Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Unskilled labour and a futurist/political rant

I worry. I worry about the future. it’s a long story, but I really do. And the thing is, I tend to worry not so much about me, but about everyone else. Frankly I live in a wealthy part of a wealthy country with a good job. I’m ok. I am also a pretty experienced computer programmer. Like I say…I’m ok.

I read the old futurist books now and then. I also watch videos of robots like these.

If you know a friend who works in a warehouse and is NOT currently studying part-time to develop some technical skill in some area, show them that video. Then ask them what they will be doing for a living in ten years time. Or maybe in just five. They already wiped out the need to walk around the warehouse, how long will the ‘pick worker’ be human? Not long that’s for sure. Robots work 24/7, never strike, never get ill, never argue, never sue you, don’t need lighting, heating, toilets, car parking space… If you can replace a human with a robot, it’s an absolute no-brainer. If you were building a new factory now, would you assume a need for *any* human input?

Now look at the date on that video…Yup, this is OLD technology. REALLY OLD. Imagine how much better it is now, in the warehouses we don’t get to see because they don’t want competitors to know about it. I think we can safely kiss goodbye to every warehouse job in a decade or two. What’s next? Well why pay people to stack shelves in a supermarket when robots could do it when the store shuts?  How long till that happens? they already replaced a lot of checkout staff, the shelf stackers will be next. Even the security guard is likely to be replaced by some sort of drone in the next twenty years.

Twenty years will probably see mass market acceptance of driverless vehicles in at least some countries. Kiss goodbye to every taxi driver, every delivery driver, every bus driver, every train driver, every chauffeur. Digital cameras basically put kodak out of business. They employed 145,000 people worldwide. That business no longer exists. That was relatively unskilled work too, gone. We have tens of thousands employed in call centers. For how long? isn’t AI getting better at that sort of thing than call center staff? How many people will the mass-deployment of ‘siri’ style tech put out of work? A million? ten million? I’m drinking coffee as good as any I’ve tasted as I type this. It wasn’t made by an expert barista. It was a £200 machine you can buy. Yup, robot baristas are already a mass-market thing. Those jobs are gone too.

So where are the unskilled jobs going to be? Maybe some will exist in the developed world with appalling labor conditions and wages digging in mines or sorting trash, but where is someone living in London with no skills going to work in 2035? I’m guessing nowhere. I don’t think any such job is going to exist.

And this is what worries me, because nobody I meet who does such work has any clue how doomed it is. No politician really discusses it. We worry about short-term 1 or 2% ups and downs in consumer spending, as if that really matters when it comes to employment and wages. All the commentators and economists out there seem to be ‘surprised’ that the economy is doing well but wages are low. Really? you didn’t predict that millions of unskilled people fighting over the same dwindling supply of jobs was going to depress wages?

Whether you are left wing or right wing, no sensible debate on unemployment, wages and inequality can be taken seriously unless the topic of unskilled labour is put front and center. It is just *not an option* to have unskilled people in a modern society. We should stop arguing about which company will, or will not bring unskilled labour jobs to our country, or what wage they will pay those people. It is a false debate. Those jobs are going very soon regardless who people elect the govern the country.



23 thoughts on Unskilled labour and a futurist/political rant

  1. I think so too, well worded.
    However, I see it as chance for more people to get more meaningful work in the long run. Of cause in the beginning it’ll result in an increase in umemployment rates (probably the first 20-40 years), but those following up are able to work to satisfy people’s desires, rather than their needs (which is most of the underskilled sectors work). As Maslow’s Pyramid expresses, the desire for self actualization and status increases can never be fully satisfied and always keeps growing.
    So basically people will probably work to create illusions and actual solutions in this sectors (games play in that part).

  2. Jobs will go, but I suspect it will be less than you fear: not all warehouses can afford robots, not all robots will be affordable in terms of maintenence and upkeep if no one has money to buy things. It’s all a bit cyclical. Driverless cars are more interesting because not only do they have legal hurdles (who’s repsonsible for accidents?), they appear to be rather less advanced than their respective marketing departments:

    Also, (hard) AI has been going to arrive for about 60 years so far, and still seems no closer. It’s quite tricky to make a flexible AI when humanity’s awareness of what actually consitiutes I is still woefully poor.

    Anyway, hoverboards are first in the queue. The world should invest more resources in those.

  3. Sure, hard AI is *hard*, but look at siri. Imagine Siri handling customer services for British Airways or dealing with car insurance. Infallible? definitely not. Able to deal with 90% of calls? maybe, and definitely within a decade. Even if only 90% of the call center jobs go, thats pretty hardcore job losses.

  4. Problems:
    – terrible repartition of wealth (money attracts money, lack of money brings lack of money, money is created by private banks and the interests go back to them)
    – fewer and fewer jobs as technology progresses (that’s not actually a problem, but…)
    – “normal people” need “a job” to “earn money”…

    But money shouldn’t *need* to be earned. Money is a tool to let everyone exchange goods and services with others. It should benefit everyone and not only the rich.

