Robots and Riots

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You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots. — Stephen Colbert

There’s a Doomsday scenario where machines take over all jobs and everyone becomes unemployed. Evictions, hunger, and illness ensue. Riots in the streets. Calls for a guaranteed national income. Legislation to prevent robots from being built at all. Political calamities. A real mess.

French police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators Tuesday as tens of thousands packed the streets of Paris in an outpouring of opposition to the government’s anti-labor agenda. news item

If workers will riot over incremental changes to employment, imagine how berserk they’ll go if all the jobs disappear.

“But robots will never take every job!” Oh, yes they will. We humans are clever — we’ve invented countless labor-saving gadgets over the centuries, devices stronger or faster or more precise than people can be. We’re also clever enough to invent mechanical brainpower that’s stronger, faster, and more precise than our own. In fact, we’re developing this Superior Artificial Intelligence as we speak. Such an intellect will eclipse our own poor powers and take charge. Soon.

(Which would you rather buy, something dirt cheap but excellent from a machine, or something flawed and unreliable and expensive from a human? Hmm.)

This could easily become a bad thing, since people thrown out of work generally don’t have money for food, rent, gasoline, and doctor visits. Also, most of us derive meaning from our labors, and without a job — a way to contribute — people might find themselves existentially adrift. Combine a lack of purpose with a lack of cash, and you get street riots and the other disasters.

And it also could be a good thing … if the automata serve us faithfully and make us all wealthy. We’d have endless free time to pursue our interests, with no need to convert hobbies into jobs. In that world to come, what matters would no longer be how rich you are, but how interesting you are. I call it The Star Trek Future.

(Yes, I’m well aware that this very blog could be replaced by automation. I’d have to find some other way to amuse myself. Tennis, anyone?)

A solution that lately has gotten traction is a guaranteed national income — a stipend for every adult citizen. If all people were unemployed, only those who owned investments would have regular income. The corporations would need to donate money to the unemployed, or none of them would buy any products.

The problem with this plays out as follows: I own a store, and you come in to get a candy bar but don’t have any money. I give you a dollar, and you hand it back to me for the candy bar. Essentially, I’m performing a short ceremony with you, at the end of which I give you a free candy bar. At this rate, I’ll go broke.

Another idea involves a kind of fiscal land reform: the government confiscates corporate stock and hands it out to everyone. We’d all become owners of the robots that took our jobs. Automated production would go to our bottom line, and everything turns out fine.

Except this would basically destroy the market economy. Nobody would invest in companies anymore, lest their hard-won gains be taken from them abruptly in some similar, future upheaval.

But what people aren’t talking about and what’s getting my attention, is a forthcoming rapid demonetization of the cost of living. — Peter Diamandis

What to do, then? It turns out there’s a solution that will likely unfold as a natural consequence of total automation of jobs. It’s called demonetization, and it will cause most prices to plummet. After all, robots don’t take vacations; they don’t need healthcare for their kids; they don’t go on strike; and they perform their tasks vastly more efficiently than can humans. They work much better and much cheaper.

Thus, though we may all one day find ourselves unemployed, our expenses could decline by as much as 90 percent. A meal at a fast-food restaurant would cost 50 cents, and a ride in a driverless taxi would set us back about 30 cents per mile, less than half the cost of car ownership. Dirt-cheap housing will be built using 3-D printing. Meanwhile, online education already is basically free, and the smartphone in your pocket comes with a slew of products and services that 30 years ago would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given a small stipend from the government and/or a small stake in the big corporations, people would have more than enough cash to pay for basic necessities even if they were out of work.

It’s also important to bear in mind that non-human employment will likely emerge over time and not all at once. Economic downturns in recent decades have tended to resolve themselves with “jobless recoveries” as businesses bought new software first and then hired real people. This hints at workforce automation building momentum slowly over several decades.

Instead of being eliminated, your job might merely get cut back, bit by bit: they’d offer to keep you on at reduced hours that drop even further over the coming months and years. Of course, your pay would decline, but meanwhile your personal expenses will have plummeted due to all that cheap automation everywhere in the economy. So who cares? You just got a bunch of extra hours away from work while retaining essentially the same lifestyle.

(If you’re worried this optimistic scenario won’t play out according to plan, there are a number of ways to adapt your work life to reduce or delay your risk of being replaced by a machine.)

If business and government can coordinate properly (and that’s a BIG “if”), automation might supplant us gradually, so we retain a declining level of employment while prices also decline. We could actually achieve a soft landing into a life of prosperous leisure.

