One of the things I’ve been contemplating for quite a long time is the inevitable impact of automation and technology on the traditional concept of “working for a living.”

There are at least two major forces in play that will change the way we think about how individual members of society add value to society and gain reward for doing so.

1. Automation and technology will replace at least 80% of the jobs most people do today, especially young and/or unskilled workers. Flipping burgers, stocking shelves, running cash registers, digging ditches, mowing lawns… all of that will be gone. Even the jobs of many skilled workers will fade into the sunset as cars, trucks, taxis, airplanes, buses and any other means of transportation are controlled by automated driving systems. Building homes will be replaced with giant machines that create a home in place according to architectural plans that are both standardized and customizable at the touch of a computer screen. It is hard to come up with a job that is not in a creative field that will not be replaced or greatly diminished by automated systems. That simply means there will not be enough work to employ a majority of human beings. Not the way we currently think of “work” anyway.

2. Wealth generation has become increasingly divorced from human muscle and skill for over a century now. This trend is also accelerating. The first things to be automated will be factories that make stuff that used to be made by people. In a short time the limiting factor on the production of goods will not be the availability of muscle, skill and resources, instead it will be the lack of liquid cash alone. Which is interesting since liquid cash is supposedly simply a means to facilitate the production of goods and services. That strongly suggests that we need a new economic model, one which eventually totally divorces the concept of “working for a living” from the ability to amass goods and receive services. At some point in the future it will be pointless to make people “work” for basic necessities of life, including housing, food, water and a wide selection of consumer products including most of what people spend their hard-earned money on today.

Obamacare is, perhaps intentionally, perhaps coincidentally, accelerating this. Pretty soon you will start seeing a push for the work week to be reduced, probably to 32 hours at first, but eventually to 20 hours or less. This will be the first order approximation to adjust to a new world where human muscle and skill is no longer the driving force of the economy. But in the end I believe “work” will be completely divorced from the economics of basic human needs, and “work” will then become what people do to earn status alone. And status will have some other markers than “money”. I’m not sure what it will be, but it will probably be some sort of social ranking that is attained through investment of time and effort into creative endeavors such as the arts, or contributing to social improvements through teaching, mentoring or organizing cultural activities.

There will still be some level of direction that will require humans to run, at least until the worldwide artificial intelligence eventually takes over that too. But that will be determined through the social status, not through the acquisition of wealth. I can see a time in the not so distant future where being the world’s best video game player provides the status that is needed for someone to become a political power.