Suicide in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

These are times that try our souls. Conflicts are erupting around the globe, yet humans are far more likely to commit suicide than die in war. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is moving at breakneck speed, upending traditional ways of life. But at what cost? The suicide rate is a good measure of wellbeing, or lack thereof, in society. Unfortunately, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution has progressed, so has the rate of self-annihilation. US suicide rates reached an all-time high in 2022. Does the correlation prove causation? How can we leverage technological advancement to decrease, rather than increase, suffering at scale? The answer lies not in retraining programs, but rather in guaranteeing the right to food, shelter, and medical care, regardless of employment status. If society is unable to provide for the downtrodden, then we must legalize the right to die with dignity. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution was coined in 2011 at the Hanover Fair in Germany. World Economic Forum Founder & Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab published a book by the name in 2016. Between 2011 and 2022, suicide rates among adolescents doubled, or increased by sixty percent, depending on the study consulted. Millions killed themselves in that same period. This is hardly in line with Professor Schwab’s goal of building: “a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”

One major contributor to suicide is job loss. As many professions are made obsolete by technological change, workers must constantly reskill and upskill to fill new roles. A 45 year old working on the assembly line in Pennsylvania may soon have to learn how to become a data engineer. Continuous retraining has a negative impact on well-being. 

The connection between job loss, economic hardship, technological change, suicide, addiction and despair is well-documented. One study found a direct correlation between a sharp drop in US manufacturing employment due to international trade and a rise in opioid overdose deaths. The link between suicide rates and the ups and downs of the economic cycle are well-established, as is the association between pandemics and self-slaughter. Young people, especially women and girls, are particularly at risk. Mortals with disabilities that limit their ability to work are at a heightened risk of self-harm or suicide. During the COVID-19 pandemic, workers from underrepresented demographics, such as minorities, were more likely to experience job loss and subsequently commit suicide. Yet little attention has been given to the correlation between the fusion of the digital, physical and biological and increasing escapism.

Courtesy: ABC News

In the sixteenth century, William Shakespeare wrote

“To be, or not to be, that is the question: 

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep. 

No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-acheand the thousand natural shocks 

That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation 

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, 

to sleep.’

During the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, suicide rates steadily increased in Britiain. Emile Durkheim’s 1897 book Les Suicide claimed suicide rates rose with industrialization, deskilling and job displacement, for: “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.” Karl Marx observed: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeois and proletariat” and, “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” 

The Third Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution, introduced the internet, personal computers, and techno music. It also gave us the infamous unabomber, who, like Durkheim, had a reactionary view toward technological change. Barry and Irving Bluestone’s 1982 classic The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry notes displaced workers had a suicide rate thirty times higher than average. Homicides, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, and state mental hospital & prison admissions skyrocketed with each plant closing. Yet, according to Richard Wilcock and W.H. Franke, “Perhaps the most serious impact of shutdowns, for many of the long-term unemployed, was a loss of confidence and feeling of uselessness…..The unemployed worker loses his daily association with fellow workers. This loss means not only the disappearance of human relationships built up over a period of years, but also the end of a meaningful institutional relationship. When he is severed from his job, he discovers that he has lost, in addition to the income and activity, his institutional base in the economic and social system.” This has “ripple effects” in the community. 

Courtesy: World Economic Forum

Forecasts predict job destruction at an even faster pace and larger scale during the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is especially true for the developing world, as additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, as well as pandemics and geopolitical turmoil mean many corporations are reshoring their supply chains, ending the race to the bottom and potentially leaving millions out of work. The World Economic Forum Center for the New Economy and Society predicts: “work currently performed by humans is being augmented by machine and algorithmic labour… has been suggested that businesses can look to utilize the automation of some job tasks to complement and enhance the human workforces’ comparative strengths and ultimately to enable and empower employees to extend to their full potential and competitive advantage.” Professor Schwab worries: “I am a great enthusiast and early adopter of technology, but sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation. Our relationship with our smartphones is a case in point. Constant connection may deprive us of one of life’s most important assets: the time to pause, reflect, and engage in meaningful conversation.” Former WEF Managing Director Adrian Monck notes people are volunteering less. 

Conversations about workers and Industry 4.0, Education 4.0 and Society 5.0 typically discuss the need for lifelong learning, flexibility, adaptability, reskilling and upskilling. Many workers will be displaced, and those who are lucky will have employers that will offer retraining for a new role within the company. Yet it is likely many will be laid off, their skills useless, with the added burden of financial stress; seniors will be too old to work and too young to die. Job loss greatly raises suicide risk, as 1 in 5 suicide deaths worldwide are tied to unemployment. Yet few want to talk about it. 

Perhaps the conversation should be less about how to turn factory workers into computer programmers, and more about how to ensure they are able to afford basic necessities regardless if they are working or not. Such arguments are missing from high-flying dialogues on “Putting People First” or the “Future of Work,” which tend to focus on innovative ways to exploit labor, rather than raise the overall quality of life. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, humanity should embrace the right not to work. 

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts that if the nineteenth century created the working class, the twenty-first century will create the useless class. Regardless if he is correct, increasing basic social services such as unemployment insurance, food stamps and rental assistance help to answer Professor Schwab’s question: “What should we do to foster more positive outcomes and help those caught in the transition?” According to one study, “worsening local area labor market conditions are associated with greater opioid overdose mortality. However, we also find that the harm associated with job loss increased with a decline in state UI benefit generosity. Specifically, the positive association between job loss and opioid overdose mortality more than doubles with a one standard deviation decline in the maximum state UI benefit.” If we are going to reorient the entire supply chain and fundamentally change what it means to be human, we should create humane conditions for those left behind. 

