A child interacts with a robot at Kuromon Market in Osaka, Japan.
For decades, environmental scientists raised alarms about overpopulation, its compounding effects on the climate and the inevitable limit to the planet’s carrying capacity. And while the agricultural Green Revolution and lower birth rates put off mass starvation and allowed us to look away from the bigger problem of overconsumption in the Global North, now it seems the shoe is on the other foot with fears of population decline making the news instead. Nowhere is this about-face more obvious than in China, where concern over fewer births has come less than a decade after the country ended its one-child policy.
At best, the accompanying doom and gloom over labor shortages and supply chains appears foolhardy when taken into the context of the robot revolution currently unfolding in just about every industry. At worst, these fears around population decline reflect a lack of vision beyond skyrocketing profits built on an ever-expanding base of consumers and cheap workers. But the convergence of a declining population with artificial intelligence (AI) capable of relieving the burden of labor actually presents a unique opportunity in human history — one in which everyone is free to pursue meaningful work with purpose.
It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario when the narrative of creating jobs has dominated politics and economics for as long as any of us can remember. Just as self-serve gas, ATMs and self-checkouts have rallied cries of lost jobs, the trend continues with robotization. So it’s no surprise that an AI-powered McDonald’s being tested in Texas has been accused of threatening “millions of jobs."
That may have been a reasonable concern when there were more workers than there were jobs, but it is baffling when taken into the context of a shrinking labor force. There are 400,000 fewer workers in the restaurant industry now than there were before the pandemic. Between the stress, low pay, unpredictable hours and poor treatment, restaurant jobs — and fast-food jobs in particular — could arguably be considered some of the worst out there. With the U.S. population screeching towards zero growth, the labor shortage in the industry is also unlikely to abate. So, why not automate?
Of course, the labor shortage isn’t limited to fast food or even restaurants in general. Other areas of hospitality and retail are suffering too, as are healthcare, education and transportation — with too heavy of a burden placed on too few staff. The resulting burnout has led to an exodus of workers, with not enough new ones available to take their place. Paige Ouimet, a professor of finance at the University of North Carolina, told the Washington Post: “When you look at the jobs that are having trouble hiring, it’s the ones with really long hours, inflexible schedules, not great pay and limited benefits.”
In other words, the jobs that can’t be filled are not great jobs to begin with. But by automating within these industries, some of the burden of labor can be relieved from the workers who are left, thus improving their job satisfaction.
By shifting our perspective away from creating jobs and focusing instead on how to get the work done most efficiently via AI in light of population decline, humankind can create an enormous opportunity for itself. But such an opportunity won’t just happen. It requires strategic planning to ensure the most miserable forms of labor are automated first — namely, those jobs that are often erroneously referred to as “unskilled” labor — along with the implementation of a universal basic income (UBI) and access to free job training, apprenticeship programs and education.
Naturally, such a scenario would be a nightmare for some of the loudest alarmists over population decline. It will be pretty difficult to round up enough colonists for Mars unless enough people are miserable enough to want to leave Earth after all.
The population doesn’t need to keep expanding in order to avoid collapse — we can do more with fewer people by harnessing the power of technology. In truth, automation will happen regardless. The choice is between embracing and planning for it so that we can create a world where all people can pursue work that gives them purpose, or falling into it at the mercy of whatever the market forces decide, potentially leading to mass unemployment and squandering our opportunity to change the nature of work for the masses of people not born into privilege.
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.