We will not run out of jobs because humans are greedy

November 28, 2022

Whenever a new technology comes out that claims to revolutionize an industry, there are always people who focus on how it will destroy jobs. They’re right in a sense that it will destroy some jobs, particularly the ones that are no longer necessary because we’ve found a more efficient way to do them. This can upend careers people have spent decades building up. A curious thing happens though in the ashes of those careers – more opportunities for jobs appear than were available before in large part because our horizon of understanding as a species has expanded. We know more about what’s possible and now have the extra resources (due to efficiency gains) to pursue those opportunities. In 1900, 83% of Americans worked in Agriculture, while today that number is at 1.3%. Given today’s population, that’s an extra 271,573,782 people who don’t need to work in agriculture. They can if they want to, but the point is that they don’t need to, and can go on to live fulfilling lives in other ways that benefit humanity.

During the industrial revolution and into the early 20th century, worker reforms and increased automation led many to speculate that by now machines would be doing all of our work. This obviously isn’t the case. If our goal were to maintain the same level of economic output as in 1900, we would probably have achieved that by now. The thing about humans though is that we’re greedy. Enough is never enough, and as soon as we have the capacity to produce more/better/higher quality we do, to the benefit of both the producer (profits) and the consumer (more products). So while we still work 40 hours per week, an individual’s output far surpasses that of someone 100 years ago.

This is also a reason why I don’t think Universal Basic Income is achievable on a mass scale. If humans were OK with our standard of living as it is right now, I think we could do it, but humans are just too greedy. There will always be someone trying to one up the guy next to him, there will always be someone looking to build the next big thing, there will always be someone who wants more. It’s in our nature, some more than others. I don’t want to confuse my acknowledgment of toxic greed as an endorsement of it, since I think that some drive for more is a good thing. Maybe one day we will be able to modify that nature, but for now we are stuck with it.