Sunday, June 18, 2017

How will technological unemployment impact birthrate?

This blog post is a short exploration of a thought that hit me about how birth rates might be impacted by the changes in employment caused by future technological change. I consider technological unemployment to be a significant issue as AI and robotics continue to become more capable. I'm not going to support that belief in this post, as that is many posts worth of material. I will assume that to be the case here, and briefly explore one impact of it that I hadn't thought of until recently.

Birth rates have been decreasing in the developed world so much that in many countries, the death rate is larger than the birth rate. According to the CIA World Fact book, there were 26 nations in 2014 for which this was the case. Japan (-1.8 net) and Germany (-3.1 net) are the ones most commonly mentioned, but there are many others. A nice treatment of this can be found at There are a variety of reasons for this. Historically, the first was probably lower infant mortality rates. The more significant ones to me though are the ones that center on the increase in women's rights. As women gain more control over their their reproductive rights, they generally choose to have fewer children. In developed nations we are also seeing a decline in marriage rates and more women entering the workforce. Both of these tend to further reduce the birth rate. It is the last factor mentioned that I want to focus on, as it is the one most related to technological unemployment.

It is worth taking a few sentences to explain why these thoughts popped into my head. I often debate the future impacts of technology with a friend who we will just call by his last name, McLane. He doesn't believe that technological unemployment will be an issue, and one of the many reasons he has sited is articles about there not being enough people to work in countries that have low population growth. He is correct that there are a number of countries providing incentives for people to have kids because they are worried about not having enough people to care for the elderly and keep the economy moving forward. Given the variety of reasons for lower fertility rates, I can indeed imagine a day when the global population goes into a tailspin simply because there are no kids born.

So let's assume that McLane is wrong and we get technological unemployment and have to do something, possibly a basic income, so that a large fraction of the population can live a life with dignity is a world where they can't do anything to earn a living wage because everything they have the skills to do can be done better and cheaper by machines. What happens to the birth rate at that point?

I'm going to by optimistic and assume that in such a world, women have at least equal power in society relative to men. I also assume that women maintain general control over their reproductive rights, and generally have all the freedoms of men. (I can actually imagine women having more power at that time as there are indications that technological unemployment so far has hit men harder than women, so if more women have jobs than men for any period of time, they could be the gender with greater social power.) Still, you get a different dynamic when people aren't chasing careers. Right now both men and women often put much of their personal lives on hold until they are well established in a career. If we have a social structure where machines are doing so much of the work that people live comfortable lives without having careers, that changes.

One of the standard arguments that I hear "against" technological employment is that people get lots of meaning from their jobs. I use quotes, because that isn't really an argument for why it won't happen, just something that could cause problems if it does. Personally, I think that people can find meaning in lots of other things, like hobbies or families and friends, if they don't need to work to live a comfortable life. Let's be honest, lots of people today have rather meaningless jobs and they already get much more of the meaning for their lives from other activities.

Given that, I can see a scenario where the birth rate goes up, and people decide to spend a lot more of their time raising children and focusing on family life. Of course, I can also imagine a world where everyone is just watching things on their screens, they have little physical contact with other humans, and the birth rate continues to sink. I'm wondering what other people think? If technology takes away the need to chase a career, will birth rates in the developed world start to rise again, or will we be so far into a situation where we enjoy our technology that the idea of having kids and a family will continue to decline?