Life After Robots: The Jobs Report

The giddy technology boosters of Wired magazine can’t wait for our robotic future, when we will give thanks to the robots for taking our old jobs away so that we can do more interesting and better paying work: “Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more!”

Unfortunately, this optimistic wish-thinking shows an embarrassing ignorance of economic history, including recent history.
For the reality is that workers who lose their jobs to technology tend to end up unemployed or employed at vastly lower wages. Society as a whole may end up better, but the displaced workers generally do not, even if their children do. See Rust Belt, USA. Or Textile Workers, England.

I believe the premise is correct: software and robots will indeed transform the workforce and the professions. Quite possibly 70% of job positions today will no longer exist at the end of the century. According to other estimates, the number may be closer to 45% of jobs taken away by robots.

And whereas it took decades to render farming jobs obsolete with mechanical tractors and farm equipment, software and robotics are evolving so quickly that they are likely to change what skills and jobs are needed at a faster rate.

Unfortunately, evidence to date suggests that workers cannot retrain so easily, even when they’re motivated and interested in changing careers. How many unemployed middle-aged factory workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, cashiers, clerks, administrative assistants and others succeed in going back to college and learning how to write and use advanced software and operate high end robotics?

We know the answer: not many. Large numbers of displaced workers can expect to spend extended periods of time on the unemployment rolls, only to discover that companies don’t want to hire them because they’ve been out of work. If they are lucky enough to get hired, they may find a new job at lower pay, often part-time, with fewer benefits and a lower title.

Yet there are still at least three good reasons for optimism.

  1. Technology costs are dropping rapidly.
  2. Workers may be becoming more adaptable (though the evidence is not yet in).
  3. And 70% job loss may not be as bad as it sounds.

Technology costs are declining rapidly, so that the same money can buy better, and more, and newer. Despite stagnating wages, and outright declines for those whose jobs have been replaced by technology, flat income can in fact buy more.

A tablet computer today costs a few hundred dollars and provides far more functionality than a $2,000 laptop did in twenty years ago. Taking inflation into consideration, the same salary can buy a vastly superior computer for on the order of 1/10th the cost.

Could we be headed toward a future where most people live on minimum wage jobs, or on unemployment checks, and yet they live better than people at any other time in history? Where a small number of fabulously wealthy people live like feudal lords? This is the future imagined in The Lights in the Tunnel.

That brings us to the second possible reason for optimism. Perhaps workers today are becoming a different breed, whose skills can adapt more easily.

Switching from a semi-skilled job on a factory floor to a computer operator or programmer for new robotics may be difficult. Switching from a computer operator for one type of robotics to a computer operator for the new generation of robotics may be easier. In other words, certain kinds of changes — from physical labor to service — may be a one-time switch, whereas jobs within a given category may be easier.

People may be more adaptable, and the adaptation may already be underway for the younger generations. The cycle of rapidly upgraded computers and telecommunications may be rewiring our brains for the economic future.

If technology continues to lower costs, and if people are indeed becoming more adaptable, and hence less vulnerable to technological unemployment, maybe the painful downside of the robotic revolution will be reduced, even without government intervention.

And in case you’re worried by a 45% or 70% job turnover from robotics and computers, that number is actually small compared to the normal turnover from non-technological causes. Around 15% of all jobs are lost without replacement in a given year. In that case, robotics will bring but a blip in the digital photo of a bucket.

Even if you believe the problem isn’t so big, there will be many real people who lose out in the change, who see sharp drops in their standard of living, and never look back with happiness on when they were freed from their previous work and given new, higher paying and more meaningful work to replace it. Overall, the trend of increasing human prosperity is likely to continue. Robotics will be part of it.

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