Questions for robots

Eighty years ago, Keynes famously predicted that within a century people would need to work no more than three hours per day. High living standards aided by technological breakthroughs would give human beings satisfying, minimal work and plentiful leisure, while robots and machines took over menial and repetitive labour. Less than twenty years before Keynes’ prediction is set to expire, reality has turned out quite differently.

Across the global North and South, those lucky to have jobs are working long hours. Factories across the global South, in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere, run around the clock with workers often clocking in for shifts over 12 hours at a time. Even the average US worker today works more hours annually than a medieval peasant. Western European countries, long considered social democratic bulwarks against the regime of relentless work, are not far behind and legislation shortening working time is under attack, despite stagnant employment.

Despite these trends, the argument that robots are set to make workers obsolete is still here. The technology revolution that finally fulfills the promise of labour-saving technology is always just around the corner. It is thus no surprise that today there are those who argue that this time the changes are real: technology is finally ready to displace workers like never before. Move over, cheap labour from the global South, there’s a new competitor in town in the race for the bottom. The bogeybot du jour has a white collar, takes its subsistence wage in watts and won’t even think about signing a union card.