Here’s a question for all those who think automation and cost-savings are vital to the future of the global economy. If every large corporation now employing (say) 100,000 workers could reduce that number to 10,000 and still see a rise in output, would it make sense for the other 90,000 to be paid off? And if the result, across the board, was another five million workers drawing benefits, would that be of less importance than the accompanying huge increase in productivity, leading to “enhanced” profits and a boost to the incomes of top management?

A bit fanciful, you say. I mean, that’s not going to happen, is it? Luddites always forcast doom and they’re never right. New jobs are bound to emerge. A hundred years from now, with our lifespans doubled, half of us will be in space anyway, colonising nearby star systems. Do you believe that? I don’t. What I believe is that, unless we start to think seriously about the future of work, the human race faces mass-redundancy. Not today or next year, but gradually and inexorably, and well within the lifetimes of a majority of readers of Reaction. 

It’s happening aready. The process is underway and the pace is accelerating. Once we get driverless cars, and driverless trucks and driverless trains, the numbers employed in all the sectors in which vehicles are key will plummet. Nissan may boast of its 6,700 skilled workers in the North East of England, but, leaving aside the problems associated with Brexit, how many of those 6,700 will still be on the books ten years from now? And Nissan is just one company among thousands that make up what remains of our manufacturing sector. 

Computerised production is the new norm, with humans merely looking on, tightening nuts, fastening cables and wires. Soon, even that will no longer be required. The robots will be able to do everything for themselves, and once the cars (and trucks and buses) take to the road, they will, more and more, be driven by computerised sensors linked directly to the latest version of satellite navigation.

My difficulty is this: if millions of jobs are to go – and I have only touched on the possibilities of artificial intelligence – what are those of us constrained by flesh and blood supposed to do all day? The global population is, after all, expanding, if not in Germany and Japan, certainly in the UK and the US, to say nothing of Africa and Asia. Retraining isn’t going to solve the problem. Every area for which people have been retrained in the last 20 years has subsequently shrunk.

In Britain, the civil service (allowing for the trade talks blip) is contracting, as is the public sector, including fire and ambulance services. Soon, the armed forces, and then the police, will be so overwhelmingly automated, that wars will be fought by our robots against their robots, and any remaining neighbourhood police cars will be driver-free, conveying robo-cops to potential protests involving rogue humans. You might think that dinner ladies, hospital porters and street cleaners will survive the coming purges, but if you stop to think about it, there’s not much they do that couldn’t be done just as efficiently by a machine. Besides, in an age of wonders, who would want their daughter to grow up to be a dinner lady? If ambition is reduced to that, we really will be screwed.

You don’t have to be a science fiction buff to believe all this – though I’ll admit it makes it easier. Every large company you can think of is seeking to maximise its efficiency by minimising its workforce. This is why the only growth areas in recent years, outside of the high-tech sector itself, have been in retail, security and the delivery of goods. Once these have been included in the New World package, the only people with real jobs will be administrators, top scientists and technicians and, just possibly, David Attenborough. 

Which brings me to the obvious next question. If hardly anyone works anymore, who is going to have the money to buy all the computer-and-robot-made consumer goods? Will an agreed sum of cash appear each month in our fully-automated bank accounts? If so, who will pay it in, and why? No point in asking your bank manager. They hardly exist now; in 20 years‘ time they will be a distant memory. 

Would the 1 per cent live like princes? Would the rest of us get along on the same fixed incomes, spending most of our time at the pub or watching the Feelies? Wouldn’t it make more sense just to kill us… I mean, ‘control” us? An unproductive, frustrated populace cannot be a good thing in the high-energy, high-efficency world I am describing. 

But hey, you say – a joke’s a joke. This will never happen. But it will. When the economy doesn’t need drivers, or assembly line workers, or soldiers, or bankers or other office staff, which will amost certainly be the case within the next 50 years, what will all those who would have filled those roles actually do all day to stop them going mad? Does anyone have the answer to that? 

And don’t say we can all become rappers, or television personalities, or professional footballers. Fame is for the few. As W.S. Gilbert observed, when everybody is somebody, then nobody is anybody.

At least we’ll be able to go to the pub again. Or watch the Hunger Games. No wonder people voted for Brexit and Donald Trump.

Pride will be the first casualty, followed by law and order. Young men in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire may not wish to go down the mines anymore, but they would, it can safely be said, like to have something better to look forward to than a lifetime of stacking shelves, checking bags at airports (another job slated to vanish) or flipping burgers. Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon, Hermes and Yodel, among other “gig” employers, currently provide work for some 7.1m Britons, most of it “zero hours” rated and paid at less than the minimum living wage. But when automated check-outs, driverless vehicles and delivery drones become the norm, even these will be denied to us. 

Ask yourself again: if a large corporation could increase production, and profits, with only half its current workforce, would it hesitate? And if it could do the same thing again ten years later, would its response be any different?

As things stand, we are not yet half-way into the Age of the Machines, and outside of science fiction hardly anyone in the so-called knowledge society seems to have followed the logic through to the end. So I repeat, who will be the consumers in the years to come?  Will we all be hotwired to our smart devices (i.e. devices a lot smarter than us)? How will consumers earn the money they will need to buy the goods of the future? Will consumption turn passive, so that goods are simply fabricated and then distributed free? I doubt that’s what Jeff Bezos has in mind. 

Most importantly, how will the 8 billion people who will shortly live on Planet Earth get through their days with nothing more to do than exchange shifts with each other as beach bums, stand-up comedians and ornamental gardeners? We can’t all be lawyers, still less computer game designers. I’m okay. I’m 68 and I won’t be around to see what happens when the music stops. But many of you will and, before Siri becomes self-aware, it’s time you started asking the necessary questions. 

Unless, of course, you think I’m crazy.