Enough with the doom and gloom; Does the Fourth Industrial Revolution offer innovative solutions to suicide? According to Dr. Schwab: “We are confronted with new questions around what it means to be human, what data and information about our bodies and health can or should be shared with others, and what rights and responsibilities we have when it comes to changing the very genetic code of future generations.” Can the negative externalities of job loss, depression and addiction be solved with neurotechnologies, making my analysis obsolete? Or will all of these new biometric and monitoring technologies actually increase addiction and escapism while reducing our ability to feel empathy? 

Facebook is using Machine Learning to prevent suicide. Virtual and augmented reality show promise in treating certain mental health conditions. Neurotechnologies could improve worker productivity, while biotechnologies offer more precise ways to treat disease. Depression may be cured through reactivation of happy memories. Professor Harari writes: “Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry.” Yet with all of the new pharmaceuticals meant to treat depression, anxiety and every other condition we can imagine, suicide rates have only continued to increase. Universal Basic Income (UBI) improves mental health and reduces the psychological stress involved in applying for traditional benefits, but many believe the lost purpose of unemployment may increase suicide rates. As part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, “goal 3.4 aims to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by one-third; indicators for this goal include a reduction in suicide mortality rates (SDG Indicator 3.4.2).” Perhaps someday science will discover a drug that will make us perpetually happy with no side-effects and no withdrawals, 3D printed in our homes.

Courtesy K. Schwab, et. al., Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2018.

According to a 2013 Oxford Martin School study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, the job least prone to automation is Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers. Studies suggest that job loss increases the likelihood of substance abuse, and substance abuse increases the probability of suicide, so employment in this line of work seems promising. Yet the goalposts are constantly moving, and who is to say this job will not also be taken over by robots? The 2023 Future of Jobs report says cognitive skills and creative thinking are increasing in importance, but what if generative AI makes writers obsolete? A student may invest four years and tens of thousands of dollars gaining skills that three years later are irrelevant. This is not a scenario that could happen; it is happening. Yet society has no plan. 

If we are going to have a society in which over 800,000 people a year successfully commit suicide; If we are going to have a society in which masses of humanity will be displaced with no plan for covering their food, shelter, medical care and mental well-being; If we are going to have a society in which wealth and fame increasingly concentrate in the hands of the few, and these same few will be the ones who get to jet to Davos and sit on stage bragging about how they are improving the state of the world, then we need to create an easy and humane way for those who do not wish to participate to exit altogether. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “dying well is the highest wisdom of life.” 

Some readers will opine that the business of business is business, and therefore the CEO of a Fortune 500 company has no obligation to broader society and is only responsible for their current workforce and shareholders. Yet it has been the life’s work of Klaus Schwab, Salesforce Founder & CEO Marc Benioff and many others to infuse a sense of broader social responsibility into the cut throat and competitive business ethos, or at least this is what they claim. Admittedly, New York Times economics correspondent Peter Goodman would disagree with this interpretation, seeing stakeholder capitalism as a mere smokescreen for tax-dodging billionaires to pretend they care about society while simultaneously lining their pocketbooks. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg opined at the 2019 Annual Meeting: “Here in Davos – just like everywhere else – everyone is talking about money. It seems that money and growth are our only main concerns.”

Instead of perpetually reshuffling humanity into what anthropologist David Graeber described as “Bullshit Jobs” for the sake of the capitalist religion, why not work to ensure all of humanity has the right to a place to sleep, food to eat and medical care, regardless of whether they have employment? If we want to reduce the negative externalities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to enshrine the right not to work. While the political will for doing so has not existed in the past, perhaps it is high-time we rethink social protection, preferably before millions lose jobs and kill themselves. 

Government officials and taxpayers should note that suicide is costing us tens of billions of dollars per year. UBI and euthanasia certainly have their drawbacks, and it would be better to create a world that puts people first, focused not on the incessant need to specialize and innovate or perish, but rather focusing on reducing suffering and increasing happiness. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing change at an unprecedented clip. With massive change comes massive pain, yet humanity has no plan to cope. Is it any wonder suicide rates have increased? We have every reason to expect this trend will not only continue, but accelerate, in coming years. Suicide is a somber topic, and there is no silver bullet to solve this crisis. Suicide was declared a public health crisis by the US Surgeon General as far back as 1999. Between 1999 and 2017, suicide rates rose by 33 percent, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, have only continued to increase, adding to the urgency of this public health crisis.  Nobody wants to talk about it, but we must.

When over 3,000 leaders in business, academia, government and civil society convene this January for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, let’s shine a light on the darkness, and talk about suicide for a change.* There is no better place to exchange ideas on solving this crisis than Davos. Over 800,000 lives per year depend on it. To channel Greta Thunberg’s urgency on climate action towards the suicide epidemic: 

“Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.”

Correction: a previous version of this essay claimed that mental health and economic security were missing from Strategic Intelligence transformation maps on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Work. Upon further review, both of these transformation maps links to another map on Social Protection, which discusses the debates surrounding UBI, welfare, job displacement and mental health, making this initial claim incorrect. 

* The exception is the 2010 Annual Meeting, when Markus Reinhardt, captain of Graubuenden’s cantonal police and therefore head of Davos security committed suicide the night before the conference began.

About the Author
Dan is a historian and human rights advocate
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