I'm thinking realistic, near-futurism. What would be the tipping point for a developed country to embrace a human-free workforce? I'm envisioning a nearly unemployed population. I say "nearly" because somebody, whether instructed to or volunteering, would supervise the processes that replaced human workers.

I imagine there'd be a lot of denial and fear in the public and among politicians. Currently "high unemployment rates" in first world countries look like 7% or 8%. How could that society stomach 70% or 80%? Unemployment would steadily rise as one field at a time gets an upgrade. Those who continue to make money off of automated processes would make money by doing nothing. Eventually there might be a call to abolish money if for some people in the population it's impossible to earn but for the lesser population (the 1%) it's trivial to earn in mass quantities. How could that possibly work if, for example, the US wanted to make that kind of change but the EU wasn't ready for it? They would surely continue to interact but there would be no value behind the US dollar given to the EU when money is exchanged. Even resources would only be as valuable as the rarity of the resource or the time it takes to extract the resource?

I, the farthest thing from an economist, imagine an unstable series of events. Owners and operators of companies want cheap reliable labor in the form of AI workers. Human workers are replaced and have zero income (or welfare which might as well be zero income). The wealth gap hits huge extremes when unemployment reaches some boiling point. Money is abolished (I can't come up with a real alternative to this). If you want something you take it. Because of efficient non-human labor what you want is almost always available so you don't have to take it by force. By some miracle the society doesn't become overly greedy and people only take what they need.

That might work in a vacuum where a society can get all of it's required resources internally but this couldn't survive if the society needs to trade for resources owned by another society still dependent on money. The 3rd party economy might try and take advantage of the apparently infinite resources of the money-free society but I think that would only crash both economies.

In a global economy, how could one first world industrial country adapt to a human-free workforce in the event of the majority of jobs being taken over by an AI boom while other first world countries lag behind for one reason or another? Not to mention there's the question of what would these people do with all their free time but I imagine they'll be responding to a lot of chaos.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, the first thing that would have to happen would be the government paying everyone a living wage regardless of their work status, in whatever "currency" makes sense. But that would be socialism, which everyone fears for irrational reasons. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @CoreyOgburn are you interested in a critique of your imagined economy or are you asking us to suspend real life economics and assume that your setting is true? The reason I ask is if we suspend real life behavior then you can make the reaction pretty much anything that you want. If you don't suspend real life behavior, then you're not going to get a jobless society. Even the very unlikely & fictional Star Trek universe had jobs (e.g. Star Fleet Officer). Even societies with no need for manufacturing or manual labor will still have jobs. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ In this question you seem to be asking us to describe an entire economic system. I feel in practice that's too big an ask $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's closely related to this question. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/33696/… $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ I think the issues involving a post scarcity economy has been discussed here a few times. Try searching on that specific term. These answers are generally duplicates. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 23:43

6 Answers 6


You'd implement a Guaranteed Basic Income.

In a capitalist society "jobs" serve a few major purposes for the people and society. In order of importance...

  1. Efficiently produce resources the society needs.
  2. Distribute wealth (ie. get paid).
  3. Give a sense of purpose.

Good automation means unpaid robots will now be producing the resources, and cheaper than people would (else why use robots). This throws the whole system out of whack. Now robots are producing the resources. The wealth is going to the owners and people who maintain and oversee the robots. And robots don't need a sense of purpose. As more jobs are automated, there are less jobs for people. CGP Grey has a good video on this problem called Humans Need Not Apply arguing why we're not going to find new jobs for humans this time.

This causes a serious problem for a capitalist society, how do you distribute your wealth if there aren't enough jobs? Our current solution is to make jobs up. "Jobs programs" flip the priorities.

  1. Distribute wealth (ie. get paid).
  2. Give a sense of purpose.
  3. Efficiently produce resources the society needs.

The most important purpose of a jobs program is to distribute wealth. Efficient production is now the lowest consideration: things still get produced, but robots would do it better.

Job programs are a social welfare program in disguise. They drag down the whole economy by deliberately producing resources inefficiently in order to distribute wealth to more people. When you hear someone touting that their bridge construction project will "create jobs" that is an inefficient social welfare program.

Jobs programs are the current solution many western democracies have taken, and they will eventually as more and more jobs are taken over by automation. Even "white-collar" jobs will fall to automation.

The problem is traditional capitalism relies on jobs to distribute wealth. It needs an alternative. That alternative is Guaranteed Basic Income. Everyone, regardless of how much they make, gets an income; this eliminates all the overhead of determining who should get what. People who earn a lot of money will pay their basic income back in taxes.

