Episode 625: The Last Job : Planet Money What if robots did all the work? In today's show, we imagine a world without jobs.
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Episode 625: The Last Job

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Episode 625: The Last Job

Episode 625: The Last Job

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DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, we're trying something new.

KESTENBAUM: A work of fiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE TRUTH")

DIANA MCNERNEY: (As John Kirsch) Can you turn on the light in here? Hey, hello? Can somebody turn on the light please? I know what you people are doing.

LOUIS KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) What do you think we're doing?

KESTENBAUM: This a project we've been working on for some time now with Jonathan Mitchell. Jonathan produces the great podcast called The Truth. They make these sort of audio movies.

GOLDSTEIN: And we reached out to him 'cause we had this one question; what would the world be like if all the jobs went away?

KESTENBAUM: There are some very smart people out there arguing that machines and computers are stealing our jobs and that when these jobs go away, they will not be replaced, that in the future, there are just going to be fewer and fewer jobs.

GOLDSTEIN: Now, you could imagine in this world, you know, because computers and machines, robots are so good at making stuff, stuff gets really cheap. So everybody has plenty of good food. Everybody has a nice place to live. Everybody has all the stuff they want. There just aren't that many jobs.

KESTENBAUM: It's leisure world.

GOLDSTEIN: Right. And is that a - it's like - I don't know. Is that a dream, or is that a nightmare?

KESTENBAUM: This sounds like a kind of science-fictiony (ph) question, but John Maynard Keynes, the economist, wrote about it way back in 1930. And for him, the idea of an age of leisure was kind of worrying. He pointed out that for thousands and thousands of years, humans have had to work to survive. It is the entire history of our species. We've evolved to work. Maybe we need to work.

GOLDSTEIN: Today on the show - what happens when there's no more work.

KESTENBAUM: No one knows.

GOLDSTEIN: So we made it up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for PLANET MONEY and this message comes from Dropbox, maker of Dropbox for Business. The average person regularly collaborates on five or more different file types. Dropbox for Business lets you work with team members on any file from Word docs to PDFs to Photoshop images and large videos. Share files of any size. Access them on phones and tablets and gather feedback from your team. Dropbox for Business also features admin controls to keep collaboration secure. Learn more at dropbox.com/npr.

KESTENBAUM: All right. Here it is. If you got headphones, put them on. Maybe go for a walk. Sit down in a chair. Close your eyes. This is a work of audio fiction. It is called "The Last Job."

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE LAST JOB")

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) A long time ago, back in the 21st century, what did our ancestors do with their time? They worked. Some of them worked so much they came up with a name for it - workaholic. And just as we've set ourselves free from prejudice, free from war, free from every known form of cancer, we've also set ourselves free from work. Technological progress has made society so efficient that you never need to work a day in your life. We solved all of our economic problems a long time ago, and here we are.

Your only problem now is to figure out what to do with your time. You're living in the age of leisure. You walk down the street, and what do you see? You see social clubs and coffeehouses, galleries, theaters, music venues, happenings. The world is full of art and relaxation and joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) The hottest nightclub in town is the old New York Stock Exchange. There are so many parties going on that we need designated quiet zones, which is easy with our noise cancellation technology. Here, listen to this.

(MUSIC STOPS)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Pretty neat, huh?

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Just a second.

Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Why aren't you out there?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I'm just finishing up some work.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dad, it's my birthday.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I'll be right there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) My friends want to meet you.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Guilt trip received.

Whatever your heart's desire, it's available and accessible to anyone, any time, and it's all thanks to the automation system I help maintain. I work for Quality Control.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Keeping our jobless rate above 90 percent is a full-time job.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) My specialty is robotics, mostly alignment and replacement. I help keep our society in perfect working order so everyone stays happy, safe and comfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Thanks Quality Control.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The robots need to do their jobs, and that's our job. We're Quality Control.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) Time to wake up, time to wake up, time to wake up.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Thanks, Cocoa (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) Good morning, David.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I do this job so that everyone else can spend their day doing exactly what their heart desires. And when I get up in the morning, I look outside and I see people relaxed, throwing a Frisbee, enjoying their lives. What I see is a well-oiled machine. And I'm just proud to know that I helped make that possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BOX)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) That's odd. Hey, where did this come from?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dad, I'm trying to sleep.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Are you going to sleep your life away? Come on, where'd you get this music box?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) It was my - it was a birthday present.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Are you going to go back to sleep, or are you going to talk to me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) I'm going to go back to sleep, OK?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) No, wrong answer. Who gave this to you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dexter.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Dexter? Dexter, who? Do I know him?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dexter Batson (ph). Why do you care?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) 'Cause it's broken. Here listen, listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BOX)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dad.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BOX)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dad...

