When my grandmother-in-law was a child, it was customary for women to spend most of their days washing clothes at the town fountain. It was hard, long work. Then, from one day to the next, everything changed: The washing machine had arrived. Significant time freed up, and she ended up becoming the first female graduate from her university department. Technological progress like the washing machine, IoT, and AI eliminates some types of jobs, but creates new ones, typically more complex and better paying. How might people transition to the better jobs?
In hindsight, the arrival of washing machine was clearly a dramatic improvement, but at first contact with the new technology, people weren’t so sure. Is this going to do it as well as you can? You can do it by hand, what’s the use of this machine? What will you do with all of your time? Isn’t this going to be much more expensive? These questions reflect common doubts for any new technology. Unfortunately, lack of proper contextualization, incertitude, and straight out abuse fuel social tensions, which can turn into violent unrest.
The most prominent example is the Luddite rebellion of 1812, in which weavers smashed the newly-introduced machine looms that were threatening their livelihood. This is hardly surprising, given that job security is a basic human need of civilized societies. However, the Great Depression took a much higher toll on employment than the introduction of machine looms: these of course generated many more jobs than the new technology replaced. What could have been done differently? With the benefit of contemporary hindsight, honoring and improving labor practices, an honest communication strategy, and focused retraining would have been beneficial for all parties involved. In times of economic prosperity, that’s a choice companies can make. A choice for enduring profit.
Adapting to change
The adoption of washing machines didn’t cause women to sit at home and do nothing. It was one of the elements that led them, for instance, to finally be able to achieve higher academic degrees. And thus getting higher-paying jobs, hence more influence in the family, and so on. The same will happen to jobs replaced by IoT and AI. Technological progress affecting one’s work is not a path to poverty, but rather an opportunity for more people achieving more wealth and security.
However, there is an important condition necessary to grab this opportunity. The condition is adapting to change.
When one’s work becomes obsolete it means that other opportunities have arisen elsewhere. These can be grasped with education, retraining, and willingness to adapt.
A legitimate question is then how much adaptation to change can actually be expected. Why? Simply because age combined with lifestyle affect the physiological ability to adapt to change. A weak degree of neural plasticity in the brain makes it physically more difficult to adapt to new situations. The neurons take longer to adapt, learning advances slowly, and can become frustrating. This is a neurological fact of life, not a disease. Hence, it’s not always question of being lazy, both as an accusation and as an excuse. Rather, it’s a point to be considered when discussing retraining as well as retirement. A society that understands this makes sure that education and retraining don’t just appear when people are jobless or too old. Learning is most beneficial when it’s recurring and deliberate.
Accessing all the work out there
Paraphrasing Tim O’Reilly, “Look around. There are so many things that can be improved. Jobs that neither robots nor AI alone can do.” The question of job security is not a matter of job availability, rather a question of accessibility. Where will the jobs be? Where should they be? How can the private sector find or train the people for the skillset they need? How can society facilitate the access to the new kinds of jobs?