Are Robots the Newest Members of the Middle Class Or the End of It?

The middle class was once defined by the work one did. If a robot does that job, has it joined the social class as well?

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Jul 9 2014, 2:41pm
Image: iurii/Shutterstock

When the robots disrupt the workplace, it's clear that one group of society will be first in the firing line: the middle classes.

The latest to warn of this class attack is the UK’s university and science minister David Willetts, who said this week that the jobs most at risk of usurpation by robots were white-collar professions. Speaking at an event held by the think tank Policy Exchange, Willetts emphasized that the kind of work we tend to think involves sophisticated cognitive abilities is actually easier for a robot to do than many motor tasks we would consider very basic. As he put it, “Giving a cup of tea to a little old lady is a bigger IT robotics challenge than doing chess against Kasparov.”

Where robots once seemed best suited to production line drudgery, they’re increasingly proving themselves adept at the kind of jobs that fit better with middle class aspirations, like accountancy and journalism. They’re not heavy lifters; they’re office drones. 

As a result of this, a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds the robo-revolution increasingly brings social class into the discussion. Some suggest that robots will wipe out the middle class completely, whereas others posit that they might take it over for themselves. 

Interested in the broader social implications of robots entering the white collar work force, I wondered how much the middle class is really under threat, and if there's a place at all for robots in the class system. If robots take middle class jobs, does that mean they become middle class? (It should be noted I’m referring to class as it’s generally understood in Britain for the purposes of this article).

Sam Friedman at City University was one of the team behind the BBC’s Great British Class Survey last year, which endeavoured to create a new social class model to reflect modern Britain. He told me that even defining what “middle class” means is something sociologists can spend whole careers on. Traditionally, there was quite a straightforward collar divide between manual workers and service or professional workers. That might suggest that because of their job, robots would find themselves side-by-side with the white collar crew.

"Giving a cup of tea to a little old lady is a bigger IT robotics challenge than doing chess against Kasparov."

But a 20th century shift in the economy saw a huge increase in white collar jobs and an expansion of the middle class. And now, Friedman says belonging to a social class is about more than employment. He’s found that people from privileged backgrounds instead tend to delineate themselves in terms of their “cultural discernment,” i.e. what they consume and how they consume it. So while your job might have some impact on your social class, so does reading VICE. 

In fact, Friedman said, the middle classes tend to view themselves as the opposite of “robotic” in their inclinations. “What often comes up in our interviews around class is that they [the middle classes] constantly try to distinguish themselves against a sort of mythical ‘other’ who is categorized as almost robotic, in the sense of being too co-opted by mainstream culture; not looking for challenging cultural experiences and being too easily duped by what marketing people want them to consume,” he said.

While robots’ roles in society are determined purely on the tasks they’re able to complete, rather than the more qualitative requirements of culture and taste, they’re unlikely to be accepted into the class their human coworkers might belong to. Friedman also suggested that the goalposts for acceptance are flexible, and that the middle classes would be protective of their social position.

“You could say the middle classes will always find a new way of distinguishing themselves even if their jobs are under threat by robots by continually striving to mark out their cultural distinction—stressing the ineffable expertise they might have in understanding how to consume in a way that is the complete antithesis of robotic,” he said.

This unwelcoming attitude is reflected in pretty much all the discourse around robots entering society: They’re most often viewed as 'other' and are never portrayed as potentially “joining” the middle class in some way, only as threatening or de-valuing it. It’s an attitude that at once humanises robots and casts them as inferior to humans, both of which are based on pretty big assumptions.

"You could say the middle classes will always find a new way of distinguishing themselves even if their jobs are under threat by robots."

For a start, we’re rarely talking about humanoid robots or even physical machines at all; in many cases, these middle class “jobs” are being given to algorithms. The idea of robots usurping humans’ positions implies that the robots are autonomous and working under their own auspices—which, for the foreseeable future, isn’t the case. Even those robots that have a high degree of autonomy are programmed to do certain tasks by the companies that make them and/or the employers that use them; they’re not taking it upon themselves to angle for a promotion above their fleshy coworkers.

But on the flip side, it’s perhaps folly to assume that robots will always be so easily distinguishable from humans and therefore automatically excluded from a human class system. If a robot could pass the Turing test or the Lovelace test or whatever to prove its intelligence is sufficiently indistinguishable from a culturally discerning human (at least if they don’t have to meet in person), could we not envisage a further expansion of the middle class that includes the robots, rather than the complete destruction of a layer of society by the robots?

After all, even on the economical front, the threat robots pose to the middle classes is perhaps overstated. In his speech, Willetts added that there would still be work to go around. Someone needs to be able to give the old lady her cup of tea while the robots play chess.

Edward Skidelsky, a sociologist at Exeter University who recently authored the essay “Why Machines Are Not Slaves”, warns against attempts to mechanise those kind of service jobs. He suggested that while robots might be able to produce certain outcomes in tasks like caring and teaching, they don’t have the special human touch required by those professions. “I’m not saying you couldn’t mechanise these services, but in doing so you’d lose something pretty important,” he told me. 

So while we might be hesitant to let them into our middle classes, he argues that robots aren’t a new kind of slave class that will wait on us hand on foot, nor should we want them to be.

As robots integrate further into the workplace, the question of where they fit in with broader society remains. It seems most likely that they’ll be in a class of their own.