    Money should be created by everyone for everyone. In other words when money is created, everyone should get their share of that money directly. It would not only be much fairer that the current system; it would also solve a lot of problems.

    An alternative is redistribution to achieve a similar result with an unconditional basic income.

  5. It’s not just unskilled work that is going away. My work has an automation team that is working to reduce the number of system admins and help desk guys. Software controlled networking is being implemented to reduce the number of networking guys.

    Improved software lets skilled workers get more work done with fewer people. Increased productivity reduces the number of humans needed to perform a given task.

    Skilled workers are going to be competing for fewer jobs. Training unskilled workers will just make a bigger pool of skilled workers fighting over an ever shrinking number of jobs.

    There’s an argument that this will free up people to be more creative and work on ‘adding value’ or ‘desires’ but this ignores the fact that even extremely talented and creative people have a hard time making a living at that sort of work. And most people aren’t very creative. We can’t all be rock stars or make Angry Bird clones.

    There are really only two options: minimum basic income for everyone and we accept that not everyone needs a job or massive number of people living in abject poverty even in 1st world nations.

    This video has some interesting points:

  6. cliff, you’re repeating what Keynes said in 1930, see David Graeber’s article:

    Concerning Siri, I very much doubt that it will be as good as you think in 10 years. But there’s no need to look that far in the future. Even today, much less manual work is needed per customer in typical consumer businesses, thanks to your personal online login at your telephone provider and housing company that allows you to input your query/change request into convenient forms – a job that was done by staff before. No need for AI.

    I second the other postings – there’s no way around minimum basic income, but that would be extremely inconvenient for the wealthy.

  7. Oh hey, have you read Kevin Drum’s 2013 article, “Welcome, Robot Overlords, Please Don’t Fire Us?”

    The problem is that, while robots are in the long run a significant savings, when you want something done quickly and without much setup, at least right now you can gather a whole bunch of people you don’t care about and then set them to work, and damn whatever their labour conditions are. It’s already happening with Amazon in the US, and it happened with G4S during the Olympics in London. The poor and unskilled are already considered subhuman by us, so throwing their lives away is something that we can do without batting an eyelid.

    And I say “we” because hey, in many ways we’re complicit with allowing this to happen. Might as well own up to it, right now.

    And it is a major problem, and the worst part is, it’s already happening in small stages to people who are lower middle class, and who might not be un-skilled, but certainly are not highly-skilled. Quoting Alex Proud, now, from this article (

    “If I were a member of the working classes who’d been laid off in the ’80s or ’90s, I might be laughing at the middle classes right now. Because we’ve duped and screwed by the elite just as the lower orders were. The only differences are that, with us, the con was longer, and in many places we played an active part in our downfall; plenty of us were “useful idiots.””

    We’re seeing the end of the phase where the rich no longer see the middle class as “useful idiots”, and are liquidating and optimizing their businesses for inefficiencies. If you’re one of the inefficiencies, bye-bye, it’s your damn fault you’re so useless, that’s what you said to the peons we fired before, right? Now eat your medicine like a good sucker.

  8. I’ve been wondering about warehouses, but the call center’s thing, I kinda doubt. They can create menus, online alternatives, and some voice recognition but to deal with legal requirements for various services (including banks), and natural language interpretation.. I don’t know how long that will take, but I wouldn’t worry about 10 years.

  9. If I recall, in the last ST:TNG season 1 episode Picard was asked by what do people do these days (in future) when wealth accumulation was no longer a driver. I think it was really neat response and one my favorite episodes when being teen. The answer was simply something about personal growth.

    In my mind I twisted it to mean ‘Avoid anything repetitive/tedious’ (=I quickly figured out that most work falls into such category) The downside to following this path? Well learning anything well is really slow when you avoid doing anything repetitive and it’s essentially a path to jack of all trades, master of none, since mastering a skill would mean settling into something and working out tedious details.

    However there’s some upside to knowing a bit about everything possible as well. I’m quite good at research and combining ideas from different fields and coming up with novel algorithms and general troubleshooting. So while on the other hand you could say I’m unskilled, I have a mile long list of novel project ideas and stuff robots would be unlikely to come up with. Also if big expensive robots have weird problems or total failure, do you really need skill to fix it? What you need is critical thinking and troubleshooting. I would argue that neither of those are a “skill” – skill (trade) is a snapshot of learnings/experience in a point of time – a robot can be programmed to perform identically when defined like that. Thinking and troubleshooting of “never seen before issues” are not skills, they are creative areas and robots aren’t going to replace such. Yeah – you can “fix” a broken wireless router by buying a robot produced identical new device and then find out it has the same problem in firmware that barely gets updates despite being a network facing device.

  10. It’s not unskilled labor, it’s capitalism as a whole. Marx predicted this would eventually happen, it’s called the “contradictions of capitalism”.

