For centuries, experts/futurists have predicted that machines would someday make workers obsolete. And now it's finally happening, sporadically, here and there, yet steadily and implacably, and ever more widespread.
The complete end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio -- a moment its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown's steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a home-ownership rate that were among the nation's highest. But as manufacturing moved overseas nationwide, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its huge Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Youngstown was transformed not only by an economic disruption but also by a psychological and cultural breakdown. Depression, spousal abuse, and suicide all became much more prevalent; the caseload of the area's mental-health center tripled within a decade. As crime became more prevalent, the city built four prisons in the mid-1990s, thus providing badly needed employment and a rare growth industry. In addition, one of the very few downtown construction projects of that period was a museum dedicated to the defunct steel industry.
Youngstown has become a national metaphor for the decline of labor, a place where the middle class of the 20th century has become a museum exhibit.
"Youngstown's story is America's story, because it shows that when jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroyed," says John Russo, a professor of labor studies at Youngstown State University. "The cultural breakdown matters even more than the economic breakdown."
In the past few years, even as the United States has pulled itself partway out of the jobs hole created by the Great Recession, some economists and technologists have warned that the economy is near a tipping point again. When they peer deeply into labor-market data, they see troubling signs, masked for now by a cyclical semi-recovery. And when they look up from their spreadsheets, they see automation high and low -- robots creeping in everywhere: even in the operating room and behind the fast-food counter. They see self-driving cars snaking through all the streets and Amazon drones dotting the sky, replacing millions of drivers, warehouse stockers, and retail workers. They observe that the capabilities of machines -- already formidable -- continue to expand exponentially, while our own (human capabilities) remain the same. And they wonder: Is any job truly safe?
Futurists and science-fiction writers have at times looked forward to machines' workplace takeover with a kind of giddy excitement, imagining the banishment of drudgery and its replacement by expansive leisure and almost limitless personal freedom. And make no mistake: if the capabilities of computers continue to multiply while the price of computing continues to decline, that will mean a great many luxuries will become more available -- to the ever smaller numbers of fully employed, and it will also mean great wealth . . at the top.