That’s not Doomsday. That’s more like Paradise.

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UPDATE: Will we control AI?

UPDATE: Jobs are already disappearing as robots take over

UPDATE: Automation begins to clean out white-collar jobs

UPDATE: The rise of the useless class

UPDATE: How to get paid in the Age of Layoffs

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How to Deal with a Minimum Wage

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If $10 is so great, why not $20 or $50 an hour? — Matt Palumbo

Not long ago, I sat with friends in the patio of a fast-food restaurant, munching on desserts and enjoying gentle conversation. One of the servers, whom lately we’d befriended, joined us. We discussed his experiences there, and at one point he mentioned a raise he’d just received due to an uptick in the state’s minimum wage. “It’s ten bucks an hour now,” he said. “So when things get slow, the manager sends me home early.” 

…Oh. 

Apparently the new minimum wage costs the restaurant money, and the manager sidles around it by reducing work hours. Our friend the server got a raise in name only. In fact, if he loses enough hours, he could end up making less money.

The political Left insists a minimum wage is (1) just, (2) affordable, and (3) not a factor in unemployment rates. Why, then, are businesses trying to wiggle around it? Are they simply greedy and heartless?

Poke a Progressive and you open a deep well of resentment against the affluent. You also find a reservoir of outdated ideas about economics. Left-wingers tend not to be the most financially successful among their fellow citizens, and they often find it hard to imagine how anyone can get rich without stealing it. (Once, as an experiment at a gathering, I recited the old saw, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” and a left-wing acquaintance practically jumped up and cheered.) 

What’s more, most liberals seem to believe the gilded gentry stash their wealth in huge piles of doubloons in their basements … and the rich should jolly-well share it, as they must have hijacked it from the rest of us, who could sure use some of that coin, especially when it isn’t doing any good down in the cellar.

Liberals fail to understand, or ignore, the fact that finance has come a long way since the Middle Ages, and that most wealth today is held in the form of investments — stocks, bonds, etc. — that help firms raise money so they can hire workers. Taxing those resources and handing them out to the poor may give the less fortunate some spending cash, but it extracts that money from businesses, which must then reduce worker hours or lay them off altogether. Society as a whole isn’t exactly coming out ahead.

The other thing the Left fails to grasp is scale, another trait that modernity brings to the marketplace. When someone comes up with a great product or service, and people scramble to buy it, that someone uses the profits to scale up the business so it can sell to larger and larger numbers of patrons. The first sale multiplies into tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of further sales. That is how most wealthy people get rich, not by holding up banks or pulling a Bernie Madoff. They made money because they earned it by scaling up a successful product. 

And (unless they received special advantages from government regulators) they didn’t get wealthy by forcing patrons to pay a higher figure; they got rich because they offered an attractive product at a competitive price.

Which brings us back to the minimum wage. If you push up the price of anything, customers will go away. This is just as true of labor as it is of autos or TV sets or candy bars. Every worker who benefits from an increase in the minimum wage has gotten a windfall profit at the expense of her company. The cost of doing business went up but there’s no improvement in productivity or product. Companies respond by laying off workers (or, in the case of our friend the server, shortening his hours), or raising prices. This results in fewer customers, which further increases layoffs. And that doesn’t work out well for anyone.

The Left will argue that the stinking-rich business owner has restricted the worker’s natural right to a certain amount of pay, and he ought to shell out from his ill-gotten gains to provide that “just wage”– Say what? Is there a gigantic piece of parchment floating above the Earth with the exact pay rate scratched into it by God? And who’s gonna pay for it? The most garishly overcompensated CEOs receive teensy fractions of the total value of their corporations. Massive wage increases would dig huge holes in company revenues. Layoffs and bankruptcies would ensue.

Meanwhile, most businesses are run, not by fat cats, but by hard-working middle-income owners. Sure, the boss drives a Mercedes, but he bought it seven years ago and it badly needs detailing.

“Fine, but minimum wages don’t hamper employment!” It turns out research shows the opposite: minimum wages do hobble hiring: “ . . . after one or two years, fewer businesses will open, existing businesses will close faster, and fewer jobs will be available.” Worse, minimum wage increases hit minorities harder, thwarting their job search. White supremacists would applaud. 