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Do you hear that? It's defective.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) You're overreacting.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I have to file a report.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dad.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I need to take this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Dad, no. Come on.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) It's my job.

Have you looked inside of a music box? It's a beautiful piece of machinery - simple. Every little piece has a specific purpose. There's a crank that spins a roller. And on the roller, there's these little dimples that each pluck a different note. It's problems like these that cause chain reactions, push entire factories into meltdown - seen it before. What if all the music boxes are like this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) None of my music boxes are like this.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) But you make all the music boxes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yeah, but my robots didn't make this.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) You're not making any sense.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm the minister of novelties. I'm the only person who works here, so if anyone would know...

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) All right. Well, if your robots didn't make this, then where did it come from?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Why don't you tell me? You're the one that marched in here with it.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Listen, this is not a joke. We have regulations for a reason. If there's an alignment problem in this factory, I'll shut the whole thing down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Maybe you made this music box. How - can you prove that?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) No, somebody gave it to my daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She's trying to pass the buck, make it my problem instead of your problem.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I'm trying to get to the bottom of this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'll call law enforcement.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) If anyone needs to worry here, it's you, pal.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) No, no. It came from a guy named Dexter Batson.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Well, maybe you should be talking to Dexter then.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Cocoa, I'm looking for anything we've got on a music box purchased by Dexter Batson.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) No records found.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) What do we know about Dexter Batson? Oh, my, look at this - arrests, disobedience, protests. Oh, this guy's not dating my daughter. That's for sure. Do we have his current location?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) Dexter Batson is currently at the Wasteland Poetry Club located at 4 Irving Place.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Isn't technology wonderful?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Many mirrored butterflies taking their time, taking my time, ticking away the time. This is the thing. We can't get back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SNAPPING)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Excuse me, do you know Dexter Batson?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: (As character) What?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I'm looking for Dexter Batson.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: Chill, man.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Oh, sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Ambulant street box. Shame-faced Aretha in a suit.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) But do you know where Dexter is?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: (As character) I - he's probably in back.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch (ph)) Hello? Is there anybody down... Hello? Excuse me, is there a Dexter Batson? What is - what is this?

(HAMMERING)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) What are you all working on? Everyone, stop the work that you're doing right now. I'm with Quality Control. This - this is an illegal facility. Step away from that table. Where's Dexter Batson?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Excuse me, I can help you find Dexter Batson.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Are you Dexter?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) No, I'm not. But I know where he is.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Who's in charge here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Please follow me, and I'm sure Dexter...

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Nobody touch those machines while I'm gone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You're David Kirsch, aren't you?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Yes, I am.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) This is just a huge honor. I...

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Are you taking me to your supervisor?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Right through this door please, Mr. Kirsch.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Through here?

(DOOR SHUTTING)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Can you turn on the light in here? Hey, hello? Could somebody turn on the light, please? Unlock this door.

(DOOR RATTLING)

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) What is going on? Somebody - somebody please turn on the light.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) Why are you looking for Dexter Batson?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Are you Dexter Batson?

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) You don't need to know who I am.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I know what you people are doing.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) What do you think we're doing?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) You're operating an illegal facility that manufactures unregulated man-made goods.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) You need to let us continue.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Who are you people?

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) We're the John Henry Society.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Well, John Henry, what you're doing is illegal. And it's putting the entire system at risk. And I'm shutting you down.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) Do you own a cat, David?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) What?

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) A long time ago, we used to keep cats around because they would hunt for mice. Eventually, human beings invented mousetraps. But cats still needed to hunt. Cats have to hunt mice. It's what they do. It's in their nature. So we invented toys to keep the cats occupied - Mylar ribbon to tackle, laser pointers to chase around.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) OK, is there a point to this story?

