A “crisis of abundance” initially seems like a paradox. After all, abundance is the ultimate goal of technology and economics. But consider the early history of the electric washing machine. In the 1920s, factories churned them out in droves. (With the average output of manufacturing workers rising by a third between 1923 and 1929, making more washing machines was relatively cheap.) But as the decade ended, factories saw they were making many more than American households demanded. Companies cut back their output and laid off workers even before the stock market crashed in 1929. Indeed, some economists have said that the oversupply of consumer goods like washing machines may have been one of the causes of the Great Depression.
What initially looked like abundance was really something more harmful: overproduction. In economics, as in anything, too much of a good thing can be problematic.
That sentiment is one of the central theses of The Wealth of Humans, a new book by the Economist columnist Ryan Avent about how technology is changing the nature of work. In the next few years, self-driving cars, health-care robots, machine learning, and other technology will complement many workers in the office. Counting both humans and machines, the world’s labor force will be able to do more work than ever before. But this abundance of workers—both those made of cells and those made of bits—could create a glut of labor. The machines may render many humans as redundant as so many vintage washing machines.