Short Version

(During the next 500 years on Earth) How does life change for students during school and after they graduate, to find work in a world where our economy is still based on gaining wealth by providing services but fewer and fewer services and tasks are performed by humans?

(I'm interested specifically in a breakdown of the change over time, assuming the premise below.)

The Setting

Years ago, anyone who wanted a job and was willing to work hard could get one. Back then everything was done by hand, manually. Then the industrial revolution came and we started automating as many processes as we could.

Eventually, lets set a premise that this will lead to a point where all processes are almost fully automated, and the worlds production, technological advancement, and services, are handled with the help of artificially intelligent computer software, by a few thousand engineers, scientists, and world leaders. That leaves about 99-point-something percent of the world's population free to focus on arts, entertainment, athletics, etc.

At that point, with nearly total automation, people don't need to perform tasks to make the world function, so there's no need for a job. You either choose to have one or not. The world's wealth will be spread based on the entertainment industry, with world government equally distributing goods and automated services, with people competing for more resources (for a more luxurious life) by performing services in the entertainment industry or as a scientist, engineer, or politician. It's a good time to be alive.

Utopian society, you get the picture.

But my question is about the working class during the transition between manual labor and this destination of total automation. The world we'll live in, lets make up a figure and say, during the next 500 years.

The Question

Here's what I want to know, assuming all of the above premises are true:

Going century by century, for the next 500 years, what happens to education and jobs, to cope with this transition between most people having jobs (now) and most people not needing them (2,516AD).

How does life change for students during school and after they graduate, to find work in a world where our economy is still based on gaining wealth by providing services but fewer and fewer services and tasks are performed by humans?

  • $\begingroup$ Automation is possible only with energy. Transtion from manual labor to total automation strongly depends on transition from fossil to renewable energy sources. Your plot may show whether automation is desirable in that context. $\endgroup$
    – mouviciel
    Jun 30, 2016 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ @mouviciel No, the transition to sustainable energy sources. Renewables are not always sustainable. And some non-renewables (nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion in particular) are sustainable. The definition of Sustainable Development is found in the document "Our Common Future". un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 30, 2016 at 13:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ your time scales are too long. not 500 years, 50 to 80. $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2016 at 14:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @DonaldHobson Doubtful. While the technology could get there in 100 years probably, for total automation to take hold in society, we'll have to first get over our current economic styles, which because of human nature, including greed and fear of change, will take much longer. To automate all resource production, we would have to be willing to work together, and take control of these resources away from private companies, put in the hands of governments who distribute a large portion of the resources equally to all people. $\endgroup$
    – J.Todd
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ You seem to be working under the assumption that the complete transition from manual labour to total automation can be an incremental process. I doubt very much it could. Our present economic system relies on paying people for working, so that they can buy commodities. But if work is no longer required for the production of commodities, who will buy commodities, and how will they earn the money for buying them? So, I fear that total automation requires the previous abolition of production of commodities by wage labour - and I don't think such abolition can be a smooth, gradual process. $\endgroup$ Jul 1, 2016 at 17:19

6 Answers 6


I'm going to answer this on a decade-by-decade basis, as I think the 500 years you've suggested is far too slow; the trend you outlined will probably reach its conclusion long before then, and whatever trend takes over after that will be impossible for us in the here and now to predict.

2010s: As traditional industries decline in the developed world, more people move into service industries, or set up their own small businesses. Campaigns for universal basic income (UBI) start to enter the political mainstream.

2020s: UBI schemes start to be implemented. By the end of the decade, there is an EU-wide common UBI. In the USA, UBI schemes are less common, and are only operated on a city government scale. Modest UBI schemes are also in place in parts of the developing world, particularly those with significant extractive industries (e.g. rare earth mineral extraction in southern Africa). Human manufacturing jobs shift from Asia to Africa as China and others catch up with Western levels of development. Where UBI schemes exist, many students choose to simply stay in further education rather than leave to seek out jobs.