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) Look around, David. Our entire world today is just a world of laser pointers and Mylar ribbon and no meaning whatsoever.

JONATHAN MITCHELL: (As David Kirsch) We live in a society where disease has been eradicated. There's no more war. There's no more prejudice. People are free.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) What are they doing with all the freedom that they have?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Whatever they want - it's freedom.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) You can't free people from their nature.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) And you think their nature is to work.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) Cats need to chase mice.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) This is crazy.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) What do you think would happen if we went away?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) The world would be a safer place. The system would run more efficiently.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) You have no idea how widespread this is, David. We have people in every strata of society. We have products on every level of daily life.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) I don't believe this at all. I spend all day looking through the entire system, trying to find imperfections.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) Why do you think you're so busy? Where are all these imperfections coming from - coding, software? The fact is, you need us.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) It's my responsibility to report all of this. It's entirely illegal and irresponsible.

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) Forget about us. Just drop this entire line of pursuit.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) You're asking me to not do my job?

KORNFELD: (As John Henry Society leader) If you won't let us do our work, then you won't have a job to do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As news reporter) Law enforcement has busted what they are calling a major underground manufacturing ring. This comes after an investigation initiated by Quality Control's David Kirsch.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) It's far-reaching. We've found branches of it in almost every major city.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As news reporter) Several high-ranking members have been arrested, and surveillance has been upgraded.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) It's going to keep our children safer. It's going to keep our society running smoother. The John Henry Society can no longer terrorize us with their substandard goods.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As news reporter) And now back to the weather. Sunny skies are expected for the rest of the month, as our weather stabilization algorithms continue to keep our global climate in perfect balance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) Congratulations, our product malfunction rate has fallen by 98 percent.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Ninety-eight percent? Are you sure? That's incredible.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) Your capture of the resistance operatives was quite effective.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Great. Well, what do we have next?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) I can book a trip, schedule a massage...

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) No, I want to keep going. We're on a roll.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) You have no outstanding work assignments.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Excuse me? OK, can you please let me see the activity long for all the current malfunctions?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) The malfunction log is empty. But I can book a trip, schedule a massage, reserve a ping-pong table...

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Cocoa, what's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Cocoa) May I suggest a day at the beach? The forecast is sunny, with a high of 85. It's going to be a lovely day.

(WAVES CRASHING, SEAGULLS CHIRPING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Still working?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Hold on, almost done.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) The tireless tinkerer continues to tinkle.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Give me a second, almost done, see? Look, complete.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Really?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) Really?

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Give it a go.

(MUSIC BOX PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As David Kirsch's daughter) That's beautiful.

MCNERNEY: (As David Kirsch) Yeah. It's perfect.

(WAVES CRASHING, SEAGULLS CHIRPING)

KESTENBAUM: That was "The Last Job." It was written and produced by Jonathan Mitchell of the podcast The Truth. I'm a huge fan of The Truth. The Truth is part of the Radiotopia Network from PRX.

GOLDSTEIN: The show today starred Peter McNerney as David Kirsch and Louis Kornfeld as the leader of the John Henry Society.

KESTENBAUM: Also, Rebecca Robles, India Kotis, Dave Hill, Alex Marino, Phoebe Tyers, Rupert Degas and T.J. Mannix.

GOLDSTEIN: And special thanks to Ann Hepperman, Kerry Kastin, Diana McCorry, Alejandro Kolleeny and Louis Kornfeld.

KESTENBAUM: We consulted a few real experts in putting this show together. Economic historian Joel Mokyr at Northwestern, Russ Roberts, economist at the Hoover Institution, MIT economist David Autor and Andrew McAfee, also at MIT.

GOLDSTEIN: Even if you are not an MIT professor, we want to hear from you. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org.

KESTENBAUM: Nadia Wilson produced this podcast. Thank you, Nadia.

GOLDSTEIN: One last thing, if you're looking for something else to listen to, check out Alt Latino. It's a music show. You can hear everything from psychedelic tropical music from the jungles of Peru to Mexican folk rhythms, to electronica. You can find Alt Latino on the npr1 app, which is great.

KESTENBAUM: I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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