Avengers: Infinity War debuted just three days ago. On April 14, 2008, almost ten years ago, Iron Man premiered as the first chapter of this gargantuan film saga, and there is still no clear end in sight! The Marvel Cinematic Universe has fundamentally changed popular culture, bringing us out of the era of dark, gritty reboots and into an age of more upbeat dramedies and awkward, millennial humor. We see it being imitated with the hastily assembled DC Cinematic Universe, the emergence of the long-foretold and still ongoing Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, the Star Trek reboot, and so on. What is more telling, however, is what it spells out for the future of mankind’s economy.
Yes, I said mankind. We are coming to the end of an era as a species and entering a new one, and Infinity War is solid proof of the changing times. To give some perspective on the enormity of this project, the films that have been released so far in the MCU have cost a combined $3.6 billion dollars to make, and that is not counting the budgets of its television shows such as Agent Carter or Jessica Jones. So far, they have made almost $6.6 billion in box office revenue, a number that is set to grow substantially as Infinity War is responsible for about $680 million of that and still has plenty of run time ahead of it. Marvel can claim more wealth than President Trump at this moment.
What provides an even more detailed picture is the number of people employed in film-making. The MCU again provides ample evidence of this. Nearly every major actor in the English-speaking world has found a role in this film series. That statement simply cannot be said about any other endeavor at this moment. Whether they are young faces like that of Michael B. Jordan or old guardsmen such as Robert Redford, there is a role for nearly everyone. Of course, it would be careless to settle the point on just the breadth of actors. Crews have grown too.
In the 90s, crew sizes for the most major films did not tend to exceed 500 persons, but the movies we see today require a crew of about 3,000 to make. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor determined that nearly 250,000 people were employed in the American film industry, which is a significant rise from 193,000 in 2006. That is quite a trend we are seeing.
Then you have to think of the ripple effect it creates. Think of how many people are put to work in the video game industry, as playable versions of these action films are produced. Think of the people employed for all the merchandising these films create. Think of all the people who work at theatres and amusement parks as a result of all this. Now repeat that process for all the other film franchises we are seeing. Once again, Uncle Sam gives us some insight, estimating that about 2.3 million people are currently employed in entertainment in some form, while just under 2 million were employed in 2008. Again, this shows decent growth, and as other companies seek to copy Marvel, we can expect it to continue.
This growth should not come as a surprise either. It is, in fact, the natural course, a road that mankind is fated to walk. Humanity has cycled through many economies by now. We started out as hunter-gatherers and traded what we could find on the ground. This lasted for tens of thousands of years until we discovered agriculture. Then most of us became farmers for thousands of years. Just over a couple hundred years ago, the invention of the steel plow and the discovery of coal as a power source led to the Industrial Revolution. As computers and complex machinery took off in the late Twentieth Century, we entered the Information Age. Like an exponential curve, each age is shorter than the last, but I argue that we are about the enter the longest one yet. It will mark our final economy: The Entertainment Age.
What else is there but to work to entertain each other? Each age led into another by solving another level of needs, needs of food, of shelter, of safety, of infrastructure, and so on. Nowadays, we are living with inventions that were, a couple of decades ago, the stuff of science fiction. The development of artificial intelligence is elevating our potential to new heights. Very soon, it will replace many of these service jobs that replaced our manufacturing jobs. Just as you can see the growth of entertainment, you can also see the decline in service jobs. Self check-out registers are already popping up across stores, gradually becoming the mainstream. Cornerstone Capital Group projects that about 47% of the 16 million jobs in retail will be lost due to automation. The tides are indeed turning.
The one need that robots, assembly lines, and engineering will not be able to fill is our basic need for entertainment, for stimulation. Once every possible job based on meeting our physical needs is supplanted by technology, every single person will have to direct their labor toward this. You might be wondering: why would technology not simply replace that too? The answer is rather simple. No one cares about the creative efforts of machines. We are not interested in which robot can run the fastest in the Olympics. We want to see human greatness on the track and field. We do not want to see a painting done by a computer. No one was ever awed by a printer. The works of da Vinci, however, are impressive and inspiring.
The future trend is that we are going to see more people employed or self-employed in careers of leisure and recreation. This is not limited to the traditional film and television companies. We see it already with the Web’s explosive ability to empower amateurs. Platforms such as YouTube are enabling people who might have gone on to live plain lives to earn tens of millions of dollars per yer. There are plenty of other avenues that allow individuals to monetize their creative talent too: iTunes, Patreon, DeviantArt, Steam, Twitch, SoundCloud. Even this site, Medium, will prove to be an integral part of the future’s means of production.
The Entertainment Age will not be confined to the box office and the Internet. Competitive sports will escalate. There will be more athletes and more leagues, in old games and new ones. There will be more basketball players, more chess grandmasters, more card sharks at the poker table, more Super Smash Bros. contenders, and more paintball warriors. Each of these will give chances of prize money to the winners and opportunities for advertisers.
There will be more poetry, more plays in local theatres, more novels, more sculptures, and more comedic monologues. Nearly all of human labor will be freed up for these pursuits, and the human brain, ever looking for stimulation, will always provide a market for it. The question is whether or not we will enter this period of history smoothly. We might very well bungle the transition.
Political conservatives have been arguing, recently, that education should focus primarily on trades and less on general education and certainly less on the arts. The implementation of such suggestions in actual policy would be disastrous, simply because the arts are the trades of the future. Conservatives do not appreciate how relatively soon it will be until plumbers and electricians are also usurped by automation, and even if they will be the last holdouts, it will be impractical to focus on those alone as other old careers crumble and new ones continue to spring up. There will only be so many pipes that need to be fixed at any given moment, after all.
Public officials must ensure that the Entertainment Age starts off on the right foot with adequate funding to the arts in schools. Furthermore, since this transition will probably occur faster than individuals can adapt (due to the growing speed of technological advancement), the government will probably need to subsidize the incomes of the people, through something like universal basic income, in order to keep households (and thus a large portion of the consumer base) in tact until they can find new employment. UBI may prove to be somewhat necessary even afterward, as a means of reducing excessive wealth inequality.
That is the future, in a nutshell. If I can make one more prediction, it is this: Prepare to see more Infinity Wars as we enter the final economy of the Entertainment Age. Marvel has proved that you can take what was once a risky idea of a sprawling, long-term movie universe and rake in the big bucks. We will probably even see franchises that stretch over several decades. Some actors may only have one major role for their entire lives. On that note, it is also worth considering what an “entire life” will mean as technology and, consequently, medicine improve, but again, that is a topic for another article and another day. In the meantime, you might as well get ahead on your YouTube channel!