Whatever Happened to the Leisure Society?

Back in the Jurassic, there was once a view that the Western world was approaching a “Leisure Society”. With increasing energy use and consequent growing productivity, people would not have to work so hard. No more 12 hour 6 day work-weeks. But as societal rot spread in the following years, that kind of talk disappeared.

However, this article in the Asia Times about factory automation makes one stop & think:
Robotic upside to China’s demographic decline – Asia Times
At the end of 2021, the total worldwide installed base of industrial robots was almost 3.5 million units – with more than one million, or close to 30%, deployed in China. That compares with 12% in Japan, 10% in South Korea, 9% in the US and 7% in Germany.

The video in the article describes how a Chinese manufacturer of air conditioning units replaced 24,000 operators with 800 robots – and that was nearly 6 years ago! On the one hand, this may suggest that the much-touted decline in China’s population could have little impact on China’s global manufacturing supremacy. On the other hand, that is a lot of people now with time on their hands – and presumably their numbers will grow as automation increases. What are societies going to do with all that surplus labor?

We know what happened in the West. Instead of a Leisure Society, we got a vast expansion of disguised unemployment (aka Big Education) and a vast expansion in production-destroying activities, such as Big Law and Big Regulation. People had jobs, but those jobs were sand in the gears, making society poorer overall. What we did not see was an FDR-style Works Progress Administration, using surplus labor to paint murals, write books, and build nature trails.

One of the advantages of being China and following behind the development of the West is that they can see what worked and what did not. Perhaps China will pay its growing labor surplus to write many versions of the Great Chinese Novel? But what about us? Can we find a way to step back from employing so many people to obstruct progress and instead use that vast human potential to do something constructive?