Ideally this income is above the poverty line, then it's a basic income, and it has some very positive knock on effects. Most social welfare programs can go away, you don't need food stamps if you have enough money to buy food. People and families are much more stable: they no longer have to worry about paying the rent, feeding themselves and their families, affording health care, and so on. Children can focus on getting a good education. Parents can focus on raising children. Adults can focus on whatever they want to do.

Economic-based crime drops: theft, domestic abuse, terrorism, drug abuse... these all have roots in the desperation being poor brings. Police forces can be cut. Government anti-crime surveillance programs are less urgent. Public resources no longer have to be considered with being used as impromptu homeless shelters or stolen.

There's many different ways to fund this including negative income tax, social dividend on profits from commonly owned resources, and by reducing or eliminating wasteful means-tested social welfare programs which are no longer necessary.

This hybrid capitalist/socialist system is known as market socialism. In this system money and the market don't go away, it's still a measure used to determine utility and allocate resources, but there's other bottom lines, the "triple bottom line" including social and environmental considerations, to measure now well society is working.

So robots make stuff, and people buy stuff with the money they get from their basic income; that's basic Keynesian demand-driven economics. But there's two problems: what's the incentive to work, and what do all those out of work adults do?

Remember jobs do three things, and one of them is to provide people with a sense of purpose. Now that their basic needs are met, what do all these people do? Most people's lives are centered around their jobs, now they have 8-12 hours a day back.

Some will just screw around: play video games, drink and smoke, watch TV, have sex... which is fine, that's what most people do right now anyway. The difference is they will no longer be dragged down and exhausted by having a miserable job that they probably hate and can be better done by robots. They also won't have financial worries and can go about their lives.

The idea that it's ok to not have a job rankles a lot of people. There's mindset that working is good, no matter whether that work is actually productive or not. This mindset will have to change to accept that the goal is not work, the goal is efficient production. I have news for you: most of the population already isn't productive. Training and paying more people than you need to build a bridge or make your food is a waste. It's more productive to pay them a basic income to stay home and let robots do their job.

The sense of purpose provided by jobs will have to be replaced with something else, and this is the biggest open ended issue for a transition to basic income. Once people have an extra 10 hours of free time a day and no pressing economic fears, some people will look for something to motivate them. This could be their family. They could go back to school and train in a field they want to pursue rather than one that will make them a living. They could get involved in their community: start an urban farm, fix up their local infrastructure, help out their neighbors. All these things we now don't have the time for because we're out earning money (or the money for because we have the time but no job and thus no money). All of these things contribute to society and the economy either directly (selling fresh produce from your garden) or indirectly (spending more time with your kids).

Others will continue to go out and make money. They'll either be motivated by wanting more stuff, or they'll simply have the entrepreneurial spirit. Those two human drives are not going away. More people can chase their dreams rather than being stuck in a safe job just to ensure they can pay the bills.

So you're left with a society where a class of people live off the resources generated by another class. That might seem parasitic, but it's symbiotic. The person who teaches your kids might do so because they enjoy teaching, not for a big salary. The food you eat might be grown and prepared by people who enjoy farming and cooking. Once class produces things and another class takes care of people.

Free Software is a microcosm of this effect. The computers and web sites you use every day were written by, or are based on, software developed by enthusiast developers and then given away. Without this huge, robust, free computer infrastructure we would not have the sort of powerful computers and services you use every day and that make so much money.

What about the people who decide to sit on their couch in their underwear eating mayonnaise out of the jar and watching The Price Is Right all day? They're the "cost" for great economic and social freedom. People get to do what they want to do, how they want to do it, without worrying about how they'll feed, clothe and house themselves. They're the "cost" of falling crime and reduced government intrusion into our lives. Seems like a bargain.


Pay every citizen an unconditional basic income which covers everything they need to live a modest life.

Finance it through raising corporate taxes. With nearly no wages to pay anymore, the corporations will have massive profit margins which need to be redistributed to a consumer market. This is actually in their own interest: When nobody has money, nobody can buy their products. So instead of corporations paying their workers, corporations pay the state, the state pays everyone and everyone hands that money back to the corporations in exchange for goods and services. The economical circle is closed again.

