The uncomfortable truth about technological unemployment.
Tonight we’re going to my parents’ house for dinner and to see my dad’s latest Christmas light display. For as long as I can remember, my dad has been creating elaborate displays of exterior illumination for the Christmas season. In our family, we went by the unspoken motto: nothing welcomes the savior like pushing your total household amperage to the limit. He is a real-life Clark Griswald.
This is the first Christmas we’re spending in our own home so today I spent the afternoon stringing up a modest display of my own across the eaves of the front porch. The work required manual labor and very low-level problem-solving…and I really enjoyed it. In some ways I wish economics would allow me to spend more time working with my hands outside and less time in front of the blue light of this monitor. But that is not to be.
We are in the beginning years of a massive trend towards an increasingly technological and automated society. It will reshape the global economy. It will change domestic politics. It is already changing the way we work.
Jobs are being redefined. Fewer of us spend our days in physically taxing jobs. We do more sedentary knowledge work. Machines are doing more work for us. The nature of technological advancement is such that we all benefit from increased efficiency provided by machines but the owners of the machines reap disproportionate financial rewards.
Vanity Fair spelled out connection between tech and income inequality in a recent article, “Are We at the Start of a Tech World War?”:
“Technology…has helped oversee an extraordinary re-distribution of wealth that has tilted American society off its axis. Since 1979, when Steve Jobs was first visiting Xerox Parc and learning about the computer mouse — a moment that would change computing, and hence society, forever — the bottom 80 percent of American families has had their share of the country’s income fall, while the top 20 percent has enjoyed modest gains. The top 1 percent, of course, has coincidentally seen their income rise stratospherically. To borrow from Bernie Sanders’s stump speech, the richest 1 percent in America have almost 40 percent of our country’s wealth, while the bottom 90 percent have 73 percent of the debt. This is largely the result of technology.”
If you don’t believe that, try buying a three-bedroom house anywhere in Silicon Valley where dot com millionaires have driven real estate prices into the stratosphere.
Offshoring jobs? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
This year voters in the U.K. and U.S. proved just how poignant are their concerns about losing jobs to immigration, free trade, and offshoring work to lower-cost workers in other countries. But businesses are driven to make profits and if worker A will do the same job at the same quality more cheaply than worker B, you can bet worker A will get the work.
That has been the story of the rise of China in the past few decades. But look ahead, and see even China’s workers are at risk of being displaced by technology. I read earlier this year that the Chinese iPhone maker Foxconn has replaced 60,000 human jobs with robots.
Martin Ford published an opinion piece in The New York Times last year about China’s troubling robot revolution, pointing out that “Automation has already had a substantial impact on Chinese factory employment: Between 1995 and 2002 about 16 million factory jobs disappeared, roughly 15 percent of total Chinese manufacturing employment.”
Ford continues, “That might not be a problem if the Chinese economy were generating plenty of higher-skill jobs for more educated workers. The solution, then, would simply be to offer more training and education to displaced blue-collar workers.”
However, China isn’t creating enough white-collar jobs, even for its college graduates, much less blue collar assembly line workers. As Ford reports, “In mid-2013, the Chinese government revealed that only about half of the country’s current crop of college graduates had been able to find jobs, while more than 20 percent of the previous year’s graduates remained unemployed.”
iPhones may be designed in California, but they are built in China…by machines.
ATMs may be the most prevalent example in the West of replacing people with machines. But more examples sprout up daily. Driverless Ubers are now carrying passengers in Pittsburgh. Self-checkout lanes coldly greet you at Wal-Mart. I just read that computers are getting better than people at identifying suicidal behavior.
These first-order effects of these developments are wonderful. But the second-order effects are leading to a massive dislocation of workers. It may well be that we create new jobs and that we’re facing just a temporary time of transition, like we did in the industrial revolution. I hope so. But the effects of this “temporary” transition will affect millions of people. As Arthur C. Brooks and the Dalai Lama identified,
“In America today, compared with 50 years ago, three times as many working-age men are completely outside the work force. This pattern is occurring throughout the developed world — and the consequences are not merely economic. Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”
But what if this isn’t a temporary transition time? Nicholas Thompson’s Atlantic article “A World Without Work” remains one of my favorite summaries of this concern (profiled in a previous Weekend Reader “Workin’ It”). In it he tells a short vignette to introduce the idea:
“When former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was an MIT undergraduate in the early 1970s, many economists disdained ‘the stupid people [who] thought that automation was going to make all the jobs go away,’ he said at the National Bureau of Economic Research Summer Institute in July 2013. ‘Until a few years ago, I didn’t think this was a very complicated subject: the Luddites were wrong, and the believers in technology and technological progress were right. I’m not so completely certain now.’”
The idea is not that work suddenly disappears altogether, but that, “technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work — that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.”
To understand the argument for why that might happen, check out Thompson’s article, or read The Second Machine Age. An incomplete summary might be this: As we move into a digital economy, the power of our machines and our efficiencies are growing at an exponential rate, such that they will likely be able to take over many activities that make up our human work, and be so effective that we won’t create new human jobs that are worth doing. I won’t try to make the argument that that will happen — read everything I’ve suggested here and let me know what you think.
We might dream of a 4-hour workweek, but we weren’t made for that. We were made to work. When we work, we find purpose and we find dignity. I wouldn’t suggest we try to stop technological progress for the sake of protecting jobs. Far from it. But we do need to recognize that every technological leap forward has a cost. And the cost is becoming the value of human work itself.
Reflecting on my time on the ladder this afternoon, testing bulbs and hanging lights, makes me think maybe we’ll always find ways to work. Even if we don’t need to.