Recently, the government has seen fit to dump a collection of hobos into my part of the ghetto. For a long time we were bum free, then one day we had four or five camping in shrubbery, behind buildings and so forth. One was completely insane, running into the street screaming at people. The others just look like men down on their luck, as we used to say. They stay out of the way and they don’t panhandle, at least as far as I can tell.
The one guy I see, on my way to and from the office, never seems to move from the clump of bushes he now calls home. It was raining today and he had an umbrella, so he could guard his camp, I suppose. The bum’s life is a mystery to me, but my hunch is the sheer boredom of it alters them psychologically, assuming they are something close to sane before they hit the streets. This one looks like a drunk to me, but that’s a guess.
Still, imagine what it must be like to wake up every day knowing you have no reason to exist. The crazy ones are probably lucky in that regard. The drunks and drug addicts sober up long enough to realize they are just extra people that have no purpose and the world has no use for them. Presumably, their addictions are what landed them on the streets, but that realization is probably what keeps them there. What’s the point?
Once in my life, I was out of work for an extended period. The career I was in had run its course so I was in need of a course correction. I had some money put away that I could use to take some time off to figure out my next move. The first month was great. I enjoyed all the things I never had time to do when working. Then it got boring and my sleep started getting weird. I realized that I was not built for retirement or extended unemployment.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of the “work sets you free” types. I like goofing off as much as anyone. It’s just that I need a reason to get up in the morning. I need a purpose and it does not need to be a grand purpose. Even a job stocking shelves would be enough, just as long as I know I’m part of the world. I don’t think I’m an outlier. My general impression is most people have the itch that is best scratched by having a job.
Fear of the robot revolution mostly focuses on the economics of a world without work, but there is that other side and it may be more important. Let’s pretend the robots figure out how to keep us in material goods beyond any reasonable expectation. Without some purpose, lots of people will get bored and then go a little crazy. Crazy bums are a manageable problem. Crazy bored smart people may not be manageable.
That’s the other thing about the robot revolution. It’s assumed that the laboring classes will be hit first. That may not be the case. I was talking with a friend over the holiday and he is fairly sure he will be out of a career soon. He is in the money business and much of what he does is being taken over by software. The algorithms are so good there is no need for the smart guy who trades on math, rather than emotion or experience.
It’s not just that the machines are replacing people. What automation often does is reduce the skills required of certain jobs. In the industrial age, automation replaced the skilled craftsman with a local yokel, who would work cheap. Similarly, smart experienced people in the investment game are being replaced with younger, cheaper people who will push the green button when it flashes and the red button when it flashes, like bond traders do now.
The robot revolution is not going to happen overnight, but a lot of smart people in their middle years, see the writing on the wall. Baby Boomers have not prepared adequately for their retirement, but at least they had a job until retirement. The next generation is facing a great dislocation in the second half of their prime working years. If “greedy geezers” are warping our politics, just imagine what a wave of pissed off middle-aged people will do.
We may be getting a glimpse of it with the alt-right. It’s hard not to notice that the movement is mostly young males. There are plenty Gen-X people, but they are the geezers of the movement. The irreverence and subversiveness are only partially driven by youth. There’s a healthy disdain for the culture too. The alt-right is a rejection of the modern American culture, by people who think the culture has rejected them.
As the middle-aged people begin to wonder what’s the point, many will do like the hobos at the start of this post. They will find ways to lose themselves in drugs, booze and despondency. Some will get into the sort of dissident politics we see with the alt-right, while others may even find more radical ways to find purpose in their lives. Men need a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. If work is not it, then something else will fill the void. The robot masters may learn that idle hands do the devil’s work.