The world as we know it is at the verge of an economic paradigm shift. In a surprisingly short amount of time, automation will find itself in places you never thought imaginable. The days of driving your own car, ordering food from a cashier, or working at a job may be over.

Before we dive in, I will suggest you watch this video by CGP Grey. He shows the mechanisms behind the immense changed in the near horizon.

The tl;dr version: Humans will be to the 21st century, what horses were to the 20th. A large percentage of people by century’s end won’t just be unemployed, but unemployable. Their skills are simply not needed due to automation.

It’s a terrifying and hopeful concept. In my lifetime I could see the end of nearly all unskilled and even some skilled labour. My first thought is that this is an amazing prospect coming into a terrible world.

We live right now in an economy based on the allocation of scarce resources. Because of that excess is considered the peak of wealth, and we use things like currency in order to allocate resources when there isn’t enough to go around. It’s a pretty simple concept. Not everyone can have a mansion, so having a mansion makes you pretty high status.

This is where issues will come up. While not everything will be infinite, unemployment will be so high that the model of resource allocation we currently have will simply cease functioning. Any Luddite attempt to stop automation will lose due to competition.

This situation leaves two major issues. We have no way to manage resource allocation when nearly everyone has no hope of finding a job. We also have no clue what those people are going to do if they cannot work.

"Automatisches Kleinteilelager" by Photo: Andreas Praefcke - Own work (own photograph). Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Some solutions to this problem have been proposed several times in the 20th century. Several countries have played with something called a guaranteed minimum income. It ensures that everyone can make a minimum amount of money, regardless of employment.

Still, this has its issues. When transitioning into wherever automation takes us, the scene is set for a massive amount of inequality. Reacting to automation, or dogmatically following outdated capitalist virtues could cause a depression unlike any seen before.

There is also the conquest of the protestant work ethic. In large parts of western society, we define a human’s worth through denial of pleasure and dedication to work. Many people’s identities are based on their professions.

This will be a psychologically trying time for humanity. Many may want to relax and waste life away, as under our old model of economics, leisure is considered rare and a luxury. This, however, cannot last.

Where I see solutions are in the unique mix of retirement and longer life expectancies. Many retired people are finding themselves not satisfied to laze around for what can now be decades. A culture of retired people seeking a second life, either through returning to work or by volunteering, has shot up in many affluent countries. It is here that I see a light at the end of the tunnel for our sense of worth.

When futurists and artists picture the future, we tend to easily imagine how things will change technologically, but not so much socially. Browse a 1950s science fiction show, and notice that space adventurers still seem to be rather male and white, women seem to still be housewives, and people of colour are nowhere to be seen. How can we imagine this new economy changing our society?

One way to speculate is to imagine what would be rare. Things like land are still limited and so large houses are still likely to connote status. Personal feats that are difficult, such as intellectual or athletic prowess may become even larger signs of status. And, lest we forget, the prominent role of popular artists is unlikely to change.

What will people do with themselves? That is a good question. My guess is that it won’t be a singular answer, even on a person by person basis. I imagine a life with much more freedom, and much more time to enjoy and explore.

We sit on the edge of a precipice. Many things are going to change, and much faster than we think. The first automatic car is scheduled to hit the road before I turn 30.

I argue that automation may become the defining characteristic of the 21st century. Many of our challenges as a society will be in tackling this change. Capitalism does indeed have an expiry date, and we need to find a way for it to expire gracefully.