In fact, the first minimum wage campaigns, a century ago, were explicitly for the purpose of keeping people of color out of the job market. The ideas was that no one would hire them at an artificially inflated wage, leaving the field clear for the more experienced and costly white workers. Back then, Progressives understood enough economics to know that a minimum wage was tantamount to a hiring freeze on the lower classes. And they supported this crusade as a form of eugenics! Liberals hadn’t yet heard the news about racism, and many promoted minimum wages as a form of slow genocide. Amazing, but true. (Woodrow Wilson, get back in line.)

Anyway, how can a business adapt to upward surges in the minimum wage?

  • Hold off on new hires. Instead, increase the hours for your better employees.
  • Send workers home early on slow days. (Sorry, my server friend! But the boss is trying to keep the doors open for everyone.)
  • Hire part-timers instead of full-timers. This sidesteps paying overtime, healthcare, pensions, etc. Your employees will compensate by finding second jobs, which can make work schedules a headache. But it offsets, to some degree, the forced wage increase.
  • Hire robots. Software, 3-D printers, robot vacuums, etc, don’t require healthcare or vacations … or minimum wages.
  • Hire sales and marketing people. Your costs just went up; it’s time to reach out to new customers.
  • Improve your products. You can charge a premium for specialty items. Roll up your sleeves and get creative.
  • Raise prices. Do this gently! You don’t want sticker shock to chase away your customers.

(Before trying any of the above, check to be sure you don’t run afoul of local statutes. Your mileage may vary.)

In case some of you are working for The Man at minimum wage — and think I’m a heartless bastard — I have great ideas for you, too. And they’re much bigger than a one-dollar pay boost. Check them out here and here.

The minimum wage isn’t really helping, but it is costing businesses — and their customers — money. Still, there are workarounds. 

And the next time somebody buttonholes you about supporting a minimum wage increase, simply thank them politely, tip your hat, and run away.

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UPDATE: Funny if it weren’t true: DC activists now want minimum wage raised to $35-$50/hr

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Equity as Pay

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One way to improve your income is to increase the ways clients can pay you — hourly, salary, full-time, part-time, contractor, percentage of revenues, percentage of profits, barter. (To name a few.) One method that can make you a fortune — or, more likely, pay you nothing — involves taking a piece of the client’s company as compensation.

You get involved in a project — a start-up, perhaps — where they need your help but don’t have much cash to pay you. If you’re going to be their sales rep, the answer is easy: a percentage of revenue from your sales. But if you’re a techie or administrator or accountant, it’s harder to determine how a cash-strapped operation can pay you. So you offer to take part of your remittance as equity: a small-percentage ownership in the business.

You might be tempted to ask for, say, one percent. It seems reasonable — not too greedy. And, in a going concern, it could easily amount to a nice little income stream for you. 

The problem is that any ownership stake you receive early in the game is likely to become diluted as more people get involved in the project. To begin with, the founder is handing you a part of his or her ownership, and by the time new partners and banks and angels and venture capitalists have muscled their way in, the founder’s piece of the action has been reduced greatly. And your one percent shrivels to a few basis points. 

Knowing this, you may wish to ask for five- or ten-percent ownership. Then you call up your favorite contract lawyer and get an iron-clad agreement that guarantees you a payout in the event of a major change, such as when the business gets sold. 

Still, this method is fraught with dangers. An acquaintance got such a contract, with an elaborate payout clause in the event of a sale — but the company merged with another by buying it, which thereby canceled the clause. He received diddly.

You could ask, as the sales reps do, for a percentage of revenues. One problem here is that businesses often need bridge loans to keep going, and banks don’t take kindly to watching repayment revenues get tied up in employment contracts.

Another problem is exemplified by the way Hollywood does business. Moviemaking is inherently speculative, and talent sometimes negotiates pay based on “net profits”. But accounting standards permit studios to play fast and loose with the rules — and they pile every imaginable item into “costs” to reduce the net — to the point where major film successes often end up showing no gain. For this reason, movie “net profits” are sneeringly referred to as “monkey points”. 

In showbiz (and everywhere else, for that matter) it’s probably better to ask instead for a percentage of “first-dollar gross” revenues. If the owner balks, try to arrange your pay in some other manner entirely. Avoid monkey points.

Once the contract is signed, don’t hold your breath, because most fledgling operations go nowhere. For example, of 30,000 Internet start-ups each year, a mere ten will soak up more than two-thirds of all the resulting value — and one will be worth more than all the others combined. So it’s a steep hill to climb.

Why not make this kind of offer to an established company? Well, nobody wants to give up ownership — or issue a long stream of payouts over months and years — unless they have to. Major businesses usually have plenty of cash to pay contractors, so they’ll likely turn you down. Worse, now and then a big corporation will sign the contract, then simply renege and dare you to sue them. After all, they have great lawyers and lots of time, and you don’t. I know of two instances of this happening among my immediate network, and neither ended well for the victims.

