How many people DOES it take? One of the curious consequences of the nearly 500 year primacy of the corporation is the shift from labor intensive (human powered) processes to capital intensive (technology powered) processes. It is clear that both have different efficiency curves, and indeed labor intensive processes max out at a point well below that of the capital intensive process. And so the ultimate goal, if we follow the trend to its logical conclusion, is to create the smallest class of workers possible to run the most complex society we can envision. At some point, we have to pause and ask ourselves whether we really DO need everyone gainfully employed. That is, what is the minimum number of people required to keep a complex, technological civilization running smoothly? And what do the rest of the people do instead of working?

Charlie Stross:

I’d put a lower bound of 100 million on the range, too. The specialities required for a civil aviation sector alone may well run to half a million people; let’s not underestimate the needs of raw material extraction and processing (from crude oil to yttrium and lanthanum), of a higher education/research sector to keep training the people we need in order to replenish small pools of working expertise, and so on. Hypothetically, we may only need 500 people in one particular niche, but that means training 20 of them a year to keep the pool going, plus future trainers, and an allowance for wastage and drop-outs by people who made a bad career choice. Higher education accounts for 1.8-3% of gross spending in the developed world, with primary and secondary education taking a whopping chunk on top of that (if you spent 10 years in a school with a staff:pupil ratio of 1:10, then you soaked up a person-year of time; there may be more labour going into pre-university education than goes into agriculture and industry combined).