Wednesday, September 02, 2020

What To Do When There's Nothing Left To Do?

technologyreview  | The founder of macroeconomics predicted that capitalism would last for approximately 450 years. That’s the length of time between 1580, when Queen Elizabeth invested Spanish gold stolen by Francis Drake, and 2030, the year by which John Maynard Keynes assumed humanity would have solved the problem of our needs and moved on to higher concerns.

It’s true that today the system seems on the edge of transformation, but not in the way Keynes hoped. Gen Z’s fate was supposed to be to relax into a life of leisure and creativity. Instead it is bracing for stagnant wages and ecological crisis.

In a famous essay from the early 1930s called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” Keynes imagined the world 100 years in the future. He spotted phenomena like job automation (which he called “technological unemployment”) coming, but those changes, he believed, augured progress: progress toward a better society, progress toward collective liberation from work. He was worried that the transition to this world without toil might be psychologically difficult, and so he suggested that three-hour workdays could serve as a transitional program, allowing us to put off the profound question of what to do when there’s nothing left to do.

Well, we know the grandchildren in the title of Keynes’s essay: they’re the kids and younger adults of today. The prime-age workforce of 2030 was born between 1976 and 2005. And though the precise predictions he made about the rate of economic growth and accumulation were strikingly accurate, what they mean for this generation is very different from what he imagined.

Instead of progress toward a labor-free utopia, America has experienced disappearing jobs as a kind of economic climate change. Apocalyptic forecasts loom while poor and working-class communities take the brunt of the early impacts: wage stagnation, deregulated and unsafe workplaces, an epidemic of opioid addiction. The increasingly profligate wealth on the other end of society is no less disturbing.

What the hell happened? To figure out why Generation Z isn’t going to be Generation EZ, we have to ask some fundamental questions about economics, technology, and progress. After we assumed for a century that a better world would appear on top of our accumulated stuff, the assumptions appear unfounded. Things are getting worse.