Any citizens who want to live an even better life than basic income provides can take on the few jobs which remain which can not be handled by machines. Areas where humans will likely not be completely replaced by machines are entertainment, sports, service and generating creative work, because people will prefer the human touch in these roles. Theoretically artificial intelligence could be a substitute here, but I suspect people would not actually want this. Reading a story might be far less interesting when one knows it was generated by a computer program and does not originate from a human mind. Flirting with a waiter might not feel nearly as satisfying when it's a robot and you know its sassy response is part of its program. And who could ever root for a robotic athlete?

Without a dependence on a regular employment, people have far more freedom which jobs to take. That means we will likely see far fewer regular work contracts and much more freelancing activity. You won't see 20% of the population working in 9-to-5 jobs for decades of their life while the rest of the population does nothing. People will rather take on small jobs which bind them just for a few weeks, days or even just hours whenever they need some additional cash to fulfill a specific wish, find an interesting task which intrigues them or simply feel bored and feel like doing something productive for once. There might still be a small minority who have permanent jobs, but these will just be the minority of workaholics who consider their jobs their main purpose in life.

The transition to a basic income society is a topic many people are currently actively working for. A common approach is to introduce basic income gradually in small increments while simultaneously reducing more specialized forms of social welfare.


Jobless human society is not possible

Even if all your physiological needs are provide for free and all of those needs were provided by automation (you're not forcing someone else into slavery to provide you with a living), there would still be jobs. BTW, this sort of economy is often called a post-scarcity economy. What you are proposing is more extreme than that.

Giving a jobless person a "living wage" for not working can only be paid for by first taking that money from another citizen. So any government that provides the jobless with a living wage must first force some working citizens to pay for wages against their will. This is part of the definition of slavery.

While a person is a slave, the owner is entitled to the productivity of the slave's labour, without any remuneration.

Imagine Star Trek replicator technology. You can walk up to a microwave sized machine, tell it what you want and it materializes in front of you. You have no need to work in order to have as much food, water, and entertainment as you want.

Who is going to train your horse or dog?

Who is going to crew your interstellar spacecraft?

Unemployment has two causes artificially high wages and low wages

Please take that as a thought experiment and not a political statement and work with me through the thought experiment.

I live in an old house. There's literally no end of work that I need to do to maintain this house. I also have a full time job and do some volunteer work. I do some of the maintenance on my house but I also budget for and hire contractors to do work on my house. If the cost of labor dropped a bunch, I'd be hiring more contractors and get more work done. Eventually, I'd probably hire someone to cut my lawns and do my landscaping too.

If you extend this scenario out to the economy as a whole, what you realize is there's plenty of work for the unemployed to do. However, either wages are so artificially inflated that no employer is willing to pay them OR the wages are so low that workers are unwilling to work for them (they do better using the social safety net services). Either way, people aren't working.

One way to alleviate the problem this is to eliminate third parties (such as government) from the wage negotiation between employers and employees. Let them settle on a wage they can both agree with.

As long as humans are living, humans will work.

If instead of eliminating all jobs, what if we say instead that no one needs to work?

Then the entire population would look very much like today's retirees. They do not need to work in order to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves but many of them still do "jobs" (even if they don't get paid for that work).

Even those that don't have "jobs" requiring them to report to an employer, they still do work like gardening, classroom volunteers, museum docent, dog training, caring for children (or grandchildren), or doing work to satisfy their sense of accomplishment (e.g. writing a book or training for a marathon), etc.

Not working for money != jobless

We live in a post-scarcity economy now

I've also stated before that by some definitions, today's first world countries are already a post-scarcity economy. The poor and jobless do not need to work in order to survive. Social safety nets are in place that in theory provide everything needed to survive.

I won't disagree that people in those plans have it easy and neither will I disagree that some people slip through those nets.

Post-scarcity is a theoretical economy in which most goods can be produced in great abundance with minimal human labor needed, so that they become available to all very cheaply or even freely.[1][2] Post-scarcity is not generally taken to mean that scarcity has been eliminated for all consumer goods and services, instead it is often taken to mean that all people can easily have their basic survival needs met along with some significant proportion of their desires for goods and services

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    $\begingroup$ I downvoted because of the specious jump from social welfare to slavery. Lots of western democracies already do wealth redistribution and social welfare. Also the question doesn't propose a jobless society, just one without anywhere near enough jobs, so the whole opening section is a straw man. This would be a good answer if it were removed. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ Note: I didn't say it was slavery, I said that was part of the definition of slavery. Ah, I wish you had clarified my comment before I answered then. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 0:11

Transitioning into a jobless society may be possible if automation can produce so much wealth that people can essentially become shareholders and receive dividends from the corporate entities which are producing the wealth. As automation transitions to greater and greater heights, it is also possible (and almost inevitable) that government pension funds will become larger shareholders in order to tap into this flow of wealth and distribute it among the taxpayers. This could eventually transition from pensions to some sort of lifetime annuity that is issued to citizens at birth.