(It’s not that all business leaders are pirates. Okay, some of them are. But all of them do run into problems now and then, and they start tossing things overboard, including vendors. On the other hand, when a business — especially a B-to-B — gets into fatal trouble and crashes and burns, its customers tend to stop paying their bills. After all, why throw money at a dead thing? So, deep in the cold heart of the corporate world, there beat little fluttery pulses of moral compensation for the rest of us.) 

Let’s review:

1. Ask for more equity than you’re comfortable with — say, ten percent — because that will get whittled down to almost nothing by the time you see dime one.

2. Get a really good lawyer. Make sure the attorney has found every nook and cranny where the business can bury a contract bomb that blows up your takeaway, and seal off those dangers. Then cross your fingers.

3. Hope for the best but prepare for disappointment. Take what you get, forgive them their trespasses, and walk away. 

Then: Onward! To the next job.

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A Robot Took My Job

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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: Robots will replace workers, reduce costs by 90%

UPDATE: Robots will take half of British jobs

UPDATE: Book The Future of the Professions

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Automation will replace half of the world’s jobs in 30 years

UPDATE: A national income for the Post-Employment Age

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The End of Job Security

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If your job description isn’t already changing, it probably will in the near future. You can’t afford to stand still in your career. — Daniel Burrus

Today, a tap on your smartphone brings a clean, quiet, inexpensive taxi service to your door in less than five minutes. Another tap on your phone brings up a list of private rooms you can stay in while on a trip. Tap again and you get a roster of assistants who will bid to help you with nearly any type of project.

Meanwhile, workers grouse because they must labor at two part-time jobs instead of one full-time. They grouse because businesses are hiring help from overseas instead of locally. They grouse because corporations use robots instead of humans. They grouse because suddenly their work lives aren’t secure anymore.

What’s going on? Clearly employment is shifting and changing. Advances in technology bring conveniences to our lives while threatening our jobs.

Yet there’s more to it. The time of the corporate worker may be coming to an end, and we’re not ready for it. We are challenged, not merely to get a second job or write protest letters to our legislators, but to change our attitude.

Most of our great-great grandparents worked on farms. They had to bring in the crops, slop the pigs, milk Bossy, and batten down the barn against storms. If they got kicked by a horse, there was no emergency vehicle to rescue them. If the crops failed, they could starve.

The post-Civil War Industrial Revolution put huge factories in the cities, and people flocked there to find steady, if dull, work. Over the decades, factories and office buildings became the centers of our work lives. The entire culture shifted to adapt. It’s taken decades to get to this point, and it’s proven to be a tremendously prosperous way of life.

We’re raised to be workers in this corporate world. We start in families where Mom and Dad are the bosses who hand us chores and give us allowances. We grouse about them but depend on them. For school, we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our studies, and receive our grades. We grouse about the teachers but depend on them. When we graduate, we find jobs where we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our work and receive our pay. We grouse about the bosses but depend on them.

Today, most of us do as we’re told and receive our paychecks, all in a safe locale. We’re supported and protected by the institutions in which we toil. And now the rug’s being pulled out from under us.

High-speed advances in technology make for high-speed changes in the work world. Products and services get taken over by computerized processes. It’s no longer the age of “forty years and a gold watch” — it’s the age of the contractor and the entrepreneur. And most people aren’t ready for it at all.

In a corporate culture our work incentives are similar to what they were back at home and in school: do what you’re told, don’t make trouble, get your grades— er, pay. We’re rewarded for behaving like obedient children. It’s a tidal pull, and most of us succumb to it. We’re juvenilized by society. 

Just because we’re over 21 doesn’t mean we’ve grown up. We think, “Well, I finished school, got a job and a car and a place to live, and I’m dating a great person and we’re gonna get married and raise kids. I must be a grown-up.” But that’s a child’s idea of adulthood!

If you’re waiting in the placement office for someone to pick you, you will be consistently undervalued. — Seth Godin

There’s almost no conversation about what it means to be an adult. There’s no percentage in doing so for our elders, teachers, employers, and leaders. We’re easier to manage if we’re docile and well behaved. 

That we feel entitled — especially to various goodies from the government — explains why so many of us, in our work and civic lives, talk like we’re spoiled children. That we often spend our nights and weekends in front of TVs — or getting drunk — speaks to the paucity of our courage (and the drudgery of our safe jobs). Succumbing to childlike fears, we replace the great and ennobling quests of our dreams with mere recreation.

