If you are getting paid in excess of the value you create, you are either (a) a bureaucrat or (b) soon to find yourself replaced by a machine. — Adam C. Smith & Stewart Dompe
Back when ebooks first became popular and everyone bought tablet computers to read them, a magazine carried a cartoon in which two men, garbed in Renaissance clothing, were standing next to an early printing press, and before them on a table lay a brand-new book. One of the men said, “These are nice, but there’ll always be scrolls.”
Over the centuries, people have invented countless labor-saving devices, and today we reap enormous benefits from them: vehicles to transport us, washing machines for our clothes, indoor plumbing for fresh water at the turn of a tap, electricity to light our homes and refrigerate our food and power our TVs.
Most of these devices have substituted for human effort and thrown people out of work. Most of us who are employed tend to avert our eyes from this problem. After all, it’s something that has happened slowly over the decades, and people managed to adapt and find new work. But times have changed. Jobs are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate. We need to rethink this challenge.
At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the Jacquard Loom took work from weavers, who responded with the first labor action: they destroyed looms and demanded the machines be banned. A century and a half later, a story circulated that Henry Ford Jr and labor leader Walter Reuther were inspecting a new car factory, and Ford pointed to the fancy automated machinery on the floor, chiding Reuther, “How will you get those to join your union?” Reuther snapped back with, “How will you get them to buy your cars?”
Each invention has created markets for new kinds of work, and today most people are still working hard. We haven’t yet been obsoleted. But in recent decades, after recessions, businesses have failed to re-hire with the usual robustness. Economists now talk about “jobless recoveries”. The arrival of robotics, computing, and information technology has allowed for large-scale automation of routine tasks. Mid-level jobs (factory workers, office clerks) have succumbed to computerization, while low-skill labor (janitors, home healthcare workers) and high-skill work (attorneys, bankers, scientists) continue apace.
No wonder it seems as if there are more poor and rich people, while the middle class dwindles.
On close inspection, all this makes perfect, if discouraging, sense. Low-wage routine jobs involve the kind of motor skills anyone can do: vacuuming, making beds, taking out the trash. Yet these abilities are daunting for robotics.
At the other end of the spectrum sit computer programmers and researchers and financial managers and attorneys and doctors, all endowed with high-end technical expertise. These tasks involve a great deal of intuition and pattern recognition, abilities tough to program digitally.
What’s common about both groups is that their skills are hard to automate. It’s more difficult for a robot to pick up a glass of water than for a computer to play chess. Thus janitors and high-status professionals are safe. For now.
Soon enough, though, there will come a moment in history — the Singularity — when machine intelligence exceeds in all respects that of people. At that moment all bets are off about the future of humanity. Assuming we survive the lethal dangers of such a juncture, what then will become of us as workers, as employees, as money earners? Will we be tossed from our jobs because machines can do everything better? Will robots and automation act like Jacquard looms on steroids, laying waste to entire marketplaces of employment? How will people buy food, pay the rent, and maintain their vehicles if they no longer receive their regular income checks?
Nay-sayers argue that there’ll always be jobs because, no matter how many robots can provide stuff, there are ever more things people desire, and therefore there’ll always be a demand for an extra pair of hands. The problem is that, in the Singularity future, automatons will likely reproduce themselves quickly, as needed, in anticipation of desires. In other words, robots will also out-compete us in job creation.
How might societies respond?
• Riots — It happened in the early 1800s with textile workers; why wouldn’t it happen again this time, when most jobs suddenly disappear?
• Transfer payments — There’ll be calls for minimum personal incomes, essentially welfare for all, paid by the rich, to give consumers cash so they can buy products and keep production churning along.
• Nationalization of ownership — Governments might be tempted — along the lines of third-world “land reform” transfers of acreage to the poor — to force a partial allocation of stock ownership to the masses, so that everyone owns a minimal stake in the machines of production and the income that flows from it.
• Collectives of the unemployed — Groups locked out of robotic prosperity will develop what resources they have and trade among themselves until they accumulate enough material wealth to buy their own robots.
• A paradise of freebies — The same cost efficiencies that allow automatons to displace human workers will make products so cheap that anyone with pocket change can buy them. A TV for a dollar. A car for a hundred bucks. Dinner for a dime. Combined with a national wage, this will create a society where everyone — employed or not — is, in effect, independently wealthy.
Until that happens: those of us who need jobs will want to adapt to the shifting work environment. Here are some ideas:
Be useful — Automation is as yet poorly developed in areas requiring complex human movement, which can be anything from house cleaning to fine arts. Robots are still basically clumsy and autistic. The last jobs to fall will likely involve simple labor and/or strong social skills. If you can jump in and help with a variety of tasks, and if you play well with others on a team, you’ll likely keep your job longer.
Strengthen your technical skills — Anything technical can be automated, but that process is by no means complete. Your know-how can serve you for a number of years hence, so keep it polished.
Work on your marketing skills — Sales require a human touch — who wants to get a pitch from a machine? — and we’re all to some extent marketing ourselves at work. Don’t assume your job is safe simply because you got hired. Layoffs will be rampant, but those who can make clear their value to employers will last longer.
Work multiple jobs — Even full-timers need to keep their options open in the current climate. Side jobs can expand into full-time work, or at the very least can backstop you if things go bad at your regular job.
Develop multiple streams of income — Any side job you can automate will provide cash with little effort, so you’ll have time to concentrate on the work that needs your full attention. Also keep a close watch on your retirement accounts and other investments, with an eye to growing them enough to support you before your expected retirement age. Forty years from now the world will be a very different place, so don’t assume Social Security will be there to prop you up, especially if you’re young.
Stay loose and adaptive — The world will change in surprising ways, and you’ll want to be ready to take advantage of it. If you rest on your laurels, or if you depend too much on one source of income, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a financial butt-kicking. It’s better to prepare so you can take advantage of changing circumstances.
None of this is bad news, not really. It’s different news. It may look like misfortune, but it’s simply a new set of conditions that contain opportunities. To quote an old sage: the prepared person is one who takes life as “an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.”
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UPDATE: Book The Future of the Professions
UPDATE: Automation will replace half of the world’s jobs in 30 years