What Would a World with 90 per cent Unemployment be like?

Like other writers I am on the look out for story ideas. Recently an Op-Ed article I read speculated on how technology could affect the job market. Increased productivity might mean that only a small proportion of the population would need to work. What happens to the rest of the people? Would they become a new leisure class, or would they become unemployed with no hope for a decent life.

What the Future may Hold

The Op-Ed Article by Paul Krugman that I mentioned above, was sparked by the observation that routine jobs can be easily automated. This is not only true of manual labour jobs, but also white collar non-manual jobs as well. An example of how effective artificial intelligence has become is Watson the Computer Jeopardy Champion.

One aspect of this trend is that fewer middle class jobs will be available. Another aspect of the trend is that there will be large productivity gains. These may be so great that a relatively small proportion of the population will be able to produce all the material needs of society. To pick a number out of the air, assume that only 10 per cent of workers are needed. This would leave 90 per cent of the population unemployed.

In the 1960s futurists foresaw a time when few people would need to work, and most people would devote their time to leisure activities. This prediction has not come true yet and many people are sceptical that it will ever come true. One must be cautions about the fallibility of predictions, as I talked about in an anoather article.

Let us speculate about a different outcome. Our experience today is that when there is not enough work to go around, we don’t see people turn to leisure, we see people become unemployed or underemployed. We could expect the same to happen if only 10 per cent of the population could have jobs. What would the 90 per cent of population who are unemployed do if there are no jobs for them?

How Would Society Look Upon the Unemployed?

The unemployed would no longer have a productive role in society. They would still need to be consumers in order for the remaining 10 per cent to have work. The problem is, if they have no jobs, and therefore no income, how can they fulfil their role as consumers? If the unemployed do not consume, then many of the employed would not have work to do and would also become unemployed.

How would society provide for the unemployed if they made up 90 per cent of the population? Social welfare programs may be difficult to sustain because the employed could resent the unemployed. Even today we see the employed resent the unemployed. The unemployed are characterised as lazy and unwilling to work. Many politicians and their supporters question the need for programs to help the unemployed. Would these attitudes be much different if the unemployment rate were 90 per cent?

A vast social divide could open up between the employed and unemployed. The employed with their wealth and the unemployed with their numbers would struggle for political power. Democracy could be undermined and destroyed. How could this ever be resolved if it is impossible to find work for the unemployed?

What Would Life be like for the Unemployed?

Someone once observed “If you want to work and can’t find a job that is your problem; if a million people want to work and can’t find a job that is society’s problem.”

It would be very difficult for unemployed people to become employed. Without the opportunities to learn and practice work skills, they could rarely compete with those who already have jobs. For the vast majority finding a job would never be more than a dream.

Assume that an unemployed person with enough drive could work hard enough to get a job. However, he or she would just displace someone who already employed. The unemployment rate would still be 90 per cent. Even if allow that there could be some opportunity to grow the economy and provide jobs for more people, it is unlikely this could ever reduce a 90 per cent unemployment rate by more than a few percentage points.

Without social welfare programs, how would the unemployed survive? Maybe they could become entertainers. We might be seeing the beginnings of this in the growth of blogs, vlogs, and other social media. Who would consume this entertainment? As with welfare, this too could breed resentment between the employed and the unemployed. If the unemployed did nothing but post and read blogs, how would the employed feel?

Story Ideas

The core of story is conflict. In a world with 90 per cent unemployment, conflict would be unavoidable. This suggests couple of ideas that could develop into stories.

An unemployed person could struggle to become employed. They would have to overcome many barriers just to get the chance to learn and develop work skills. They would have to overcome the prejudice that the employed would have for the unemployed. Finally, if they succeed, they would have to work hard to find acceptance from both the people they work with and their old friends.

Conflict between the employed and the unemployed could lead to civic strife or even war. A revolution might only replace the old elite with a new elite. There would be no change for the rest of society. Another possibility is that wise leaders could resolve the conflict through negotiation.

Will readers empathise with the characters? I expect that the majority think they would be in the 10 per cent who have jobs. Ask yourself, in a world with 90 per cent unemployment, would you have a job?

Note: I originally posted this article on a different site in 2011.

1 Comment

  1. Unemployment in a future society will be caused by high productivity. Mechanization (machines of various types and functions, e.g. sewing machines, motor vehicles, farm machinery, robotic production lines, etc.), and robotics did, will and can make humans very productive. However, human beings reacted to higher productivity by higher consumption. This high consumption led to demand for higher come to support the higher consumption desired, in another word, greed. Therefore, hours of work did not reduce as productivity increases. If humans will work just enough hours to produce the same amount as in, say, year 2000, hours of work would be reduced. But we prefer to lower employment instead.

    May be the revolution is to force people to work less, play more (hence increase consumption), and let more people to have jobs. But that’s a job for labour unions.

    Now, let’s see what the world would be like if we only have to work an hour a day, or one day a week for five hours. May be a month a year. I think I like one month a year better.

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