Who will go to work?

The society in which we live is aging at an ever-increasing rate. This phenomenon is much more noticeable in economically advanced and developed countries, and somewhat less so in developing countries, but it is becoming one of the main causes for concern, for example, in countries like Japan, where in a few decades there will be practically more people over the age of 50 than people of working age and young people taking over the reins of what their elders are leaving behind as they retire.

The latest United Nations reports on the aging of the population in mainly developed areas show the tendency of young couples of childbearing age to leave it later and later, whether for career reasons, for lack of economic resources or for wanting to enjoy life in terms of freedom or travel, or to devote oneself to oneself, before undertaking the enormous task of devoting the rest of our lives to caring for others, in this case, our children to come.

A downward growth curve

Although the difference between births and deaths is still in favor of the former, with some 140,000 new human beings entering the world every day, this trend is going downward and will presumably continue to do so. This does not mean that humanity is going to reduce the number of members it possesses, on the contrary, it will continue to increase, but this increase is drawn on a curve that no longer follows such a marked upward trend as it has until now and that, if this situation continues over time, perhaps at some point we will see the birth rate balance with the death rate and, therefore, we will see society increase its average birth rate, We will see society increase its average age and the difficulties of our economic system to maintain the current structure of support and assistance to those who have already retired from their jobs and have ceased to be part of the active labor force, having earned their rest and their right to live the remaining years of their lives in full capacity and with sufficient and necessary economic resources to be able to carry out everything that perhaps, while they were working, they could not experience and enjoy.

Therefore, on the one hand, everything is in order in terms of the right of all human beings to enjoy their retirement and retirement, and everything is in order in terms of the fact that the states must facilitate that they receive what they gave in their years of productivity to the system so that now they can move away from it a little and dedicate themselves to other things.

Replacing the population are automated systems

One of the possible solutions that are on the table for when this happens, and we will see if it happens, is the introduction of robotic systems that can do the work of those humans who are no longer in the production system. We are talking about many decades ahead, because right now there is still a huge population that, needing a job, does not have one, so this future projection is not an issue for five or ten years from now, but for the long term, when the average age of most people in most industrialized countries is above or close to retirement age, and there are not enough young people or people of working age to fill the jobs that they leave.

In addition, we must expect that countries, initially, in order to alleviate this lack of labor, will tend to open the doors of their markets to immigration from other countries where there is still a huge labor force to counteract the loss of labor where they are in demand, and these flows of professionals or people looking for a better future for themselves and their families will possibly find a better reception in the future than what they find now in many parts of the world, because the “need” factor in those countries will be very high, whereas, now, at this point in the 21st century, we have not yet reached the point where the need for people to work in some sectors cannot be solved by internal restructuring and labor changes in the same national population where these problems are beginning to be seen.

But let’s say we project ourselves in time 100 years, and we find ourselves in the situation where most of us are already close to retirement, that in recent decades very few children have been born and that there is less and less desire to start a family, because the quality of life and the opportunities for leisure and enjoyment have grown a lot for a sector of the population that has a brilliant professional career ahead and resources to spend on their pleasure and well-being.

Incentivizing families to raise the birth rate curve

So, in this situation, we may see two options being seriously considered by international organizations, institutions and governments. The first option, can we “incentivize” those in the right age bracket to have more children so that they can be incorporated into the economic system in a few years? If so, and possibly it will be tried, we will see many programs offered to help families, gift checks for newborns to ease the economic burden on parents, more vacations, better distributed and paid maternity and paternity leave, and all kinds of improvements to make it easier for couples who wish to have children to have them with many more advantages than those who preceded them decades ago.

On the other hand, if part of humanity still prefers to delay parenthood, and leave it for as late as possible once they have fulfilled their dreams and desires and what they have wanted to do before settling down and taking root in order to give stability to that new home, the other option is undoubtedly robotics.

Robots and systems with artificial intelligence for everything

Why robotics? Because between those people who are about to retire or are retired, between those who already have a professional career of a certain level and those who are still too young to join the labor market, there remains a small percentage of human beings of working age (remember that we are making a hypothetical simulation at least several decades in the future) who will be able to sustain the welfare system and the world economy.

Since consumers will not be lacking, because all people will continue to need products and services, but there will be far fewer human beings available to provide them, we are faced with the dilemma of either denying or closing a part of these services, or incorporating robotized and automated systems to take care of them, moving the people who previously produced them to other levels of the global economic structure where they can provide another type of added value, beyond the repetitive or routine or low-value tasks they previously provided.

This leads to many problems in this hypothetical future situation. First, the majority of people who are willing to move to other types of work or professional environments where they have to retrain and learn something new is relatively small. Human beings are comfortable by nature, and there is some internal resistance to change when that change is perceived as something that is far beyond our current capacity, since it is not a matter of changing a person’s position within the same work environment or system, but of literally moving them to tasks and responsibilities where, for the time being, the processes associated with them cannot be automated.

Therefore, “reskilling”, i.e., providing new capabilities to a part of the population, is an issue that will have to be dealt with a long time in advance in order to be ready for the change when this situation materializes, if, as we suppose, it will end up happening. On the other hand, not everyone can be relocated, not everyone can be trained for another function and not everyone wants to do so, so social unrest, riots and protests are likely to come hand in hand with the introduction of sophisticated robots and artificial intelligence technologies that can do most of the routine tasks that are now the livelihood of millions of people around the world.

