SHARE

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.