the menial jobs so that all that's left are the jobs that require special skills that the robots are not (yet) advanced enough to do, than people who DON'T have management ability, or technical skills, or creativity, may be unemployable.

So what do the unemployed do with their time?

One: Creative things, like writing and producing art and music and inventing. Okay, arguably this is productive work, but the sort that machines are least likely to be able to do. You may or may not get money for it.

Two: Improve yourself, so that you can become employable. If only people with creative or technical skills can get jobs, than learn to be creative or technical.

Three: Improve yourself, not for the sake of being able to perform some job, but for its own sake. Study history or philosophy or science or whatever. Travel. Visit museums. Get together with friends and discuss great ideas.

Four: Have a good time. Go to parties, concerts, and movies (or holoshows or whatever they have). Maybe this includes drinking and drugs and wild sex.

Five: Join a gang. Spend your time beating people up, stealing and vandalizing, and fighting other gangs.

Of course people could do some combination of the above.

Realistically, some people just aren't capable of doing creative or technical work. Large numbers just won't be able to do One or Two.

Many people would be bored by the idea of a life of endless study. People would probably talk about it as a good and worthy thing to do, but relatively few would actually do it. Like dieting and exercise.

That leaves partying and crime. I suspect that's what most of the unemployed would do.

Okay, it didn't take a lot of deep thought to come up with this list. It's pretty much what unemployed people in our society do, just multiplied.

I've read books that imagine machines doing all the work and that paint a utopia where the people spend all their time producing great art and science. Bosh. Some would, but most just wouldn't have the inclination or the ability. The reality is, for most people, if they didn't have to work, they'd spend their time lying around doing nothing, partying, and/or fighting.

At the other extreme, I've read books that imagine machines doing all the work and that paint a nightmare world of unemployment and starvation, with a small elite living in luxury. Also unlikely. Human nature being what it is, sure, there will be some of the rich and powerful who say to let them starve, but there will be some who care and look for ways to provide for these people. Throughout history there have always been greedy and selfish people, but there have also been people who devote their lives to helping the poor and weak. Furthermore, massive numbers of desperate people makes for a very unstable social situation. The rich would be in constant fear of riots. Even those who care only for themselves would likely see the solution as some combination of strict law enforcement and enough charity so these people aren't TOO desperate, so that they have something to lose if they challenge the system.

If the society is really so rich -- I mean the robots are producing so much wealth -- that there is just no need for people to work, then presumably there is enough abundance to let the unemployed have at least a basic, decent living.

Reminds me: According to the Bible, the law in ancient Israel was that when a farmer harvested his crop, he was supposed to leave a little behind, and the poor were then allowed to collect this. So the rich provided food to the poor, but the poor still had to go to some effort to collect it, nobody brought it to their door. Perhaps in a society such as you propose, factories would have places where they'd dump their slightly imperfect items, or some percentage of their production, and the poor could come and take it.

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Lots of people who "spend their time lying around doing nothing, partying, and/or fighting" are already content creators: Reality TV will attest to this. So, there is something 'worthwhile' for those people to do... And watch others like them doing, already. Thank Heaven for television. – no comprende Jan 20 at 21:51
@nocomprende I'm not sure I'd call reality TV "something worthwhile", but point taken. :-) – Jay Jan 21 at 4:46

Generally, what will happen is that we divide the small amount of remaining work among everyone, enjoy the fruits of robotic servitude and spend our time writing poetry, traveling around and enjoying each others' company.

Alternatively, the people who own everything will put more and more people out of work, meanwhile working the remaining laborers even harder, in either case reducing the human experience to a stress-filled rat race.

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My first thought was an alternative to the usual "rich get richer", but it depends on the context in which the automation is introduced.

I could easily foresee a system in which rather than BEING the workers, the people at the bottom OWN the workers. So you would own a robot, that performs the tasks that normally someone of your class/caste used to do. You're responsible for the maintenance of the robot, but you are paid for the work the robot does.

Of course, that pay will go down. but so too would the cost of goods in general, and theoretically the cost of living with it.

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In my opinion, you miss the point.

First of all - the fact that some job can be replaced, doesn't mean it will be replaced. Let's take a top-voted(at the time of writing this answer, at least) answer:

An automobile is an amazing machine: the engine will spin round and round and power the wheels with incredible speed and efficiency. But when it breaks down, do you take it to a machine to have it repaired, or to a human being? We are a long, long way from having robots that can repair a car.

I would argue with that. Engine is defined by certain things it does, and laws it obeys. If it breaks, there are things you inspect - and if you find them, you can get rid of them. This is mindless job that only requires knowledge, not intelligence - this can be solved by anyone, even a robot. If you try to say that we do not have robots this precise - we do have them. And even if we didn't, it would be a matter of years.

So why isn't engine man replaced? Because it isn't worth it.

Each machine needs to be maintained. This requires a human to do. There are many other places where human labor is simply cheaper. There is some which involves creativity, something that machines lack(and I guess they will lack it for longer than one lifetime to be competitive).

But let's say that we got everything automated. What are the scenarios?

1) Rich get richer, blah blah blah

Honestly this looks like the most boring and unlikely scenario to happen. While rich get richer, we all would get better life quality, and this could mean that we wouldn't notice it. Also, if we had everything we wanted, automated, money would loss a bit of value - it would provide luxuries.

Also there can't be too many poor - otherwise they will revolt, and rich get buried.

2) We live happy lives(utopia)

A bit more interesting than first scenario, this is also unlikely. We invented robots, computers, mathematics etc. because we love to solve puzzles and keep our mind occupied. There were some branches of mathematics that was thought of as a toy branch(useless in practice), until half of century later fast computers came, and the branch turned out to be extremely useful. The point is - we like to do some things, even if they appear(or are) not practical. We are humans.

3)We continue to live our lives, but jobs change and priorities shift.

Imho the most likely scenario, this is how it has always been. We make things to make our life easier, not to eliminate us from our lives. New technology might create a need for new jobs(like computer engineers are now needed, and there was no such job 100 years ago).

Moreover, there are many places, where humans just are a better fit. When I go to cafeteria, I am glad to smile and talk to other fellow human being. I like to ask for a preference of a shop assistant, have small chit chat. Most business deals are done by humans, and they would probably stay that way.

And last of all - remember - we do all this for the sake of us, humans, not to create self-sustaining system. If there are no clients, this would be useless - therefore there's some lower bound of poverty, otherwise there would be no one to buy their products. Even if we try to imagine that rich would just hold these self-sustaining systems by themselves, this is unlikely - they need other people to reproduce, entertain themselves and keep sane. After all, what's the point of having a perfect empire, when there's no one to rule?

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