Modern technology and automation is making our lives easier every day. Virtually every task humans do is also done faster, cheaper, better by some automatic process with a silicon chip inside it. These automation processes started showing up a few centuries ago and started changing human life in fundamental ways in the last 100 years. The pace started slow with a steepening incline of progress. Today, we face a challenge never faced by humans before: what to do.
Free time was always a part of human living. It took the Industrial Revolution to transform human stock into expendable machines. In hunter and gatherer days, man would spend large amounts of time idle, pursuing whatever created interest. We can still see a few remaining fragments of art at historical sites. Hunting parties might extend for days or even weeks. Once game was slaughtered and the meats cured, the pantry was full for an extended period of time. Weeks, even month were free to build monuments, create art, and tell stories around the fire.
Then the Agricultural Revolution arrived. Man had his first taste of what was yet to come. Humans were now slave to the ox and land. Working the land and domesticating animals kept man busier than hunter/gatherer days. Hunched over the plow all day brought the first lower back pain for the species. Humans worked more hours than ever. But once the crops were planted there was free time, followed by a flurry of activity harvesting the crops. Then, man settled in for a long winter season of leisure.
The Cognitive Revolution in man occurred about 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, the Industrial Revolution a few hundred years ago. Now we are entering the Information Revolution.
The pattern is clear. Each revolution in the human condition is shorter than the previous. The difference this time is the revolution may change humans to the very core forever. Humans as we know them now may very well cease to exist.
Or the species may finally, after 12,000 years, be returning to its roots with technology allowing us to live longer and happier lives with plenty of time to explore our mental pleasures.
Think how our world is on the cusp of a change like never before. Name one job that can’t be replaced by technology or automation. There is one and only one. I’ll share that in a bit.
Cars now drive themselves. It is only a matter of time before self-driving vehicles become the preferred mode of transportation. There go all the truck driving jobs, along with Uber drivers.
Tesla is nearing completion of the gigafactory in Nevada. People do not understand how many batteries this factory will produce. When fully operational, the Tesla battery factory will produce more batteries in one year than all batteries produced from the beginning of time by man. You have to stand in awe on what that means for the way we live.
And batteries are still in their infancy! Technology will make batteries more efficient a decade than they are now. Tesla’s plant is like the first Model T Ford facility. More and better is to come. If automobiles fundamentally changed our society, what will this single technology do? And what about all the other emerging technologies? Artificial intelligence hasn’t even begun yet. But it will soon. A lot of very intelligent people are working on the issues and history tells us we will get there faster and faster.
The cost of energy will drop over 90% in only a few decades. Batteries will allow a smooth energy production schedule. No more expensive and polluting peaking power plants when storage technology makes alternative energy even better. Roofing materials now can gather energy and store it in a Tesla Powerwall and in your vehicle. No longer do we talk about the technology coming online in a decade. It is here now!
Learning to Live in the New World Order
Life is changing fast. Guys like Mr. Money Mustache show us how to retire by age 30. Tim Ferriss goes one step further and says you can have a 4-hour workweek a 4-hour body, and be a 4-hour chef. I’m only a country accountant, but I can do simple math pretty darn fast. If you work 4 hours a week, exercise 4 hours, and cook for four hours, you have a lot of hours to do what you want. There are 168 hours to a week. Take out the Tim Ferriss hours and you have 156 hours left. We all know we should get 8 hours of sleep a day so there goes another 56 hours every week.
Holy shit! We have a full 100 hours to do what we want. I don’t know about you, but I am not that good at sitting still. Wars have started from people with less free time on their hands.
There is a solution. Machines can handle routine work and technology can simplify our lives. Machines can even think. But there is one thing computers will probably never be able to do: think cognitively.
Humans became modern humans when they began thinking cognitively 70,000 years ago. The process was slow and took millennia for the species to reach the next level of mental growth. We are returning to those fundamental roots of our ancestors.
Cognitive thinking is more than learning. Computers are doing that already and will improve rapidly. The kind of thinking I am referring to involves reasoning and understanding. A computer program can learn to anticipate an action the more data points it gathers. But solving a new problem is out of a computer’s reach. The program doesn’t even know the question to ask. People tell the computer the question and set the learning parameters.