2030s: The introduction of strong AI sees many human administrative jobs removed. Entire government departments come to be replaced by AIs. Successive governments implement gradual increases to UBI, funded by revenue made by the companies that provide the equipment for automation, who are either heavily taxed or part-nationalised. By the end of the decade, UBI is the norm across the world (although arguably it is no longer 'basic'). As the worst of climate change hits, there is a rapid shift to urban vertical farming across the globe, many office buildings previously containing human workers are converted into automated food production facilities. The popular cultural mood at this time is one of listlessness, people are uncertain of the future and what their place will be in it. As 'Baby Boomers' begin to die off in number, there is a big shift in generational power. Housing had remained scarce during this period and had mainly been held by the older generations. High inheritance taxes mean many homes have to be sold, and the most natural buyers are either the part-nationalised mega-corporations or governments themselves. Private renting is gradually replaced with social renting.

2040s: Actual 'jobs' are now so scarce that they tend to now be treated as a resource in and of themselves. The competition for fulfilling work is so great that a culture has grown up whereby job sharing is the norm. An average individual may hold up to a dozen jobs, each of which they'll only work at for around one day a month. In their professional lives, people have come to be incredibly generalised, while using their considerable leisure time to focus on something specific to their own development. Many people balance this with further learning, and there has been an explosion in those attending university. There is a globalised system in place that allows people to migrate across the world and carry their UBI along with them. Government is now also much more participatory in response to people's increased free time, and there is a strong political movement in favour of having government positions occupied by ordinary citizens chosen by lottery. Automated asteroid mining is in full swing, and primary industry is increasingly taking place off-world.

2050s: Increasingly there is a system of global governance, as states have to co-ordinate between each other and the corporations that they all have significant stakes in. Work is now something that employers (often AIs) offer to individuals on the basis of distinct tasks as a means for mental stimulation, or even recreation. The issue of pay has long been confusing, as competition for interesting tasks has lead to situations where many people pay to do work, or then receive rewards that are non-monetary and hard to account for. Few people actively review their own accounts, preferring instead to allow AIs to manage their incomes and expenditures. To simplify, states start introducing 100% income taxes - all wages from work are collected centrally and distributed evenly through UBI.

2060s: Space-based technology has now reached a level where large-scale colonisation of Mars is now possible. This causes a crisis in the economic system as there are more qualified applicants for the 'job' of Mars astronaut than there are positions available, and standard job-sharing processes cannot be applied. Those with available assets begin trading them to rival astronaut candidates in exchange for that candidate dropping out of the competition, that candidate then trades their newfound assets for another more qualified competitor to drop out, and so forth, causing a flurry of exchanges and a market bubble in astronaut jobs that would eventually burst when the last remaining candidates cannot be bought off and others are left with immovable assets...

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know how I feel about the likely hood of some of this being totally accurate (paying to work, or eliminating room for financial competition dont seem to me like human nature) but that isn't the point. It's a solid answer in the format I was looking for, and its at least plausible. +1 and selected. $\endgroup$
    – J.Todd
    Jul 14, 2016 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ nice story, although not very realistic. UBI is good part trough. ...there are more qualified .... of Mars astronaut... - how can they be qualified for job if they did't trained for it and did not hard worked in that field(at any field), as jobs are so rare. No matter how much someone studies, but if he do not use that knowledge - he looses that knowledge. Theory and practice - are not same things. AI is not so great here - why he not inhabits mars with peoples - if he can do everything. What actually human resources do, where human intellectual force is applied - or it is just wasted $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 15, 2016 at 1:45

The transition will be ugly. I can't see the current system survive. If we take a look at the state of things now, you have to have a job so you can have money so you can have food and shelter. People losing their jobs sometimes leads to homelessness and dying in a street on a cold winter day. That's grim, and hopefully it's rare, but it happens.

As robots become more and more capable, they will take more and more jobs.

As more people lose their jobs, there will be more and more pressure on the job market.

As there is more presure on the job market, wages will get lower.

As wages will get lower, people will be less able to afford luxury goods, entertainment, eventually housing and food.

As people are less able to consume, companies will start shutting down. The welfare systems will start collapsing. The economy will start crumbling. The system works if it's balanced, that is if people can buy things other people work to produce. If we let it get to this point, then we're in trouble.

There will be no point in getting educated if it doesn't lead to a job. Doubly so if it also puts you in debt up to the tip of your hair. The few jobs that are left will require insane levels of qualification because the competition will be so intense. Most people will likely take their chance with no qualification than risking spending years of their life not being productive on the off-chance they get a good job.

