One of the current problems in the developed world is that there is too little work to go around. As the two biggest areas of traditional enterprise (manufacturing and agriculture) have become increasingly mechanized, the number of people needed has declined.
In much of the industrialized world agriculture now requires under 5% of the workforce. Many industrial firms typically run at 70-80% of capacity. Societies have adapted in two ways, the most commonly considered is the rise of services, the other is the creation of new products of marginal utility. Even these steps have not solved the problem, the unemployment rate is kept at a modest level, but the percentage of people employed continues to decline. The two numbers don't track because official reporting agencies exclude various categories of the non-working from the labor force.
While natural resources were cheap and abundant the creation of products of marginal utility was a favored technique to keep the economy going. A stroll down the aisles of any large retailer will provide an almost unending range of examples: patent medicines, natural food "supplements", highly processed snack foods, toiletries and cosmetics, gadgets of limited use (my recent favorite was an avocado knife), sugar and "spring" water and other beverages, and so on.
In addition there has been the push to replace items that are still usable with ones that are newer or more fashionable. Many items are deliberately made with shortened lifetimes to encourage replacement. Even with all this market manipulation, there are still more people than jobs.
In the developing world, mechanization has happened much more slowly and the number of people involved in agriculture and light manufacturing has tended to remain higher. The trend of "globalization" over the past several decades has started to change this dynamic as well. More and more people are forced off their land when they can no longer compete against mechanized farming, whether local or via imports from elsewhere. These people tend to move into urban areas which are now bursting at the seams and are seeing a rise of a new class of marginally employed slum dwellers.
Things are coming to a head. The cheap resources are drying up and the population is still growing. It is not clear if the rise in the number of failed states and those subject to semi-permanent rebellion is due directly to these trends, but it hard to image other causes which would be as important. Constant conflict has a way of spilling over borders and turning into wider conflicts. Where this might lead is unknowable, but recent examples of such regional conflicts don't make the prospect of more such a desirable prospect.
The problems need to be addressed on three fronts.
1. Population growth must be constrained, and, eventually reversed. Some advanced societies are already below the replacement rate, but social planners see this as a threat to economic growth, rather than as an opportunity for restructuring. Developing societies are still growing too quickly, even those, like China, with harsh population control policies. There are no serious discussions taking place in this area. On one side are fringe groups like Zero (and Negative) Population Growth, on the other, business as usual.
2. Products of marginal utility must be eliminated. The limited resources which remain must be devoted to producing essentials, and the energy consumption and pollution that are associated with production already exceed sustainable levels. Recycling and efficiency improvements will only delay the inevitable shortages. The world needs to consume less "stuff" while distributing the products that are needed more equitably.
3. Work must be redefined. Perhaps it will be necessary to go back to less mechanized production to keep people occupied. Both China and the USSR had full employment policies during their "communist" phases. It was felt that the social good of giving everyone a job was more important that making firms "profitable". Without capital owners there was no pressure to maximize return on investment. The systems failed, not because they were inefficient, but because they were corrupt and didn't produce the products intended in the quantities needed and with adequate quality. This was a governance issue, not an economic one. A lack of checks and balances in government meant there were no watchdogs to limit misdeeds. The failing was not central planning, it was the lack of democratic institutions.
Other societies have tried to maintain inefficiencies, especially in agriculture. Both India and Mexico have large subsistence farming segments. These small farmers are now being displaced by the loss of subsidies and the rise of mechanized production. In India it has led to tens of thousands of suicides by farmers as they have gone broke. In Mexico it has led to a huge migration to urban areas and into the US by farmers who have been thrown off their land.
Where labor is cheap and mechanization is costly, men are substituted for machines. This can be seen on road crews in third world countries where shovels replace bulldozers. I'm not suggesting that back breaking work be restored, but that, perhaps, mechanization be limited to the most arduous tasks. Mass production of consumer goods might be replaced by artisan production. There are already such niche products, ranging from the "haut couture" of French fashion, to the almost totally hand made Leica camera. Small scale production can also mean that products can be tailored to meet the requirements of the consumer more closely.
There remains the issue of technological obsolesce. Look at the evolution of the digital camera. Within a span of ten years cameras have gone from one mega-pixel resolution to 20+. Other improvements have also been incorporated. The conventional wisdom says this only happened because of the pressure of competition backed by the profit motive. This is certainly true, given the current economic arrangement. But there might be other ways to foster improvement without the waste of continually junking hardly used items. We don't know how many firms bring out improvements incrementally so that they can have a new offering each year. Each generation only has to be slightly better than the competition to gain market share. Why bring out a product which is "too good" before it's needed? If R&D was fostered by some other mechanism, it might be possible to get the benefits of improvements that weren't timed to maximize continuing sales. There have been experiments with offering prizes that have led to innovation. Perhaps other schemes could be devised.
Products should be made to last and be repaired, and should be built to be recycled. This implies changes to manufacturing techniques. Many electronics products can no longer be repaired. They are built by robots and humans can't deal with such small scale components. Ease of disassembly should be a design criteria not just ease of assembly.
If we do contemplate creating less "stuff" and having what is made last longer, then what happens to all the workers? There are many options. People could work less, either for fewer years or less during the year. With fewer material possessions the amount of time required to pay for this material decreases. Many services that are offered because people don't have time to do for themselves could be eliminated. I never fail to be surprised by those who pay to run on a treadmill while also paying to have someone mow their lawn. Mow your own lawn! Save twice.
The rise of online communities, especially social networks, shows that humans have not really changed. When life was slower, people met in the town square, over the back fence or at the local pub. They seemed to have no problem filling up their spare time with companionship and local activities. One mediocre singer now blankets the world. In a prior age there would be local performers in each community. There is room for both.
Perhaps there needs to be a type of national service. Rather than being dedicated to militarism as is common at present, the young and hearty could spend a couple of years supplying the labor needed to grow food and perform other essential, but less desirable tasks. There are many tasks which don't require much training to be performed and a rotating workforce would work well. I'm not sure what to do about brain surgeons.
It is clear that things are going to have to change. Some changes are already underway and are irreversible. Population pressure is causing the collapse of fish stocks, the desertification of marginal crop lands and water shortages. Non-renewable feed stocks such as fossil fuels and rare earth metals are rapidly rising in price. Demand reduction is the only possible long-term solution. Less demand means less need for conventional work. Everything is connected.