Most of us sleep-walk our way through our careers, and now many of those careers lie in tatters. For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls us. It’s not safe anymore. And we can’t go back.  

Something fell by the wayside as the farming past morphed into the corporate present. Those farmers had an advantage we lack.

Back then, you had to be responsible for your outcomes in an often dangerous environment. In the corporate culture, you can stay a child forever, but on the farm you had to grow up or die. 

The good news is that we can reclaim what the farmers knew. And we can use that wisdom to help us deal with an uncertain future.

That wisdom is responsibility.

In today’s uncertain, unstable work environment, we need to find within ourselves the responsible and adaptive person our forbears could invoke in troubled times. We need, once again, to become adults.

Responsibility involves being able and willing to take care of oneself, to take charge of one’s life. If we accept the challenge and take responsibility for our work lives, we will find, not danger and insecurity, but challenge and opportunity.

We need, especially, to be able to adapt to changing conditions, to roll with the punches. We need to “surf the wave we’re on.” The technology that threatens our job security also offers ways to improve our situation.

What we’ve got, today, is tremendous opportunities disguised as troubling shifts in workplace stability.

The information revolution is reversing the industrial revolution. What the industrial age did was it allowed individuals to team up in mechanized hierarchical ways to create factories and production. . . . In the future it’s all headed towards individual brands. . . . We’re all founders. We are all meant to work for ourselves. — Naval Ravikant

Here, then, are some starter ideas for navigating the roiling seas of the changing work environment:

• The career middle path: Computers and robots tend to replace human workers in areas where the task can be calculated and calibrated mathematically. Oddly, the simplest jobs are often the hardest to automate. (It’s more difficult for a machine to lift a glass of water than to play a game of chess.) Meanwhile, some of the most challenging and prestigious jobs — data analysis, disease diagnosis, factory management — are straightforward tasks for computing. Recruiters no longer prize MBA grads as much as good salespeople and entrepreneurial self-starters. Some of the highest-skill careers are disappearing, while many of the low-paying, low-skill, high-touch jobs still thrive. Safest, for now, are those mid-level careers — craftspeople, tradespeople (plumbers, electricians), sales — that require several skill sets or advanced people skills. Plan accordingly.

The 10 most difficult roles to fill are: skilled trade workers (eg. electricians, chefs, butchers, mechanics), sales representatives, mechanical and civil engineers, technicians, drivers, management/executives, accounting or otherwise financial professionals, office support staff, IT staff, and production or machine operations workers. — Daniel Burrus

• Multiple career identities: We often define ourselves by our jobs: “I’m a doctor” … “I’m a salesperson” … “I’m an artist” … “I’m a scientist”. Today it may be better to regard ourselves as people who juggle several opportunities at once. At the very least, don’t let the work define you:

• “I’m a sales person” — Instead: “I do sales work, and I’m developing some new product ideas.”

• “I’m an office worker” — Instead: “I do work for the [so-and-so] company, and I’m taking night classes and developing a home-based project.”

• “I’m a doctor” – Instead: “I treat patients at the local hospital and teach a class at the university, and I’m writing a book about medicine.” 

Think for yourself as a free agent, responsible for your own security and always on the lookout for the next great job. — Stephen Pollan

• Two part-time jobs: Many companies have responded to government demands for more full-time benefits by hiring part-time workers. We can bitch and moan about this, but we’d be behaving like kids who grouse about their unfair parents. Instead, we can invoke our inner adult and grab the opportunities at hand: 

• Two part-time jobs can add up to more money than one full-time job in the same field. 

• A couple of part-time jobs often allow for flexible scheduling, so a worker can arrange for a free day to visit the doctor (or Disneyland). 

• Workers can receive ObamaCare, so this part of the benefits is covered. Meanwhile, other bennies are effectively paid for by lowering salaries. (There’s no free lunch, kiddies. Remember: we need to grow up.)

• If you lose one part-time job, you still have the other, which is better than losing all of it at once. 

• It’s easier to replace one of the part-time jobs (if, say, you hate it) than replace a full-time bad one.

• Multiple jobs reduce boredom, not to mention the all-too-common feeling of being trapped in a 40-hour quagmire. 

Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. — Theodore Roosevelt

• Multiple streams of income: It’s been said that the wealthy tend to have several sources of money. And several is much more secure than only one. The list might include:

• A main job

• A side job (instructor, sales rep, consultant, craftsperson)

• Investments: 401Ks, IRAs, savings, inheritance, etc 

• A percentage of a business you helped start

• A unique product for sale online or at stores

• A “long tail” older product that still generates a trickle of sales

• A group project — perhaps with friends, family, or co-workers — that’s growing into a money-making enterprise

I’m always looking for people who have created successful side businesses that ultimately bloomed into multiple sources of income for themselves. You can do this whether or not you are an employee, an entrepreneur, or anywhere in between. — James Altucher

• Multiple online sources of work and pay: It’s those smartphones that started all this, so you might as well take full advantage of them:

jobs.monster.com and similar websites offer clearinghouses for your job search.

Kickstarter and others provide a chance — for those of us without venture capitalists on speed dial — to raise short-term funds for start-up businesses.

WordPress.com offers free and paid web services so you can create a site to sell your products or services. WordPress claims to have over twenty percent of all the web pages on the planet. With an audience that big, it’s worth looking into.

TaskRabbit: Here you can bid to do contract work in many fields. (The website accepts only ten percent of applicants, so fill out the form carefully.) Also look into Angie’s List and Thumbtack.

Fiverr: Kind of a “TaskRabbit Lite”, this site offers quick cash for short jobs.

Craigslist: Not only can you sell all sorts of items here — your obsolete cellphone, that old desk you don’t use anymore — but you can find and make job offers, too.

Flickr.com: Here you can vend your own photos to a gigantic audience. Look also at photo-and-art sale sites such as fineartamerica.com.

Amazon Flex is hiring Uber-type drivers to deliver packages.

Handmade at Amazon: This new entrant in the home-craft marketplace will bring its huge consumer base to compete with the current leader, Etsy.

Amazon bookstore: Here it’s easy to produce your own books in electronic and print formats (I’ve published two) and present them to the world’s largest audience of book lovers. Plus there’s an in-house printing company that can produce your paperback (or music CD). Amazon also owns Audible.com, where you can sell spoken versions of your written works (I’ve produced four). [Amazon keeps getting mentions because its customer base is huge, so any product or service you post there will be seen by a zillion eyeballs.]

I should be used as a mercenary, not a lifer. – Timothy Ferriss

• Reading list for early adopters:

The End of Jobs by Taylor Pearson — “Those that don’t adapt are becoming trapped in the downward spiral of a dying middle class – working harder and earning less. . . . a shift into the Fourth Economy has made entrepreneurship the highest-leveraged career path . . . ”

The Rich Employee by James Altucher: “Participating in the Idea Economy will allow you to succeed and become wealthy right there on the job instead of thrashing in the startup slaughterhouse.”

The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss — “Forget the old concept of retirement and the rest of the deferred-life plan — there is no need to wait and every reason not to, especially in unpredictable economic times.”

Robots Will Steal Your Job but That’s OK by Federico Pistono — “ . . . the displacement of labour by machines and computer intelligence will increase dramatically over the next few decades . . . ”

The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — The author made a killing in 2008 by anticipating the big downturn. “In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary . . . ”

Purple Cow by Seth Godin — How to “remarkabalize” your product so it stands out from the crowd and generates its own word of mouth.

The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg — “Most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school . . . how to find great mentors, build a world-class network, make your work meaningful (and your meaning work), build the brand of you, and more.” Read a summary here.

Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner — These engaging books on “the hidden side of everything” will help you look at economic and financial trends with fresh eyes.

“You want to be continuously learning new things and evolving what you do . . . ” — Pedro Domingos

…The disruptive business model symbolized by Uber is still in its infancy, but it can mature quickly into an adult-sized opportunity for you … if you take advantage of the changes. 

There are plenty of big problems out there that need solving, and people will pay you for results. Don’t wait for the boss to hand you an assignment; take the challenge and find some to solve. If you own the process, you’ll reap the rewards.

Our working society’s childhood is rapidly coming to an end. Most employees will resist this and try to remain in the comfortable corporate crib. You, on the other hand, can access your inner adult, zoom ahead of the competition, and move toward greater prosperity, freedom … and security.

Besides: it’ll be a grand adventure.

* * * *

UPDATE: Employment growth largest in careers that require strong social skills

UPDATE: The contingent economy rises from the ashes of unemployment

UPDATE: Corporations are still hiring

UPDATE: Where are all the young entrepreneurs?

UPDATE: Marc Andreesson on how to plan your career

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Watson computer replaces workers

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