Filler: Imagine a world without work

What would the United States be like if

What would the United States be like if there was no human workforce yet plenty of everything that people need? (Credit: iStock)

Lane Filler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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A San Francisco company is selling a machine that can do every task to serve 360 burgers per hour, unless you count dripping sweat from its nose onto the bun. It can -- to your order -- grind and sear the meat, cut the tomato and onion, apply the condiments and put it all together.

It's going to destroy a lot of jobs. If there's one nearby, it will destroy a lot of my pants.

And it makes me wonder, as more low-skill jobs are displaced by technology: What would the United States be like if there were a huge group of citizens for whom there was no work, yet plenty of everything that people need? Would we all share? Should we?

For most of history we defined "participants in the workforce" as practically everyone healthy enough to stand up. School for the masses is a modern invention. So is the idea of healthy retirees.

We hunted and gathered, sowed and reaped. We made shelters and clothes and shoes. And, lately, we engaged in industrial tasks that increased productivity but didn't take much brains, using shuttles and looms and drills and lathes.

Work was what humans did, practically all of them, practically every waking minute, to provide for their needs.

Now the workforce, measured as people older than 16 who toil for money, or hope to, is shrinking. In the United States, it topped out at 66 percent in 2000 and has been dipping since. It is now 63 percent. It could keep shrinking.

Yet with fewer working, there are no shortages here: not of food or clothes or medicine or cars or entertainment devices or baffling arrays of implements (What exactly is a Swiffer?) to clean floors.

Part of the decline is due to an aging society, and a sour economy that has made retirement a more attractive option, or the only option. But there's a potentially permanent issue.

When this nation was founded, 98 percent of workers toiled in agriculture. Then came industrialization, with millions of workers producing automobiles in Detroit and textiles in South Carolina. They mined coal in Scranton and made steel in Pittsburgh and built airplanes in Bethpage.

But look into a factory or farm or mine today and you'll see a lot fewer people and a lot more machines than 50 years ago. Building those machines creates jobs, but not the kind regular Joes and Janes can do, and not as many of them as hands-on farming and factory work once demanded.

We can barely imagine the advances in productivity and technology to come, or how many workers they'll displace.

Imagine a world so automated that hardly any menial labor can still be done most productively by humans, and much of the work done by humans can only be done by very smart, educated ones. Imagine that in the year 2114, workforce participation has shrunk to 33 percent, because the services of the other two-thirds are not needed, yet the nation is more awash in plenty than ever.

Do we give unemployed workers food, clothing, shelter, holographic telephones and the harmless recreational drugs I keep waiting for scientists to invent? If so, why? They've done nothing to earn these things. If not, why not? There is no shortage. How much can the earners eat? How many homes can they inhabit?

If we provide for these nonproducers, do we let them have kids, and provide for the kids? Can humans be happy without meaningful work to do?

And can the ideas of liberalism and conservatism, developed when goods were scarce and work plentiful, be morally or reasonably applied in a world where work is scarce and goods plentiful?

These are things I wonder about, although not as much as I wonder how to get ahold of one of those burger machines.