Every generation wants to ensure their next generation leads a comfortable life, usually not the one they led. Our quality of life over time has improved. My life is definitely better off compared to my parents’ lives while they were growing up. People in the old days would work “odd” jobs, do the lowly work that no one today would even think of doing. Even in India this trend is noticeable. Sons of farmers don’t want to be farmers anymore. They’re aspirational. They want to live a city life. They want a life a lot simpler than their parents, without the same kind of toil. The farmer as well, led a similar life. His life growing up was better off than his parents. The farmer’s parents worked even harder to provide for him and ensure his life is better. The phrase “History repeats itself” cannot be truer in this context.
Think about it. Every generation says that they don’t want to do the same lowly work their parents did. They want it better. They don’t want the cleaner’s job, the traffic man’s job, the farmer’s job, the driver’s job. They don’t want the menial work. They want more fulfilling, meaningful jobs. They want experiential work. By the way, those jobs you just read about, are already getting automated. We already have machines doing the cleaning, managing traffic, farming, driving and much more. And those areas are what automation will disrupt first. It will be designed and built to do all our menial jobs, all the work that our current generation doesn’t want to do. It’s not that automation is taking away our jobs. We simply don’t want to do the same jobs anymore. We have to find ways to get the job done. Look back at history, this is not the first time it’s happening. Before the first industrial revolution, humans were hired to do all the work. Then the machines replaced humans to do the heavy-lifting. Then there were fewer humans required to do the same work that would take 3 to 4 people. The same is happening now.
It’s not that automation is taking away our jobs. We simply don’t want to do the same jobs anymore.
This is a continuous cycle and there’s no stopping it from happening. It is largely because of our ever-evolving aspirations and need for a better quality of life. What’s interesting to note (and thought-provoking) is that technology is advancing at a similar pace as our need to do more (or less) meaningful work. Every generation detests seeing themselves doing some menial task or the other. At that moment in time, a certain technology has developed which will not require a human to do it anymore. We have seen it happen in various industries. Just look at farming for instance: there was a time when everything was done by man and animals. Then everything was mechanized. Now, we’re developing technology to get robots to do the farming for us. Then we are even fiddling with the DNA of the crops we grow, customizing it as per our nutrition requirement. It’s crazy, but it’s happening.
I believe, so long as we are an aspirational and ambitious species, nothing is going to stop automation from increasingly becoming a part of our lives. Maybe for better or worse, only time will tell. But one thing is for sure, this increased automation will raise too many difficult social questions like wages in an age of automation (or universal basic income), social benefits, healthcare etc. What will humans do when everything around us gets automated?