Connecting Sociology and YOU!

ACTION : 15.3.2

Social change, forces that change the organization and social structures of society, has been in the news a lot recently. COVID-19 alone has forced us to live our lives very differently than we had just seven months ago. Some of these changes have been the result of job loss and business closings. Estimates are that as many as 47 million Americans will lose their job at some point during this pandemic.  While many are hopeful that these jobs will return, some businesses are looking to permanently replace their employees with technology, tools created by science to address and solve the problems of mankind, such as robots who can flip burgers, or shopping carts that can do the work of the cashier. Now truthfully, the drive to replace humans with artificial technology is not new. Long before COVID-19, some coffee shops were testing robots to replace baristas. The use of robots and artificial intelligence is not limited to customer service jobs. A.I. expert Kai Fu Lee estimates that within 15 years, robots or AI could replace forty percent of all jobs. While there is no guarantee that this future will happen, let’s take a moment to imagine the world under these conditions through the sociological lens.

First, consider our system of social stratification, a system in which categories of people are ranked in a hierarchy, in this possible new normal. The social classes, a category of people with similar status, culture, and wealth, will become more divided and the gulf between the haves and have-nots will become even more impossible to overcome. However, social classes are more than categories of people in the abstract. They are made up of individuals and families, a group of people connected by blood, marriage, adoption, or agreed upon relationship. A society in which millions are out of work will mean that families of orientation, the family in which you are raised and socialized as a result of birth, adoption, or a blended family, will be struggling. It also means that families of procreation, the family you choose to create through marriage, agreed upon relationship, or the birth or adoption of children, will be unaffordable and out of reach. As it stands, many young adults say they cannot afford to move out of their parent’s home and start a family. This leads to a world where even college-educated students boomerang back home because they cannot afford to do anything else.

So how do we avoid this imagined future? First, as a society, we have to agree that it is not acceptable to have millions of people living below the Federal Poverty Line, a governmental standard of measurement indicating the income level of when an individual or family is designated as poor. Now you might think that you individually don’t have a roll in the Federal Poverty Line, but the fact that we haven’t had national, sustained protests over 38 million Americans living in poverty, means that we are all complicit in the inequality of this nation. Next, we have to acknowledge that the American Dream, a commonly held belief in the U.S. suggesting that anyone can overcome obstacles and get ahead in life through hard work and determination, is out of the reach of many without significant social support. This I would argue is where the biggest shift will have to come. We as individuals must be more willing to help those who do not look like or act like us. Often more homogenous societies seem to do a better job helping each other and working together as a group. They seem to be more willing to implement social safety nets so people can achieve the “Swedish Dream,” the “Japanese Dream” or at the very least live with dignity. The long American history of dividing people based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation often means we are less willing to hold our hand out and help those that are not like us. Yet, a potential future with millions unemployed means that we are going to have to help each other or we will all end up as have-nots. In order for this society to work, we have to agree to work together. If we would make that shift and come together, we would look at the changes coming down the pipeline and ask, “What kind of future do we want and how can we make it happen together?”

This blog post is provided by the co-authors of SociologicalYOU (Fourth Edition), a digital NextGen Introductory Sociology textbook engaging students in critical thinking to “Connect Sociology and YOU!” For more information, contact