Should Robots Pay Into Social Security?

This provocative question was floated by futurist Arnold Brown last week at the Employee Benefits Research Institute’s latest biannual conference in Washington. Brown was discussing trends as part of a panel discussion focused on what the future may bring in employee benefits over the next 35 years. He knows a bit about trends: Brown is co-author of FutureThink, a bestseller that’s been translated into eight languages and is used as a text in business schools and is co-founder of Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., a well-known trend-tracking firm.

roobot“This recession has masked a profound transformation of the nature of work and jobs,” he said. “It’s not just about outsourcing — it’s about ‘other sourcing.’ ”

By “other,” Brown meant automation — specifically, software and, yes, robots, who will soon be doing even more complex work than they are today, with the result that humans will continue to be displaced.

“We’ve seen a big resurgence of manufacturing in this country, to the point that we now rank just behind China in manufacturing output, but this has not been accompanied by a resurgence in jobs — in fact, the manufacturing industry has continued to shed jobs,” he said. “Why? Because many of those advanced manufacturing jobs are being done by robots.”

While most jobs performed by robots today are in manufacturing, that will change as artificial intelligence continues to advance, said Brown, and even some jobs that today require a college education will eventually be performed by automatons.

The shrinking pool of jobs available to humans won’t mean the actual number of humans will decline, he said, which presents an obvious question: Who will be paying into the benefit and entitlement programs those humans rely upon?

“How are you going to fund programs like Social Security, for example? Should the companies that rely upon robots pay into Social Security on their behalf?” said Brown. “These issues will have to be addressed.”

Other trends that are reshaping the nature of work include the rapid adoption of 3D printers, which will put still more workers out of their jobs and give rise to a potential cottage industry “much like that which existed prior to the Industrial Revolution” and the burgeoning part-time workforce, he said. All of this will continue to put greater pressure on state and local taxes as work hours shrink, said Brown.

“Where will the tax revenue be coming from?” he asked. “It all means that the old model of a contract between employer and employee is obsolete. These trends tell us the paternalistic employer of bygone days is increasingly unlikely. The possibility of an entirely different, unprecedented relationship between company and employee will be profound.”