I have sometimes wondered why, in an age of increasing automation, many societies still have "high" employment. And by "high" I mean over 80%. Why, for example, have not an increasingly smaller number of jobs been restricted to a smaller elite.

For example, if there was an island with one apple tree and an orange tree. And person (lets call him Adam) owned the apple tree and person (Bob) owned the orange tree. And suppose further that the only thing people needed for life on the island was apples and oranges then this island would theoretically support only two people and everyone else would starve.

But is this what would really happen? Imagine there were two men (for the sake of argument this is a patriarchal island!) who owned these trees. And there was also women on the island. Then what would happen is that these two men would want to compete for the females. To show who is most powerful they would employ butlers and servants and engineers to build red sports cards by giving out their apples and oranges.

In the end the island would end up with full employment with a near equilibrium balance between people employed by Adam Inc. and Bob Inc.

Thus even at a time when we have robots, there should theoretically be nearly full employment, as men (or women in a matriarchy) will employ people for all sorts of purposes as a status symbol even more than owning the best fleet of robots.

What do you think of this argument that there is a relation between sexual selection, competition, and male lust for power, that is a drive that tends to keep employment high. The implication being that if you restrict these things then employment will fall. And what would the counter argument be that despite this there will be a lack of jobs in future societies?

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    This question belongs in an economics forum. Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 20:41
  • @DavidGudeman. Possibly. But then maybe Plato's republic which is a philosophical work is also somewhat about economics. It's a grey area at least.
    – zooby
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 2:30
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    Ancient philosophers discussed many topics which are no longer considered philosophy. Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 3:23
  • It's all philosophy.
    – zooby
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 5:38
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    If there are many people on a an island with only two trees, and those two trees are generating an abundant supply of apples and oranges, and Adam and Bob are claiming that they own those trees, then I suspect that what will happen is not that people will go work for Bob and Adam. Instead, there will be a rebellion and Bob and Adam will be cast away.
    – Stef
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 9:56

1 Answer 1


The basic reason for continued employment is that humanity has a very long list of tasks it needs/wants doing that are increasingly hard to automate. As the highest priorities at the top of the list get automated (food/water/shelter), that simply frees up worker capacity to work on the next entries further down the list.

Automation destroys jobs at one end (things we used to do that machines can now do), but simultaneously creates jobs at the other (things that were impossible before, but now with the aid of machines some very clever people can do). Jobs go from impossible, to possible with skilled labour, to possible with unskilled labour, to automated. We all take a step up the ladder. The unskilled do jobs the skilled previously did. The skilled do jobs that were previously impossible. There is no reason whatsoever for thinking automation leads to a net loss of jobs.

That was the Luddites' error. They thought machines would destroy everybody's jobs. Instead the Industrial Revolution created millions more jobs as what was previously skilled work came within reach of the mass of unskilled workers and previously expensive products came within the price range of the mass market of the poor. Indeed, in the most industrialised societies we don't have enough workers to do all the jobs we now want doing, which is why wages rise. Employers are competing for scarce employees. Automation creates more jobs than it destroys.

The only thing that could cause an end to jobs is if we ever reached the top of the ladder and solved all our problems with automation. Everything would be free. Everyone would be infinitely rich.

And so if we ever did reach the top of that ladder of self-actualisation, Adam and Bob would not be able to find anyone willing to work for them. Why would you? Robots and AIs satisfy your every need, for free, so why would you ever go work as a menial butler for some other guy to make him feel good? What would you need wages for? When everything is free, what would you spend your wages on? Humanity is still a long, long way away from reaching that point, but if we ever did, it wouldn't be the problem the neo-Luddites think it would be.

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    It's not just about the number of jobs it's also about the value of the jobs to the person doing them and to society. So if you worked a skilled job and are now turned unskilled laborer that's a step down, despite the net sum of jobs staying the same.
    – haxor789
    Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 23:42
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    If you worked a skilled job that can now be done by unskilled labour, then you go get a different skilled job, one that automation has newly made possible, or learn new skills. The benefit to society and to each of us from goods becoming cheaper and more plentiful outweighs the benefit to individuals from keeping the goods they produce expensive and scarce. What we gain protecting our own job from cheaper competition we lose in heaps when everyone else protects theirs. But that's not the question, which was about automation destroying jobs. Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 1:24
  • Well, I guess if everything was automated nobody would need jobs as long as the robots were kind to the humans. Although I think if everyone was rich people would still work hard to compete with each other. But not work for money, just spend their energy competing maybe in sport or arts.
    – zooby
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 2:29
  • BTW, when you say that humanity has a "very long list of tasks". I presume you are talking about things like fighting disease, solving word hunger etc. Yes, that is true, but in terms of individual humans I would say their primary motives are more towards power and status.
    – zooby
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 2:39
  • I'm talking about survival, safety, family, comfort, convenience, entertainment, companionship, education, things like that. When you go into a shop, what do you buy and why? When you go to work, what are you providing to your customers? Power and status are in the mix, and may be an obsession for some, but in my experience most people are satisfied with the simpler things in life. Power and status are of no use in themselves unless to enable you to get something you do want. They are a means, not an end. But again, that's not the question. Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 3:02

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