People will be divided between those with a job (though for how long) and those without. The terminated. The jobless. The unmarketable. On the bright side, there will be no shortage of cool and dramatic names for that part of the population. Yay?

What happens when the division gets bad enough? Revolution, rise of the extremes, other bad things. The system will have to be overhauled, or the people will overhaul the faces of those who control the system.

If I had to take a wild guess (or write the story), the first century would mark the end of our capitalist society. It would get more or less brutal depending on the country and how despaired people are but heads will definitely roll, figuratively or not.

Then, people will build a new society, a new system. Probably something socialist, where the state becomes a welfare state because someone/something has to redistribute the wealth. The situation will eventually stablise, and the new way of life will prevail. Then you can drink piña colada in utopia for the remaining 400 years. Honestly, if robots overtake jobs now, I don't think it will take 5 centuries for the shitstorm to begin and end.

What that new society will be like is anybody's guess. What's sure is that it can't be a society of entertainers. If everybody is an entertainer, who needs to be entertained? Likely, there will be a number of position in the service industry to fill, if only to put a human face on an automated system. People may be required to work these jobs part-time to get a welfare check, in which case the state may decide who gets to work where and when.

There will be a select few that have to be the leaders of the world, politicians, machine-maintenance workers, teachers, etc. Most people won't really need to have very specific skills. They'll get educated because education is kinda nice to have, but they won't really need to know what's a cosine.

  • $\begingroup$ You have to ask yourself, what is The Reason, why jobs are existing at all in first place. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 30, 2016 at 20:37

Since you are asking about life in a post scarcity environment, the nature of the economy and "work" will be changing, which will also change the nature of schooling.

Present day public schools were designed with the Industreal age very much in mind. Students are regimented into groupings (classes) and follow a ridged daily schedule, with certain work "norms" to meet (homework and tests). This was to prepare students for working in a factory (especially a "Taylorized" factory).

In a post scarcity environment, factory work will not exist for humans, except perhaps as some sort of performance art. People will need to "brand" themselves, and exhibit some sort of unique property to make their living (artistic creativity and sports are two modern day examples). Since "wealth" might rest on reputation rather than cash, people will need to be prepared to understand and meet these norms in the post scarcity world.

So schooling will be much more individualized, and be designed to uncover and develop any special skills and aptitudes the student might have, so they can gain a reputation in (insert skill here). The will also need to be taught how to socially interact with others, so etiquette classes will be a must. Marketing will also be a highly sought after skill, since you are essentially marketing yourself in order to display talent and gain reputation.

So since schooling will be more individualized, we will see a return to home schooling, augmented by on line classes like the Khan Acadamy. Finishing Schools will also be popular, especially for people immigrating to and from different countries and cultures, in order to blend in as quickly and efficiently as possible. For poor (low reputation) people, we might see more parochial schooling to emphasize their differences and allow people to gain reputation inside their own environments (much like today, you could be considered rich and influential in one place, but not outside of that place).

The transition will be long and rocky, especially since current entrenched power structures gain much of their wealth and influence by having a captive market of school aged children and parents to exploit, so the initial period will be marked by parental revolts followed by "counter reformations" as school bureaucrats and teachers unions try to tighten the screws and keep the status quo going.

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry but I'm really looking for a breakdown of the change over time. This answer is highlighting just the difference between now afterwards. What it will change to, but not how the working population will be affected along the way. My interest is how society gets past that tricky phase where there arent enough jobs but we still have a service-for-pay economy style. $\endgroup$
    – J.Todd
    Jun 30, 2016 at 5:09

We haven't yet hit a point where this is happening, even though we should have.

This site has the UK unemployment rate from 1971
unemployment rate

In that time, shipbuilding has gone, mining has gone, most of the heavy industry has gone, manufacturing has been largely automated, many things that were highly labour intensive have been automated and yet unemployment is again dropping.

There's a financial theory that says simply; As jobs are removed by automation, new jobs will rise up to take their place. The population will always be employed, one way or another, we just can't see from here what they're going to do once the jobs we're familiar with are gone.

As mentioned earlier, we should already be close to this utopia. So why aren't we?