    Marx and capital:

    “It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital. [25] This antagonistic character of capitalistic accumulation is enunciated in various forms by political economists, although by them it is confounded with phenomena, certainly to some extent analogous, but nevertheless essentially distinct, and belonging to pre-capitalistic modes of production.”

    We may get “socialism” by technological advancement (slow and perilous march towards star-trek society with much conflict over the short term).

  11. Marx predicted this would happen a long time ago, but he was trapped in the mindset of the dull factory job in harsh conditions. A lot of those jobs have gone, but now AI is even going to replace jobs that are not ‘that bad’. Most people in call centers hate it, but its not the back-breaking, harsh work that marx thought would drive the working classes to rise up.
    The problem isn’t so much going to be the wealthy exploiting the poor, but them not needing the poor at all. Of course, someone has to buy the products, so the system has to change at some point. If we had a more educated workforce, we could have more people doing technical and creative work and us all being better off. Ideally…. :D

  12. I think that minimum wage laws are making the scenario you depict more and more likely – they are pricing a lot of unskilled people out of the market, thus making harder for them to actually gain some skills.
    Furthermore, with compulsory education and huge&expensive welfare systems (public school included) most western countries provide, why are all this people so unskilled?
    Most people in the western world spend the first 20+ years of their life in school, yet many of them have little to show for it…
    It is time to question government involvement in education – and in many other fields, for that matter.
    It is time to question the very concept of the welfare state.
    The big picture, however, is far more scary: in the west, the ongoing conflict is tax consumers vs tax producers…
    Most wealthy people – no, sadly I’m not one of them – already give over 50% of their income, in various forms, to the government, so let’s stop saying that the problem is the upper class not paying its fair share.
    However, I’m quite optimist.
    One form of socialism (communism) died – more or less – 20 years ago.
    Its other major branch (fascism), which is the one embraced by most western countries at least since the WWI, with all its cronies&regulations, is going belly up, too.

  13. You have the answer in front of you, literally. You, yourself, are in a new industry. 40 years ago, videogames employed basically zero people. Now it’s tons – including not just programmers but also finds a niche for non-skilled people. I’m not in it myself, but I understand at least QA testers don’t always require skill, at least to get started.

    Healthcare and elder care are almost impossible to automate, and new treatments requiring new people are invented every year. For every doctor, surgeon, there’s a janitor and receptionist.

    Is it that hard to believe that these will continue to grow, and that many other industries will follow them?

  14. Talk about the myth of “balance” in capitalist societies

    Also the bailout:

    Overthrowing governments

    “I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil intersts in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.” [p. 10]

    “War is a racket. …It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” [p. 23] “The general public shoulders the bill [for war]. This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.” [p. 24]

    The 9 trillion dollar bank bailout

    Libor scandal

    Rule of law impossible under capitalism, since the kings of business (he who has the gold makes the rules) get to do whatever they want and the public gets fucked.

  15. “Marx predicted this would happen a long time ago, but he was trapped in the mindset of the dull factory job in harsh conditions. A lot of those jobs have gone, but now AI is even going to replace jobs that are not ‘that bad”

    Those jobs still exist. They are just done in Southeast Asia now.

  16. Just because old low-skilled jobs vanish does not mean new ones won’t appear. When my grandfather was born, a man could make a decent living form being able to add up columns of numbers; now you need to know how to use Excel.
    He spent his life working at a newspaper – when he first started, his morning job was to light the fires that melted the lead for the type! He worked in the typesetting room, and had to transition from setting lead type through a range of other technologies. At the end, he was doing page layout with material generated by a computer. Each transition result in the death of an old skill; but each required new skills.

    If robots do everything, will we still need to work?

  17. Unskilled labor will most certainly take a hit but I don’t know if it’ll disappear. Technology and Automation will unquestionably hurt unskilled labor but overall someone somewhere will have some kind of job and unskilled labor might still be around, just not in such quantity as there once might have been.

    To me, the thing that matters the most is the unemployment rate. Plus, even if unskilled labor does disappear that doesn’t mean there isn’t other work in charity or even religious work. Labor unions won’t like some jobs disappearing because of technology and automation but if governments invest in healthcare like President Obama has done by passing the Affordable Care Act, that still won’t rescue an unskilled job but it’ll give people some hope that they can find some kind of job regardless of economic conditions.

  18. For the population to prosper in the future, Britain needs to build strong communities. That way, the educated can support those with less learning by producing the wealth all prosperous communities thrive on.

  19. Well according to MIT and Oxford almost 47% of the jobs we know of today will be automated or digitized between now and 20 years. Not just unskilled work, but also skilled work.

    Maybe it’s time to let go of the old ways of a releation from work and income. Cause you see half of the jobs will be gone and wont come back. Maybe it’s time to think about a unconditional basic income, like they want to have in Switserland.

    Also I wonder how the basic income will look in Democracy 3 :)

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