All future jobs will involve cognitive thinking. Every job you see today will be replaced in whole or in part by technology. Even your favorite accountant sees the handwriting on the wall. Thirty years ago I started my practice with some new-fangled BS I think they called, ah, e-filing. Good thing I didn’t throw my hands in the air and say, “That’ll never catch on.”
In the last 34 years my accounting firm has morphed into a different firm four times. The first company was the old-styled paper and pencil tax firm. Then I stepped forward with e-filing before my competitors saw me coming. Then I merged traditional accounting services like payroll and bookkeeping into a small framework. Now the firm is changing again. The payroll department was sold into a partnership, bookkeeping is radically changing into a point and click system, and taxes are more scan than enter. So what remains for the new company? Consulting. The computer can prepare taxes just fine. What it can’t do is think ahead in an all-encompassing way. Technology will do all the things my company did before. All I will do is thinking cognitively. And there will be plenty of that to do.
In the Middle
So how does Pete (Mr. Money Mustache) and Tim Ferriss do it? Well, I don’t know so much about Tim, but I do know Pete. Pete recently finished a studio and gave an awesome write-up in his blog. He loves construction projects. A few years back I mentioned an interest in moving out to Colorado. One day Pete tells me he had some properties I might be interested in. I said I was waiting until my youngest finished high school. He sounded depressed as he said he agreed with my decision. I think he was excited about a remodeling project he could work with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had a change of mind. A change of venue to a better climate is a fond idea, but NE Wisconsin is my home and where my heart will always be. Pete, if you read this: I am sorry.
Pete and Tim are true trail blazers. They are showing us the way to a future we cannot avoid. Tim spends his time coming up with new ideas on how to live, same as Pete. Tim’s style is different, for sure, but it all comes down to the same thing: cognitive thinking. No computer has come up with a novel idea without a human behind the controls feeding in the question. Tim says we can get stuff done faster and better with his methods. Sure, but that leaves us with even more free time to do . . .
You better get comfortable with thinking; not always a strong suit of the species. The added free time means you can spend time with those people who live with you. You know, the one you promised to spend the rest of your life with and the little short ones you helped bring into this world. There will be loving moments, but the bulk of your time will be spent exploring the mind. Exploring the world around you with your family will be a large part of the future. Not only do you get to marry your lover, you get to spend time with them. What a concept! And those mini humans, they are hungry for your attention. You have the time to share with them.
What about Money!
Oh, yes. Money. My guess is the workweek will need to shrink to 20 hours on average. More than Tim Ferriss thinks is necessary, but what Keith Schroeder *thinks* will be the endgame. And retirement will come sooner than you think whether you are ready or not. You will work less and wages will remain stagnant. But costs will collapse. If energy costs drop 90% you need less to live. If it costs less to shingle the roof, it lasts longer, and produces energy too, there is another expense going the way of the dodo. The only economic issue of significance involves government debt. How they will pay it off is beyond me. Good thing we all will have more time to think about it. Computers and technology will not find the solution, but they will probably complete the task when some smart humans come up with the idea.
Money will still be needed. With fewer jobs and hours available the issue of a living income arises. The first mention of a living wage I can find showed up in the 1930s* as the worldwide depression raged on. The idea work would never return due to mechanization was premature. This time is not different; we just finally reached the endgame people intuitively knew we would.
We all will live somewhere between Mr. Money Mustache and Tim Ferris whether we like it or not. Early retirement stories are hot news stories now. In the near future early retirement will not be a choice so plan accordingly. Or we can work more years, but fewer hours per week.
I think about my own work as a business owner. If you take all the dead time and talking with people, I really don’t work that many hours. And until I got crazy and opened my doors to a worldwide clientele, my life was very simple. I worked reasonable hours for 2 ½ months followed by virtually no organized work the remainder of the year. I spent my days playing on my farm, reading, thinking, and planning. Learning is what I do. It is what Warren Buffett does. It is what Pete and Tim do. It is what you will be doing. It isn’t a choice. It is the world we live in.
Your favorite job is obsolete. You will create your job in the future. Get used to it.
* I am reading It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1935, and there is a brief mention of a living income. Warren Buffett also likes the idea of expanding the Earned Income Credit to guarantee everyone receive $15 an hour through a tax credit if their skills do not garner $15 per hour. The new EIC would provide a much larger credit to those without children too. Interesting ideas we will have to face in the very near future.