September 28, 2023

Today’s slackers come in roughly three varieties. The most obvious suspects are those millennials and Gen Zers who never returned to work after the COVID shutdown. Mom’s basement, a bag of Cheetos, and an iPhone or Xbox are all they need to achieve nirvana. Gen Xers who are quiet quitting and doing the least work possible to get by constitute the second wave. The third consists of people like me; we are retired boomers who could return to work but don’t because we don’t have to. In my case, I teach a college course part-time because it amuses me and I like to teach. I’ll never have to work full-time again, but some of the Gen Xers may get fired for nonproductivity and will need to find another place of employment before they hit Social Security age. When Mom dies, some of the sheltered millennials will have to do the same thing, but many will eventually find that the jobs they seek have been taken by robots. They will have cut their own throats.

In the small town in western New York where I spend the temperate months, I occasionally have coffee in the morning with the owner/manager of a local fast food franchise. He confided in me that he longs for the day when his whole operation will be automated. His French fry station is already robotic, and he says it is “heaven.” There are no pimply-faced teenagers who oversleep or quit without notice. The chain has already queried him as to whether he would be interested in an experimental operation nearly totally run by artificial intelligence robots. He answered “yes” enthusiastically.

The potential of AI is not just in the area of fast food. There are already convenience stores that are almost completely automated, and Walmart is making it difficult to find a human cashier at the checkout line. We will very soon see both long-haul truckers and taxi/Uber drivers replaced by robots that don’t need rest time, violate traffic laws, or do drugs. Much of elder care in Japan is already being done by robots.

Inroads into the realm of human employment are not limited to blue-collar and service jobs. AI is increasingly reaching into the cubicles of white-collar America. The time is rapidly approaching when air freight operations by FedEx and UPS may eliminate human pilots altogether. I personally don’t ever want to board an airliner without at least one human in the cockpit, but the current pilot shortage may see increasing automation in the air transport industry. The personal computer quickly eliminated secretarial pools in the ’90s, but analysts, legal assistants, tax accountants, and a variety of other jobs that require mid-level skills will be increasingly at risk. Consequently, the new underclass will not include just high school dropouts. It may well embrace those with college degrees in gender studies, African American history, and a variety of other feel-good majors who will find no entry-level opportunities for their dubious skillsets.

How we will support this emerging non-proletariat of idled masses may well become the raging political-economic issue of the next decades. Progressives will want to tax corporations, which will make it hard to compete with companies in less compassionate societies that are more willing to let their unemployed and underemployed fend for themselves. Conservatives may suggest taxing the work of the robots themselves to compensate for the income taxes that the displaced humans once paid. More disturbing may be the social upheaval caused by a generation of people with too much time on their hands. The futurists of the 1930s envisioned a utopian world where workers would be freed from the drudgery of the assembly line to think great thoughts and do creative things. Unfortunately, there are only so many “thoughts to be thunk,” poems to be written, or songs to be sung for the unwashed masses seeking a living.

There is some hope in the fact that AI is not likely to displace skilled trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring, and the like. The nation will also need infantrymen, SEALs, Rangers, and combat engineers. Thus, the military will likely be a continuing option. Many millennials have found new kinds of jobs in the ethereal world of social media. I have no idea what an influencer, a chief evangelist, or a chief of inspiration is; but there is apparently money to be made in those areas. However, it does appear that such jobs will not provide Generation Z with a stable employment base for the majority. There is a possibility that we will see a modern Luddite movement that demands that the robots be deactivated, making room for the less efficient, but more needy human employees.

All of this will present major issues for future politicians. Rome faced a similar situation as she became a superpower. The largely unemployed urban mob that had been small farmers was displaced by large estates worked by slaves obtained in wars of conquest. They drifted to Rome, where the Roman governmental response was bread and circuses. Woe be the emperor who failed to keep the grain ships from Egypt flowing or who allowed the unemployed masses to become bored with insufficient entertainment.

In the near term, Gen X slackers are most at risk if employers can find AI to do their jobs before they hit retirement age. If that happens, the Xers will be in a great deal of trouble. As for the Gen Z slackers, they might seriously consider finding a good trade school before Mom kicks the bucket and while she can still pay the tuition costs.

Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott Scholl of International Affairs. He first explored the impact of AI and robotics as the Director of the Marine Corps Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities.