The Future of Work: A Nightmare Scenario—and Three Things That Might Prevent It

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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Inside a BMW plant in Leipzig, Germany, a country with more robots per capita but less unemployment than the United States. (Photo: BMW Werk Leipzig/Wikimedia Commons)

Inside a BMW plant in Leipzig, Germany, a country with more robots per capita but less unemployment than the United States. (Photo: BMW Werk Leipzig/Wikimedia Commons)

What worries me most about the future of work and workers is the possibility that the technological determinists are right, or that scientific innovation will outpace social adaptation and wreak political and economic havoc. Skilled as well as unskilled workers would be replaced by robots and computers. Jobs that couldn’t be automated would be outsourced to the lowest bidder, whether in Boston, Barranquilla, or Bangalore. The profits would be captured by “supermanagers,” who would increasingly dictate their own salaries as well as the salaries of their subordinates. And the average worker—or former worker, as luck would have it—would be left to pick up the pieces: overqualified, underemployed, or just plain out in the cold. When I think about the “jobless future” predicted by so many observers, therefore, I’m reminded of the late Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, who famously quipped that “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

Andrew Schrank is the Olive Watson Professor of Sociology and International Studies at Brown University.


My nightmare vision is by no means groundless. Men have been dropping out of the United States labor force for more than half a century, and women’s participation apparently peaked more than a decade ago. European firms are automating production and outsourcing jobs at vertiginous rates, and are reorienting the latter from Eastern Europe to East Asia with the help of telecommunications equipment that makes distance less daunting. And low-cost China is already believed to be the largest buyer of industrial robots in the world—prompting fears of an employment crisis in the Global South as well.

But is a jobless future inevitable? Do automation, computerization, and globalization necessarily conspire to undercut employment and living standards? Or might they be harnessed to benign ends by farsighted leaders? The answer is anything but obvious, for the relationship between automation and job loss is at best indeterminate, both within and across countries, and the relationship between automation and compensation is similarly opaque. For instance, Germany and Japan boast more robots per capita and less unemployment than the United States, and the stock of industrial robots and the average manufacturing wage have been growing in tandem—at double digit rates, no less—in China.

What excites me about the future of work and workers, therefore, is the possibility that the technological determinists are wrong, and that we will subordinate machinery to our needs and desires rather than vice versa. In this rosy scenario, machines take over the monotonous jobs and allow humans to pursue more leisurely or creative pursuits. Working hours fall and wages rise across the board. And productivity gains are distributed (and re-distributed) in accord with the principles of distributive justice and fairness.

While such a scenario may seem not just rosy but unrealistic, it is not entirely implausible. After all, the Industrial Revolution that brought us the Luddites in the early 19th century eventually gave birth to the eight-hour day, the welfare state, and the modern era of workplace regulation. And there are at least three reasons to expect similar reactions today.

The first is the so-called demonstration effect produced by information technology, for the very IT that facilitates automation and outsourcing also brings the world closer together and, in so doing, fosters new demands for better living and working conditions in the Global South. One need not go so far as Francis Fukuyama, who portrays the so-called Arab Spring as a revolution of “rising expectations” engendered by a “technologically empowered” middle class, and wonders whether China is next, to recognize the lengths to which people will go to improve their perceived lot in life. Sometimes they board flimsy boats and sail across oceans and seas; other times they storm the manager’s office, or the capital, and demand change.

The second is the diffusion of democracy. According to Freedom House, the percentage of the world’s polities that are electoral democracies has grown from 41 to 63 over the past quarter of a century—and while free elections are by no means a sufficient basis for the defense of workers and their rights, they are an all but necessary one.

And the third is the demographic transition. Over the same quarter of a century, the total fertility rate—the number of children born to the average woman—has fallen from 7.7 to 4.9 in the world as a whole, and East Asia and Latin America have joined Europe and North America with replacement or below-replacement fertility. While demographic transitions are not necessarily smooth, and are subject to local variance, they imply not only that the worldwide labor surplus—and with it the imbalance in power between owners and workers—will eventually fall but that parents and governments will begin to emphasize child quality—by means of education, skill formation, and the like—instead of child quantity.

One can thus envision a more auspicious future in which an increasingly educated and empowered global workforce confronts a somewhat chastened corporate elite on democratic terrain that is more favorable to the former. Such a future is by no means inevitable. In fact, if I were a betting man I’d say it’s unlikely. But if I were to draw one lesson from my knowledge of history and the social sciences it’s that the future of work and workers will not be dictated by technology alone; whether for better or for worse, it’s in our hands.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.