There is an essay (which I can't find right now) which essentially suggested the society depicted in Star Trek was an example of this. The people in the Star Trek universe obviously "worked", but in general did not use money because virtually all of their basic needs could be provided essentially for free. Starships and other complex items were obviously costed out somehow (there are definite time lags for creating complex items in universe), but this is somewhat like how modern societies pay for aircraft carriers: you don't go to the shipyard with your portion of the money or work on the project because that is your contribution to it, but it comes out of the "General Revenue" account of the government in question. The productive potential of the Star Trek universe is obviously so immense that the General Revenue account can support everyone in a pretty high style and still build "aircraft carriers".

At this point you may be asking why people are still working in Starfleet if no one needs a job? The answer is no one needs a paying job, but they still need something to do which challenges their skills and intellects. This still requires many of the attributes of working, such as training at the academy, some sort of hierarchy to ensure planning takes place and dangerous equipment is being handled responsibly and so on, but the real key is no one has to take part in this if they don't want to. It is equally possible to live on a ranch in Montana, hitchhike around the world or paint in a crappy loft apartment if that is what you want to do. Lots of people apparently want to do this now, so society won't be too much different in that regard. OTOH, no one will ever be forced to work from sunup to sunset as a peasant farmer simply to put food on the table, the productive output of the society is far too great to allow that to happen involuntarily.

So the real issue is how the productive potential of post scarcity societies can be distributed among the population. Obviously the first wave will be to the owners and shareholders of the companies, but use of pension funds could be used to create a channel to bring this wealth to the rest of the citizen population. As well (now that I think of it), many of the technologies that would support such a social change also accrue to individuals (3D printers come to mind), so Middle class and eventually notionally poor people will be reaping the benefits as these technologies become more common and spread through society.


"Jobless society" does not mean "money-free society", and a society without jobs is impossible anyway.

Currently, most jobs can be classified into:

  • Extracting natural resources (primary sector): agriculture and mining, for instance.
  • Industrial production (secondary sector).
  • Services (tertiary sector).

See Three-sector theory (Wikipedia) for details.

Machines and robots are substituting human workers in both primary and secondary sector, and are invading parts of the tertiary sector: telemarketing, supermarket cashiers, bank tellers. AI will add to it.

But jobs that require human understanding and human emotions, like caregivers, nurses, and psychologists, will continue to exist and thrive. Artists of all sorts will continue to work, since their arts come from their human minds (can you get an AI sculptor?). And there is always the option of voluntary work, without pay.

Money won't disappear: a steel beam still costs money, because each step of its manufacturing process, from ore to use, requires work, just not of the human kind, and it's cheaper because does not use humans.

The governments will manage the unemployed as they currently do: with minimum wages, just enough to feed, clothe and have a roof above.

The countries which adopt AI later, instead of sooner, will face an economic crisis: it will be cheaper to import goods from other countries than producing their own; a situation similar to our own, relative to China.

  • $\begingroup$ This omits a sector of work, intellectual property work (authors, engineers, programmers). They aren't producing material goods nor are they providing services. They're creating knowledge/information. Computers are unlikely to make advances into replacing these workers in the foreseeable future. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 0:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Jim2B While there will always be intellectual work, that's being shaved away, too. Remember "computers" used to be people who sat around doing calculations. You don't need 10 bank tellers when you have an ATM, you need 2. You don't need 20 engineers at drafting tables with slide rules, you need 4 and a good computer program. As a programmer, much of what I used to do is now done by libraries, frameworks, and IDEs. As a teacher, much of what I used to teach a class of 20 is done to millions by online videos. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 1:06

Until machines can totally replace humans in all ways - i.e. be androids that can appear and act as humans - there will always be things that only humans can do, such as relating to other humans. Such things will become more valuable, so if humans are not required to do any other work at all, then the one type of work that humans will have left is socialising.

Humans will still become media personalities, host or attend parties, talk about each other and by extension practise journalism, and so on.

When machines can equal or exceed humans in the area of socialising with humans, then we will have set our feet on the road to extinction. The number one rule for any technologically advanced species ought to be "Don't let robots replace a real reproductive partner", and when a robotic partner is better than the real thing, then as a species, we're doomed.


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