Supporting yourself through wages is likely to get more and more difficult with the adoption of AI.
The epic battle for a shrinking supply of wages.
There is a high risk that jobs in general will become far more scarce and therefore competitive. Unlike previous eras, where labor demand shifted from one field to another, this wave of automation has the potential to remove a nontrivial number of jobs from the economy—permanently.
Because businesses always have an incentive to reduce the number of humans on the payroll, workers will continue to face an uphill battle as AI becomes more incorporated into the workplace. As it stands today, the technology already exists for one person to start and run a successful business, using only cheap tools and contracted labor.
That trend appears to be set to accelerate, meaning companies will find more and more ways to avoid hiring people as full-time employees. The ongoing "gigification" of the economy, where more and more people find themselves forced to sell their labor in small, cheap bursts on platforms like Uber and Instacart, seems likely to accelerate.
What looks to be on the horizon is what's called polarization: a small subset of jobs will become extremely well-paid, and everyone else will be stuck driving Ubers to make ends meet. The jobs that pay well will be those that are either directly related to AI (such as machine learning engineers), and those that are very difficult or impossible to automate (such as plumbers).
This Time Is (Probably) Different
There remain some hyper-optimists who think that AI will create a balancing effect: since new technology in the past has tended to create more jobs than it destroyed, AI will do the same. I can't help but think that line of thought is delusional.
This is the first time in history where we have a technology that can potentially create long-term joblessness for most of the population. That's not an abstract idea, it's a reality that could translate into human suffering on a scale we haven't seen before. Even in the case of the Luddites, the "rebalancing" of labor took a very long time—long enough that if they'd tried to wait it out they would have starved.
It's a particularly dangerous situation because, within a capitalist society like the United States where there's little emphasis on social safety nets, the only means of survival for most is working. If you can't find a job because there just aren't enough jobs to go around, how do you survive?
In previous eras, if someone was made redundant at their job, it was possible to reskill and, in the long-run, have a decent shot at success. The problem here is that reskilling, in most cases, involves doing something like going to college (more on that in the next section).
Between getting laid off and landing that new job through reskilling, people need to do something to survive. In past eras, that meant jobs that people weren't necessarily proud of: fast food service, construction, janitorial, and so on. They weren't fun, but they kept the lights on while people took night classes and searched for new beginnings.
With AI in the picture, many of those lower-end jobs are no longer available. Companies like McDonalds are already placing automated order taking and food preparation systems in their locations, so flipping burgers may not be an option if you lose your job. Likewise, Uber and many other platform-based gig economy companies are actively looking for ways to replace humans using their massive datasets—another avenue of survival closed.
The labor markets are also shifting so fast now that, by the time you are deemed qualified for a new job through reskilling, it may be irrelevant or so low-paying that you will have wasted your time. Spending years developing competence may turn into an exercise in futility since the rapid changes in the economy will generate severely negative ROIs for that self-investment.
Furthermore, what about people who are within sight of retirement age (let's use 10 years as a baseline)? Those people still want to support themselves, but if they lose their jobs they may not be able to find another one ever again—if only because most employers have a strong bias against older workers.
Harsh Political Realities
Will there be some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) to support the millions who simply can't get or keep a job due to AI's influence on the economy? Or will large swathes of the population have to suffer serious consequences before anything changes? These are open questions, although I think the unfortunate truth is the second option.
Anyone who thinks the government or the owners of capital will bail them out of this situation is deluded. There is close to zero (recent) historical precedent to support that idea, particularly in the age of extreme inequality we find ourselves in.
Although it's possible people will band together and finally agree to take care of each other in a meaningful way (that's what a society is for, isn't it?), I remain skeptical. For now, it's safe to assume you're on your own.