Automation Means We’ll Have to Change the Way We Think About Housing

A sufficiently advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) would likely asses a young person today and ask them how they’re planning on paying off their mortgage. To the UK’s youth the housing market looks less like a ladder and more like an endless void. Millennials spend about three times as much of their income on housing than their grandparents, and save for 19 years on average to afford a deposit. The average mortgage length is another 25 years. This is an extraordinarily long time in a world of exponential technological growth.

The future of work will be modelled around advances in AI and automation - the 4th industrial revolution. Scenarios range from the utopian machine working harmoniously for humanity through to full cyber automated robot Armageddon.

A recent study by the Royal Society of Arts takes a conservative estimate that 10 million jobs will be done by AI by 2030 - others believe it will come quicker. But it is widely agreed that change is coming.

Ponder just for a second the rate of progress within your lifetime, how rapidly technology has moved, then think about how this pace is only going to get quicker. The futurist Ray Kuwzeil  believes: “...we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century - it will be more like 20,000 years of progress”. This makes planning for the future, and the ability to pay for a home, somewhat more difficult.

Automation is also going to require shifts in thinking and doing

The housing market is a system that prizes individual and societal stability. The current housing market may start to look increasingly obsolete as the world rapidly changes. Those already locked within its heady confines will have to see it through with a heavy burden of debt.

Work is likely to become more precarious. AI isn’t likely to storm into your office and rip you from your desk, instead it will come with open arms and a friendly smile as it offers to help you with your day. But as you learn to live with it, it will learn to live from you. Potentially advancing to the point where you become obsolete to the task at hand, moving you onto things you’re more suited for. Only that everyone else in the office is in the same position, fighting over what’s left.

Precarity will come through the guise of the unknown, as you work and wait to be replaced. Stability will be upended, degrading one of the foundations needed to buy a home.

Automation is also going to require shifts in thinking and doing towards ideals such as life-long learning as a means of adjustment. Yet this creates more uncertainty. New jobs may not pay as much, or it could take a long time to enter a market that requires a high degree of skill. Jobs and roles in the future are likely to be more fluid which means workers will need assistance in adjusting; but mortgages will still need to be paid for.

Put it this way, an accountant today losing the job he requires to pay off his London home isn’t going to be able to do that while training for a new career and pulling shifts in the gig economy.

Spaces too have also been built and changed through capital. Our built environment will change as the machine age starts to take shape. While cities will more than likely always have a cultural pull, the way people live, and where they choose to do it will impact people’s sense of place and what their lived environment means to them. As AI starts to take jobs, there could be less need for office space, less work could see people move to live where it is cheaper. Such a movement would challenge the rigidity and current housing paradigms.

 the future could come at us with a blistering speed and intensity

While basic income has been touted as an answer to automation, it hardly ever speaks about ownership. The current debate has been co-opted by technologists, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckberg, or Tesla’s Elon Musk. Whereby people become wards of the state while capital is left to automate. The same could be said of housing. A basic income would provide just that, a basic income. It wouldn’t provide the money to save for 19 years for a deposit for a mortgage, let alone to pay it off. This means we’re going to have to address who owns what, and how.

This all leaves someone standing and looking into the future with a number of unknowns, while the predominant societal expectations are ill equipped to deal such change. If you’re in an industry that is susceptible to automation, you may have to re-train halfway through your career. Which could see lower earnings as you become deskilled. While also being hit by the trap of negative equity as the geography of work and employment changes around you.

While every generation has faced similar problems, the future could come at us with a blistering speed and intensity. Predicting what will happen is going to be vastly more difficult than the past. Which means we’re going to have to start changing the way we see housing far beyond its current form; as an investment, or luxury for boomers. As if in the UK it isn’t bad enough as it is.

Luke Richards


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