Tech automation will mean less work for people to do, , according to a new book by economist Daniel Susskind
Henry Holt & Company
- Economist Daniel Susskind's new book, "A World Without Work," states that there will be less work to go around as technology innovation automates more tasks.
- Governments might have to do more to help people in the future who are underemployed, including new taxation policies.
- A more difficult problem to solve is helping people find meaning in their lives when occupations no longer provide validation.
- This article is part of a series called Practical Economics.
You're not paranoid. One day - sooner than you think - a robot might be doing your job.
Daniel Susskind, author of "A World Without Work," said the changes taking place are not as extreme as his 2020 book's title suggests. "It's not going to be a technological big bang," Susskind said.
Still, an uncomfortable and irreversible adjustment is coming - and its impact is already visible today. "Not everyone in the 21st century is going to be able to make the economic contribution that they were able to make in the 20th century," Susskind said. "My concern is not a world without work, but a world without enough work."
This book is a continuation of Susskind's research focusing on the impact of technology on occupations. His first book, "The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts," was co-authored with his father, Richard Susskind, who has been writing and consulting about the impact of AI on the law and other professions since the 1980s.
His new book considers various factors contributing to the trend, including income and technological inequality, the growing power of tech plays in determining how we live our lives, and the limits of education in keeping pace with innovation.
Anxiety over automation is not new. The first part of the book looks at innovation throughout history and the human reaction to it. Susskind goes back to 1589 and the invention of a knitting device, which was refused patent protection by Queen Elizabeth I on the basis it would deprive her poorer subjects of income.
The pattern has persisted throughout history - new technology, new anxieties, and for the most part, Susskind writes, the worst of the worries were not realized, as workers found new ways to work in response to automation.
But things are different now, according to Susskind. The pace of AI-driven innovation, the ubiquity of new tech applications, and the dominance of big tech companies are converging to change the employment landscape for good.
AI, Big Tech, and the role of the state
It's easier to imagine this future now as technology advances that once seemed like science fiction are happening in real time.
"Things 20 years ago that seemed unimaginable are today increasingly visible -AI being used for medical diagnoses, driverless cars," Susskind said. Because of this relentless advance in technology, every day we hear of systems and machines taking on tasks that we thought we alone could do."
But it is misleading to think about the future of work in terms of "jobs."
"That term 'job' is unhelpful because it makes it seem like a monolithic lump of stuff - teachers do teaching, lawers do law," he explained. Every job involves a huge range of discrete activities - some of which can be automated, others that cannot.
A recent McKinsey study illustrates this point, saying that less than 5% of occupations can be fully automated. But in about 60% of occupations, the report states, at least one-third of that job's activities could be automated, "implying substantial workplace transformations and changes for all workers."
The final third of the book offers ideas for managing this shift, including the role the "Big State" might play in managing underemployment at scale. Taxation is one possible solution - increasing shares paid by workers who are bolstered by increasing technology, and companies that become increasingly automated.
Work and meaning - an economist's perspective
Late in the book, Susskind veers into more philosophical territory, looking at the social consequences of underemployment. How do you compensate people who are no longer able to perform meaningful work? How does that impact mental health and well being long term?
Susskind writes that some whose livelihoods are threatened, "will feel that the issue goes beyond economics, that a job is not simply a source of income but of meaningful purpose, and direction in life as well."
He writes: "From this viewpoint, the threat of technological unemployment has another face to it. It will deprive people not only of income, but also of significance; it will hollow out not just the labor market, but also the sense of purpose in so many people's lives."
Solutions to this problem may be more elusive than purely economic solutions, but still Susskind explores the notion of developing "leisure policies" to complement the well-established labor-market policies that function today. New education and state-sponsored work opportunities may help to fill the void.
Susskind said that modern economics has not often grappled with these more existential questions, but it has historical roots.
"Many classical economists - Adam Smith and Karl Marx for instance - really did engage with it, but modern economics looks very different from how it did in their time," he said. "Today, economists are far less interested or able to engage with these ethical questions."
"If economists want to engage seriously with the future of work, I think we have to return to our traditional roots and explore these ethical questions as well."