BreakPoint: Automation and the Dignity of Work

Machines Aren’t Imago Dei

We’re in the middle of a revolution that could prove as disruptive as the Industrial Revolution. What does work look like in a world of automation?

Recently on “Saturday Night Live,” John Mulaney observed that we spend an awful lot of our time these days proving to robots that we aren’t robots. This brave new world is not just online. Grocery shopping in the last five years makes many of us wish for the good old days with real, live human cashiers.

For many employers, of course, the advantages of machines over human employees is obvious. Former fast-food executive Andrew Puzder explains why: Machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

To employers, automated employees may be a dream. But to employees that are being replaced, it’s a nightmare.

Writing at Market Watch, Elizabeth Beyer reports that up to a third of able-bodied American men between the ages of 25 and 54 could be unemployed within thirty years. A recent Gallup poll indicates that around 37 percent of millennials are at a high risk of losing their jobs to computers or machines.

Certain groups will be hit even harder. Darrell West, vice-president of the Brookings Institution, predicts that technology and artificial intelligence could leave up to half of young African American men without jobs by 2050.

These numbers represent real people who will suffer real hardship when they’re displaced by technological surrogates. They not only face the struggle to feed their families; they face the struggle to adjust and to retrain in order to find employment. Few things are more mentally distressing or humiliating than losing your job, especially if it’s to a piece of impersonal equipment.

Now many over-hype the negatives of automation. Technological strides like this are nothing new, and throughout history have almost always made life longer, healthier, more productive and more convenient for everyone. At least that’s true in the long run. But in the short run, it can hurt. And Christians should be more aware of this and prepared to help our neighbors than anyone else.

Here’s where I stop talking economics and start talking worldview. Paychecks and food on the table, as Jesus might say, are things our Heavenly Father knows we need. But we also need something else. Humans need to work.

We’re made to work. Even if machines could do everything for us, we shouldn’t want them to! Think of the seemingly-benign technological dystopia from Pixar’s “Wall-E,” where machines wait on doughy, listless people lost in an endless stream of entertainment. This isn’t what it means to be human!

Genesis makes clear that God created and commanded man and woman to subdue the earth. The creation mandate means that even if we lived in a world without sin or the curse, we’d still have work to do!

If we Christians ever find ourselves in a time when automation, robots and machines have people lining up at the unemployment office, we must offer more than just money. Christians should be first to recognize that the unemployed need the dignity of expressing their created identity as image of God through work. By doing so, we reflect and honor the work that God did Himself when He created the world.

Historians look back at the major disruption across societies as we moved from a primarily agrarian society to an industrial one. We are in the midst of a similar disruption, as we move from a society centered on industry to one centered on information and automation.

Our world will look different than it did in the past, and even than it does right now. But no matter how much technology changes, it’s people, not machines, who bear the image of the God who forever dignified and blessed work.

If we start there, we’ll have more to offer the world than any robot does.


Automation and the Dignity of Work: Machines Aren’t Imago Dei

As John highlights, only humans bear the image of the God who created us. He has given us the ability to do work both physically and mentally, and we need to acknowledge the dignity derived from work, helping those whose jobs have been taken over or even eliminated due to changes in technology.


Why one-third of American working-age men could be displaced by robots
  • Elizabeth Beyer | | May 14, 2018
Robots Replacing Workers Is Nothing New
  • Elizabeth Lee | | February 6, 2018

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • Idaho Luddite

    As always, excellent comments, John.
    They remind me of the labor part of the Sabbath commandment: “For six days shalt thou labor. . .” We tend to ignore that part of the commandment. Sadly, and almost as quickly, we tend to ignore the rest of that commandment, as well. Both were important enough for the Lord to include in the 10 commandments.

  • gladys1071

    Robots will end up replacing people for a lot of jobs in the future. Unfortunately since we live in a capitalist society that values profit over people, i do not believe that will bode well for the future for employment prospects.

    Companies will choose a Robot over a person hands down if it means not paying for health insurance, and other employment related costs.

    I think the future looks dim especially for those that will be replaced.

    • jason taylor

      I am not sure the fault is capitalism. If in fact people are less efficient then robots, giving them employment is meaningless. One might as well pay them to dig a ditch and fill it up repeatedly.

      • gladys1071

        no it is not the fault of capitalism per say, but capitalism encourages profits over people, otherwise it makes it difficult to compete.

        • jason taylor

          Right, but if the idea is to encourage people over profit by just getting them jobs, again, one can pay them to dig a ditch and fill it. If in fact robots are more efficient then the difference between them is equiv to meaningless ditch digging.

  • Just One Voice

    Thank you for writing about this!

    There was a LOT of talk about this in my CAD classes I recently took. Especially with all the automation that Boeing and other manufacturing companies seek out.

    I guess it falls into my overall view of technology: very bittersweet. It’s got really good things and really bad things.

    • ah.1960

      Actually, I have worked in the CAD (Computer Aided Design) area for 30+ years and CAD itself was considered one of those technologies that eliminated jobs. Companies used to have draftsmen, and checkers, and blueprint machine operators, copier technicians and file clerks to create, manage, and distribute all of the paper drawings created.

      CAD eliminates many of those jobs (not to mention affecting manufacturers of drafting equipment and supplies), but the opportunities CAD opens up are amazing! 3D solid modeling, computerized finite element analysis, CNC machining, rapid prototyping, virtual reality that we take for granted today were all the stuff of science fiction a generation ago!

      • Just One Voice

        30+ years, wow! I bet you’ve seen a LOT of dramatic change!

        CAD was a big career change for me. After a 10 year mess (recession, poor degree choice, getting fired, laid off, medically displaced–yeah, mess hardly does it justice) anyway, after that 10 year mess, I’m hoping CAD will prove to be much more stable.

  • jason taylor

    I don’t see how machines are “always polite”. In my experience staff at restaurants are almost always polite. And machines often shut down on you.

  • Just One Voice

    Amen to ^^this^^

  • gladys1071

    I am not against capitalism, i agree that it creates wealth, but it is not a perfect system either, no man made system is perfect.

    My issue is the automation, and that i fear that automation may displace a mass number of people in the future. I am more concerned with technology paired with human greed.