Aging population, and a much smaller labor force

So, going back to our hypothetical situation, we will find governments and institutions that will be faced with the dilemma of having to deal in the short term with an aging population, and will have to decide to replace the labor force they do not have in their countries with controlled immigration programs, as governments like Canada or Australia have implemented with more or less success for qualified personnel in certain sectors, to allow that, where there are people who cannot find work, they can come to nations where there are jobs that do not find people.

They will have to try to encourage the birth rate if they want to see the aging curve of the population go down, and with that they will have to look for economic resources to provide families with more time and purchasing power, while sustaining pensions and the welfare state with fewer people contributing and paying taxes, and they will have to deal with the social upheavals that the replacement of routine and low value-added jobs, but important to keep the economy running, will bring as soon as the first supermarkets, bars or stores where all that will be available to serve you will be robots with AI and the ability to solve all your problems without human intervention at any time.

This situation will probably last a few years as well, maybe a decade at most, as we are generally pretty quick to get used to situations where we no longer have a say. It is not that a worker is fired to be replaced by a robot, which can happen, but that as stores or businesses of people who retire and retire are closing, and there is no one young to pick up the baton, those new businesses that companies or entrepreneurs are going to start from scratch will count from the day of their inauguration, will have robotic personnel and intelligent systems from the day they open, so it will not be possible to “complain” to anyone that an entrepreneur has fired a worker, but simply, the new economy is already born with this type of structure that combines AI with robotics and systems connected to each other through the network and the cloud. Amazon stores or some supermarket chains are already testing and, in some cases, operating in this way.

When this situation has stabilized, say in 100 years, the production part will be assured again, because now we will have a huge market of active consumers represented by all the human beings who no longer work but continue to consume, travel, buy and require services, by young people with high purchasing power who have no family obligations and spend a large part of their resources on leisure, travel, and personal attention, and a number of children and people who, without working either, are also potential consumers of everything the system can offer them.

With a minimal part of the population taking care of the tasks that robotic systems and AIs still cannot or will not let them do, the structure in principle of the life system on Earth would have to remain in equilibrium for a long season more, until the birth rate curve falls so much, if it does, that deaths exceed births, the population stabilizes, and, in 200 years, for example, a gradual reduction begins, the number of people on the planet will begin to gradually decrease, and they will be “served” by robots and out of the production chain, because, by then, it is possible that almost everything that can be automated will be automated, and perhaps, say, there will only be about 4 billion people left on Earth who will be able to devote themselves to permanent leisure or to the higher management tasks that require human beings to carry them out.

Then it will be a question of seeing how these people will be remunerated so that they can continue to consume and keep the economic functioning going, something that we are already beginning to see in small-scale experiments, for example in Finland, of what has been called a universal basic income, in which every human being receives, whatever they do, whether they work or not, a minimum but high income to cover all their needs and continue to be part of the process of sustaining society.

Maintain the model or change the model

As you can see, this leads us to a final conclusion without much sense, we want to keep the world economy running, so we need people to continue consuming, therefore, they must have resources to consume and we give them the money they need for it through a universal income. As there will no longer be too much population to produce, we replace the producers with robots and artificial intelligences, and thus maintain the balance and return to have many millions of consumers with money and many millions of robots to give them the services they need.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to change the whole growth model of humanity instead of maintaining a productivity-consumerism model that replaces the parts that don’t work or are no longer available with others?

Instead of playing the same game with different pieces, the logical thing to do would be to change the game. If we humans want to get out of the economic growth model based on voracious consumerism, we must find alternatives so that we can maintain the level and quality of life without looking for patches to reinforce the scaffolding of something that is beginning to show signs that it will not be sustained much longer. What would be that other model that would allow all human beings to live adequately without depleting the planet’s resources and without turning the system of life on Earth into a race to see how we get out of it?

It would be a model towards the reduction of what we believe we need to be well and happy, that is, to gradually reduce the process of consuming just for the sake of consuming what we do not need, so that the entire economic structure would slow down and not suffer all at once, but we would slow down its growth until it stabilizes at a level where people can live with everything they need but without anxieties about “having more”, anxieties that, on the other hand, are artificially induced in our collective psyche.

Getting what we need, without depleting the planet

In this way, we would seek a sustainable model of being able to have what we need without depleting the planet’s resources, without the need to have that which brings us nothing special, but which is artificially and daily imbued in us by all the media, brands and companies on the planet. We would look for a means of sustainable economic exchange to cover the entire spectrum of human experiences and needs but without having to induce us to consume that which then ends up generating waste, residues and all kinds of toxic elements for us and for the Earth. We would look for a method of being able to maintain the welfare system for the population without having to force them to continue consuming non-stop to do so, and without the need to incorporate new consumers into the productive chain at an increasingly younger age, and finally, we would look for a way for human beings to maintain a balance between their personal lives, family lives, professional careers and leisure, without having to force them to continue consuming non-stop to do so, and without the need to incorporate new consumers into the productive chain at an increasingly younger age, family, professional careers and leisure, so that those who wish to have and raise a family have the opportunities to do so without worrying about the resources they will lack, and those who wish to devote themselves to themselves have the means to do so without worrying that they are being forced to work or consume so that the system does not collapse.

There are alternatives that humanity has not yet explored in this sense because the powers that govern the economic structure of society do not allow it, and we are still far from a change in the mentality of our society to realize this, but we are on the way, and we will see if any of these hypothetical scenarios that we have outlined for the coming decades begins to take force and sense, so that we can sense, at least, the direction that our civilization will take in the years ahead.

By the IDHUS Institute

The Institute for the Development of Human Societies is a think tank shedding light on the complex interplay between demography, human development, the impact of technology on society and global population dynamics