Of course, it remains to be seen how all this plays out. We know that new technologies can create new modes of employment, as well as destroying old ones. But it’s hard to see a way around the broad megatrend. As the Economist columnist Ryan Avent points out in The Wealth of Humans, we’re building economies in which ever-fewer people are needed to support ever-more stupendous output.
And that’s a problem, for a whole series of reasons. Not least: what are all those economically unnecessary people — billions of them — going to do? They could simply do nothing. But we’ve never lived in societies where millions of young and able people have no perceived social or economic value. The historian Yuval Harari has even predicted the emergence of a new and massive ‘useless class’, and consequent upheaval as social and political relevance drains away from the vast mass of people and clusters around a tiny new economic elite.
And besides the political implications, what kind of life would that be? What use would we be making of all that human potential Aging populations and automation both pose huge challenges. But if we put the two together, they start to look like two interlocking pieces of a larger puzzle.