The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one 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 homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing 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. The city built four prisons in the mid-1990s—a rare growth industry. One of the few downtown construction projects of that period was a museum dedicated to the defunct steel industry.
This winter, I traveled to Ohio to consider what would happen if technology permanently replaced a great deal of human work. I wasn’t seeking a tour of our automated future. I went because 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. When they peer deeply into labor-market data, they see troubling signs, masked for now by a cyclical recovery. And when they look up from their spreadsheets, they see automation high and low—robots in the operating room and behind the fast-food counter. They imagine self-driving cars snaking through 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 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 of life’s necessities and luxuries will become ever cheaper, and it will mean great wealth—at least when aggregated up to the level of the national economy.