A friend of mine who worked on an automobile assembly line asked me once: “When will the robots take my job?”

Of course, he didn’t mean those Star Wars robots like C3PO and R2D2—he meant the giant assembly robots, the automated machines that assemble cars with their computer-controlled articulated arms and automatic welders and robotic paint sprayers. Sure enough, a few years after he asked me that question, he got laid off after working in the Ford factory for 18 years. A robot now does his former job.

Have you seen a car manufacturing facility recently? It’s pretty amazing. We’re used to seeing old photos of people putting those cars together by hand on the assembly line, but the robots have taken over. As if we were fulfilling the otherworldly prophecies of an early science fiction novel, the men—and the women—have been displaced by the machines.

This trend, happening now in just about all factory and manufacturing jobs everywhere in the industrialized world, has displaced millions of workers who used to make a decent living making things. Yes, robots are expensive, but robotic assemblers never need a raise or a vacation or a coffee break or an attaboy from the boss, and they don’t organize and form unions, either.

This trend also represents the biggest reason for the serious job losses traditional manufacturing has recently undergone, which has hollowed out formerly robust regions of industrialized countries and created a political backlash of epic proportions across Europe, the United States, Japan and many other developed countries.

Politicians often blame the loss of those jobs on immigrants, developing nations, unfair international trade pacts or heartless corporations, but the reality looks very different when you consider the actual statistics:

The U.S. has lost 5 million factory jobs since 2000. And trade has indeed claimed production jobs – in particular when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Nevertheless, there was no downturn in U.S. manufacturing output. As a matter of fact, U.S. production has been growing over the last decades. From 2006 to 2013, “manufacturing grew by 17.6%, or at roughly 2.2% per year,” according to a report from Ball State University. The study reports as well that trade accounted for 13% of the lost U.S. factory jobs, but [almost] 88% of the jobs were taken by robots and other factors at home.

If not China, what then explains these job losses? It’s simple: factories don’t need as many workers as they used to, because robots increasingly do the work. – Wolfgang Lehmacher, Fortune Magazine, 8 November 2016.

Fascinating, right? Five million factory jobs gone in the United States alone, and the vast majority of them lost to machines, not migrants or trade or low offshore wages or corporate conspiracies. Instead, experts say, the overall share of tasks performed by robots will rise from a global average of around 10% across all manufacturing industries today to around 25% by 2025.

How long before a robot does your job? The global business consulting firm McKinsey & Company, in their recent report on automation, gives us a clue:

… currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today. – Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi, Where Machines Could Replace Humans—and Where they Can’t (Yet), McKinsey, July 2016.

So what’s the solution? If the manufacturing, factory and assembly-line jobs no longer exist—at least not for people—what will the humans do? How will we support ourselves and our families?

Remarkably, the Baha’i teachings have answers for those very contemporary questions. Even though the beginnings of assembly-line modern manufacturing were just starting to take place at the time, in an interview conducted 110 years ago Abdu’l-Baha presciently said:

“The civilizations of the past have all been founded upon the enslavement of mankind and the poor working class has suffered every oppression for the sake of the enrichment of the few. This limited wealthy class has alone had the privilege of developing individuality. The down trodden worker after labouring long hours each day, has not had sufficient mental capacity at the conclusion of his task to do anything but eat and sleep.

“That all mankind might have opportunity, it was necessary to shorten the hours of labour so that the work of the world could be completed without such demand of strain and effort, and all human beings would have leisure to think and develop individual capacity.

“The labour saving machines were given to create leisure for all mankind.” Abdu’l-Baha repeated this several times. He was so deeply impressed with this fact that as He spoke He arose and walked back and forth in the little room, His face and eyes shining with joy over the happy future into which He gazed.

“The first decided shortening of the hours will appear,” He declared, “when a legal working day of eight hours is established,” and this of course took place [ten years later] in 1917 when Woodrow Wilson enacted the legal day of eight hours for all federal workers, and really for the workers of the United States.

“But this working day of eight hours is only the beginning,” went on Abdu’l-Baha. “Soon there will be a six hour day, a five hour, a three hour day, even less than that, and the worker must be paid more for this management of machines, than he ever received for the exercise of his two hands alone.” – Abdu’l-Baha, as reported by Mary Hanford Ford in Star of the West, Volume 10, pp. 106-107.

In this series of essays, let’s examine those past predictions and see what they mean for the future.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

5 Comments

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  • Aug 02, 2017
    I think with the expanding awareness of the Baha'i teachings on the purpose of life, the meaning of service, and what constitutes a moral action, we will slowly move to seeing our daily lives occupied in service of some kind, rather than only "work" in the traditional sense. I believe Abdu'l-Baha is referring to traditional work here, as everyone is to be occupied with some form of service. Where those jobs can be taken over by machines without loss of quality, they should be transferred ASAP. Society must recognize the value in other forms of service beyond the traditional ...career structure if our youth are to be saved from not having any way of contributing to humanity (unemployment).
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  • Edwin Tamasese
    Jul 27, 2017
    I felt my entire soul light up reading this. I worked for many years rationalizing production lines and improving mechanization. It used to eat my soul seeing workers being laid off. The worst experience was being in charge of rolling out B2B systems between different companies, making many logistics jobs obsolete. It kept me awake at night, but the answer came to me as in the above. Now I know where it came from.... feeling humbled...
  • Jul 27, 2017
    Good job on finding that quote. As far as I previously thought, 'Abdu'l-Baha was only rumored to have talked about the shortening of the workday. I had never seen anything so direct or substantial. I look forward to seeing how you bring the wider body of the Baha'i teachings to bear on this question.
    This is an extremely important topic to talk about. All over the world, hundreds of millions of people have been raised, whether implicitly or explicitly, to think that the predominant meaning and purpose in their life is their career. If you take that away from them, ...it leaves an astronomical cultural and spiritual void the like of which humanity has never seen. Something has to fill that void.
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  • Jul 27, 2017
    Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times" (1936) showed us the "comedic horrors" of placing the human as a mere machine in an assembly line. Having worked in robotics, I have seen how the soul-numbing, body-breaking, repetitive tasks that are often a part of manufacturing can be done better, faster, and less expensive, by robots. However, if a unique part is required, it is far faster to turn to a human to create it, rather than to program a robot to perform the "one-off" task. CNC may drive the milling machine, but a human runs the CNC.
    The jobs are evolving, ...but not disappearing.
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  • Michael D Graham
    Jul 27, 2017
    Hi David, Thanks for the article. I haven't read that passage from Abdu'l-Baha before, thanks for sharing! I've been watching the robot phenomenon for several years now and it is truly incredible how wide reaching it has become, with no sign of letting up. I'm a designer in a factory in RI that designs and manufactures custom store fixtures. The robots have not reached us yet. The opposite of automation is creativity. Computers and robots are still not very good at designing and creating. Watson on Jeopardy was good at spitting out facts but combining them into something new and ...useful is what humans are good at. We need to encourage creativity in all levels of society and learn how to use our creativity to be of service to others.
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