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.