AI will spark massive disruptions to labor markets and there’s no social safety net that can contain the fallout, University of Chicago professor says

  • The job market will see “massive” disruption as AI becomes more prominent, a professor warned. 
  • Even more utopian forecasters have said AI could affect millions of jobs.
  • There’s no safety net that can contain the fallout from AI’s impact, Eric Posner argues. 

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Artificial intelligence will upend the job market even in the best-case scenario — and there’s no social safety net for workers who are at risk of being put permanently out of work,  according to University of Chicago professor Eric Posner.

In an op-ed for Project Syndicate, Posner pointed to growing concerns that the labor market will become increasingly dependent on AI, with some researchers warning a significant number of workers could be replaced by artificial intelligence technology in the coming decades. 90% of workers could have their jobs impacted by AI, and 9% of workers could be completely displaced by AI over the next 10 years, a 2024 study found.

Some tech commentators have said that those job losses could be supplemented by government aid, such as some form of universal basic income.

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However, that kind of aid doesn’t address a key problem stemming from an AI-fueled workforce: the possibility that many formerly employed people will suffer emotionally from the perception that they’re not contributing to society, Posner warned.

“Loss of self-esteem and a sense of meaning and usefulness is inevitable in a society that valorizes work and scorns the unemployed and unemployable,” Posner wrote. “Even if taxes or subsidies can keep alive jobs that produce less value than AI substitutes, they will merely be putting off the day of reckoning.”

The “antiwork” movement has gained traction in recent years as Americans, especially Gen Zers, shun exploitation by their employers and the grind that’s characterized other generations’ working experience. But most employed Americans seem to like their jobs: 51% of US employees said they were satisfied with their jobs overall, according to a 2023 Pew Research study.

Higher rates of unemployment have also been linked to rising depression, alcoholism, anxiety, and other mental health ailments, even in studies that control for income, Posner noted.

He pointed to the “China shock” that hit the US in the early 2000s, when a flood of cheap imports from China led to job losses for around 2 million Americans, according to a study from the Cato Institute. That shock attributed to a rising number of “poor mental health” days in the US, another study found. 

“Even if humans are able to adjust to a life of leisure in the long term, the most optimistic projections of AI productivity portend massive short-run disruptions to labor markets, akin to the impact of the China shock,” Posner said.

“That means substantial — and for many people, permanent — unemployment. There is no social safety net generous enough to protect people from the mental-health effects, and society from the political turmoil, that would follow from such widespread disappointment and alienation,” he added.

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Jennifer Sor