Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “With all this new technology, we’re going to start running out of jobs…”
It’s a familiar talking point, but one that doesn’t hold up. We simply cannot “run out” of jobs; there will always be something more to do.
“But people are being replaced in the workforce by robots — look at McDonald’s!,” my friend countered during a discussion of the subject.
In the short term, yes, and that’s a serious hardship for many people. But if jobs just disappeared when robots took over an industry, we would see unemployment continually rising over time. By now, most of the country should be out of a job — where are all these unemployed people? Instead, we have unemployment below the natural rate.
We must keep in mind the essential purpose of a job: jobs are a way of rewarding humans who serve a need, satisfy a want, or solve a problem.
“But as robots become more productive, we won’t need humans to do those things,” my friend responded.
Not at all — we’ll find new things for humans to do. In California, a new phenomena called “People Walkers” has arisen. You pay someone for an hour to walk with you, talk to you, and let you vent to an uninvolved party. (I’m sure every introverted reader has just crawled inside his own skull based on that description, but that’s just one example of a burgeoning service economy.)
“But that’s not productive,” my friend countered.
Why not? Suppose some Los Angeles attorney who makes $250 an hour is stressed out and distracted by a problem with her sister, and she knows that if she could just talk it out with someone without worrying about it getting back to her sister, she would feel much better and be able to get back to work. Rather than spend the rest of the day with the problem hanging over her, she pays $10 to take a walk over lunch. She comes back refreshed and ready to work. That “unproductive” People Walker is, in fact, very productive because he helps other people be more productive.
“That’s really neat,” my friend said, “but we can’t all just be People Walkers.”
Unfortunately, that’s true. But it does not mean we’re going to run out of jobs.
“But how do you know that?”
Because I’ve studied economics and, more importantly, read the Bible. The essential dilemma of economics is scarcity: there are never enough resources to satisfy all our desires. As it’s written in Ecclesiastes, “What is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). We live in a world of unimaginable wealth compared to our ancestors. But is that enough? There will always be new problems, new desires, new things to help us subdue this earth on which we live. I’m not just talking about materialistic lusts. Millions still starve across the globe, cancer and other wretched diseases cut lives short and sow anguish in our hearts — if the robots really do take over auto repair and manufacturing, maybe we can focus our time on confronting those issues instead.
No matter how advanced we become, it seems the peak of the mountain is always just out of reach. Indeed, despite every invention, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9); we are constantly struggling to fulfill our needs. This is an unfortunate consequence of the Curse: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:17 – 19). Toil — not just work, but hard labor — is an inevitable part of human life. In economics, we call it the “disutility of labor.” Overcoming scarcity would be like completing the Tower of Babel. The people who built the Tower of Babel believed they could work their way up to God’s level, but they failed. In the Garden of Eden, God provided for us without toil and we chose to reject that providence. So now we work and slave to get what we need, and there will never come a day when we have all we want and need (until we get to heaven).
Through the free market, many of us are able to escape destitution, but it doesn’t come close to God’s abundance. To say that we would run out of jobs is to believe that we could match, even exceed, God’s abundance; to say that we would run out of jobs is to believe in a second Tower of Babel.
No work of man could ever reach heaven, it’s simply not possible. Likewise, no human machinations can compete with the providence of God.
A world without scarcity is a world without poverty, without suffering, without hunger or want. But Jesus tells us plainly, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). Clearly, this is not something that we can simply solve by inventing some nifty new robot.
Let’s go back to the purpose of a job: to serve a need, satisfy a want, or solve a problem. If we as Christians know from Scripture that poverty and scarcity will always be with us, that means there will always be needs to serve, wants to satisfy, and problems to solve. I know that seems a bit of a dreary but hey, at least we’ll be employed.