What Will Robots Do to the Minimum Wage?

There have been many arguments about raising the minimum wage in the US. While I think fixing our monetary policy would probably do more for low-income workers, it seems there’s one factor in this debate that hasn’t been much discussed: robots.

The fact is that robotics have almost gotten to the point where machines can do most minimum wage jobs. Flipping burgers, taking orders, cleaning, organizing merchandise, data entry, and so many more minimum wage jobs are just barely out of the reach of cheap robotic implementation. It might take five or so more years, but there’s no denying that robots are going to shape the future of the minimum wage. But how?

What happens to minimum wage workers when robots can do their jobs? Will they starve? Will they have to become more qualified so they can do jobs no robot can handle? Or will minimum wage workers need even less to live on if robots are able to drastically reduce the cost of doing business? I really don’t know. Some countries, like Australia, are already asking these questions:

[A recent report] concludes that while Australia is “uniquely placed” to benefit from digital disruption because of the strength of its service industry and education system, and its proximity to Asia’s growing digital markets, Australia will only be able to successfully deal with the disruption technology will bring to the workplace if it is “embedded in the DNA of society.”

I’m not even sure what that last line means. Anyway … this isn’t the first time these questions have been wrestled with in history. China long resisted farm equipment automation because Chinese government officials actually needed manual farm jobs to keep their humongous labor force occupied. The assumption was that an unemployed peasant class is a revolution waiting to happen. Perhaps robotic employees will be similarly resisted. I’m sure the unions hate them more than Metallica hated Napster: they signal imminent doom. I don’t imagine robots will need unions to protect them from abuse.

A few people imagine the age of robots and automation as a golden age of opportunity. If goods can be produced for next to nothing, prices will drop to next to nothing, and everyone will be able to do what they want. No one will be forced to do any dehumanizing kinds of manual labor. Everyone will have enough, and we will all live lives of leisure and fulfilling productivity.

I doubt it. I think a more likely scenario is one where minimum wage workers are all fired, and the civil government “saves the day” by stealing from the rich to support them. Rather than living leisurely productive lives, the then-created large populace of unemployed minimum wage workers create pockets of crime-ridden mischief all over society. In other words, like it already is, just way worse and more widespread. Or this could happen.