It's important to remember that this goes in cycles. The Romans had slaves to do all the work and keep them in a life of leisure. The nobles of the middle ages had serfs who were effectively slaves. The Victorians had domestics. That faded in during WWII and we started to get machines instead. Have the machines democratised the life of leisure? Brought it to everyone the way they should? No, not at all. We seem to be working longer and harder than ever. The more leisure time we have the more time we spend at work, but why? (One of the problems is that we haven't actually automated a lot of this stuff, we've just exported our slaves, outsourced I should say, but basically we now keep our slave class hidden in far away countries.)

Stuff and greed, the more stuff people can have the more they want. The more they want the more they have to work. Once people were happy with food on the table and a roof over their heads. Now they have to have that, with an iPhone, a BMW, everything made by Apple every year etc. This is the capitalist utopia everyone working hard to get stuff and make wealth to no particular end other than itself. The utopia you describe is a problem to our current culture, your utopia is a communist utopia.

To get to the true communist utopia is going to take a lot more than just automation, it's going to take a fundamental change in our attitude to work, employment and productivity.

Step 1: The advertising industry must die. It's said that the path to happiness is to be happy with less. The first thing that needs to change is advertising. People are constantly driven to want more stuff, that must stop.

Step 2: Look at the things people actually need that they're being scalped for. In the US that's housing and healthcare, in the UK just housing. In some countries it's still food. There's always someone charging what the market will bear for a product in short supply. Again classic communism must apply, everyone must be given a home, healthcare and sufficient food.

Once these points are covered you can start moving towards the communist utopia. Everyone has everything they actually need and people can decide if they want to work or not and what they want to do. This can happen fast or slow, but until they happen, nor will your utopia.

  • $\begingroup$ I set a premise for the question, a science fiction future, where we reach the Utopian setting described in the question. Your answer suggests we may not reach the premise in reality, but that wasn't the question. $\endgroup$
    – J.Todd
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Viziionary, your criticism is entirely correct in all but one aspect, my answer also suggests that certain "western" countries should be already there, but for some reason we're not. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Viziionary, I tried editing you an answer to your question but it's just even more damning I'm afraid. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting ideas, Ill change my down-vote to an up-vote. Communism is always used like a swear word, but I don't see anything wrong with the world I described. I'll have to do some research on that, that's interesting. $\endgroup$
    – J.Todd
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ Actually according to the definition of communism, there is no private property, my description was of a world where the automation of resources is distributed in such a way that all people get what they need to live comfortably, but I didnt specify that all of the resources were distributed equally. I specified an economy based on entertainment, where video game developers, movie makers, entertainers, athletes, etc, and then scientists, engineers, politicians could still work for additional wealth. That seems to break the rules of communism based on the definition. $\endgroup$
    – J.Todd
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:49

There are two ways this could go down. One is dystopian, one is utopian.

In the dystopian version the number of low paid jobs reduce and unemployment rises. As supply oversteps demand wages start dropping even further and employment rights get eroded. Eventually you end up with a small group of wealthy people who own assets/factories/robots/etc and a huge mass of unemployed poor left to starve or subsist on benefits and charity.

This is not stable and so will still transition to the Utopian future you envision (or end in extinction) but very few of those transitions will be pretty. We're talking either a bloody revolution or a massacre of the poor with the survivors inheriting whatever remains.

In the utopian version something like a Basic Income or Reverse Taxation system is introduced, gradually people are provided more and more resources "for free". This allows them to live and prosper and will generally lead to people working fewer hours so there is less dependency on and pressure for jobs. Working hours decrease, living standards increase, and entire sections of society are lifted out of poverty and get the opportunities to start businesses or pursue the arts, or whatever else.

Which will happen? Well that's impossible to say right now. As the worldbuilder, take your pick. :)


As you said, we are already living in that transition period, and the signs are clear of what will happen:

more insecurity

Instead of life-long jobs, the average staying time is dropping rapidly, and more and more people are pushed into the "gig economy", where you don't even have a steady job at all anymore, just one small project after the next.

This can easily continue until we are back in the neolithic age - wake up and worry about where you will get food for today. Just replace "food" with "money".

There is no reason why this condition cannot continue for a very long time.

Liu Cixin has a wonderful short story in his "The Wandering Earth" collection about capitalism evolving to its logical conclusion. In short: The concentration of wealth (and the gig economy is just a part of that) will continue to put ever more wealth into ever fewer hands, until everything is owned by one person and everyone else owns nothing.

If you "utopia" arrives after that, it will have no effect on all but one person.


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