Is Automation Killing Jobs – Answers from the Future
In every innovation and finance conference I’ve attended recently, one subject comes up every time without fail: the future loss of jobs to automation in all its forms. If we’re talking about self-driving vehicles, people ask what will all the taxi/uber/lyft/truck drivers do? If we’re talking about industrial robots, people ask what will all the assembly line workers do? If we’re talking about automated business processes, what will all the office workers do? In the last conference, one attendee asked: “What do we need 8 billion people for?” That’s scary. It’s also a completely unnecessary question.
Clearly, these comments from sophisticated professionals and even economists reflect underlying fear among the working population, which has obvious political consequences. In some quarters, this fear has become hysteria. This fear deserves an answer from those of us who are pushing forward with innovation.
A warning: This is a contrarian point of view. Are you willing to view this article and comment? Agree or disagree let’s start a conversation.
There is an answer. It’s not what you’ve ever heard because it involves a paradigm shift in the idea of a “job” and just a willingness to see what’s happening naturally already, without the need for job training programs, relaxing environmental standards, or universal welfare. You’ll find the answer later in this post.
Certain politicians will ignore this, because they want us to believe there really is a problem that requires government intervention and universal dependency. Economist Robert Reich states that robots will “take away good jobs that are already dwindling. They will in short supplant the middle class.” MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee write that workers are “losing the race against the machine, a fact reflected in today’s employment statistics.”
Equally authoritative sources refute these arguments.
“Journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor,” David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote in a paper last year. What they miss, he added, is that automation can often “increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor.”
Yes, but is that all they offer?
Could a computer or a robot do your job? If you work in a field such as telemarketing, office work, or insurance underwriting, it will eventually do your job, say researchers at the University of Oxford. Their report, titled “The Future of Employment,” projects that 47% percent of employment in the United States is vulnerable to automation within the next 20 years.
That’s all the bad news. That’s the source of the fear so many feel about their jobs and income. That’s the source of the push for universal welfare. We in innovation have a responsibility to tell a different story.
The good news is that computerization doesn’t spell disaster for the US economy since new jobs will arise as others are ceded to machines. This is actually a larger shift than you imagine, and in a different direction than you imagine.
Remember that in the early 1800s, about 80 percent of the American workforce worked in agriculture, down to 40% in the early 1900’s; today only about 2 percent does, yet the unemployment rate has been unchanged over the long term. Further, we are working far fewer hours and starting work later in life. Technology doesn’t and never has taken away opportunities; it creates more abundance which creates opportunities. Let me prove this.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose that in the next 20 years, 100% of current jobs in the U.S. are eliminated by automation. That’s the worse that could happen, right? What would result?
First of all, abundance increases dramatically. Consider the impact of automation, including self-driving vehicles, on food, housing, clothing, transportation, energy .. everything gets much less expensive, or for the same amount of money, you can get more of everything and of higher quality. Abundant organic fruits and vegetables on every table, homes twice as large and well maintained, fresh clothing and furniture, new maintenance-free cars, warmth and transportation from inexpensive energy. In fact, reductions in the cost of energy will also contribute to lower costs for every commodity. All of our basic needs are handled, abundantly, with higher quality and at increasingly lower cost. So then what do people do to earn a share of this abundance?
What if the problem were in the idea of a “job”. The premise here is that business or government “creates” jobs and then gives them to people. What if we re-define a job as an opportunity for an individual to serve others, whether inside a company, inside a family or acting alone. Do we really have to “give” people jobs, or can society adjust by asking people and inspiring people to look for ways to serve others and receive compensation for it?
It’s a paradigm shift of the idea of a “job.” Even if every conceivable “job” is done by automation except for say decision-making and creative positions, which are of course extremely well compensated. Say 10% to 20% of the population is engaged in decision-making and creative work that machines can’t do well or can’t do alone. This includes entrepreneurship (starting new businesses), inventing products/services and the top levels of management. The rest of us will provide massive amounts of personal services for these decision-making and creative individuals and their families, and a lesser but still abundant amount of personal services for each other.
Here are some examples of “personal services”: teachers, coaches, comedians, actors, musicians, writers, athletes, masseuses, hair stylists, prostitutes, nannies, elder caregivers, pet caregivers, medical caregivers, decorators, artists, cooks, guards, tour guides, bartenders, sales people, personal trainers, financial advisors, and three new fields that are coming on strongly: virtual reality designers, information guides and technology assistants. There’s no end to personal service opportunities.
This could return us to a world where most people in every household are not working for a paycheck. A given family might have one income-earner (male or female, it doesn’t matter) and their partner would manage the household as a mini-community.) Present in the household might be several children, who attend school or study till their mid-20’s, and several “retired” folk (parents, uncles, aunts) who provide valuable but uncompensated services. Also present might be several others who provide services to the household (see the list of possibilities above.)
Personally, I’d like for my household a personal information guide (shopper) and technology assistant (personal IT manager who handles all my gadgets and apps for me.) The wealthy have always enjoyed this kind of lifestyle with numerous service providers living within the household or nearby. What automation does is bring the life of the wealthy into reach for more of us, and ways to serve and participate in such households for all of us.
All of these personal services that are provided inside the households of the wealthy, will also be provided inside the community, for each other. A personal trainer could work within the community for a mix of clients, earning a very good living and supporting a middle-class household (with a level of abundance that only the wealthy enjoy now.) We will in this way all provide the full range of services for each other in the community. There’s more than enough opportunity for to serve each other. The opportunities are endless.
My vision is of a more community-oriented and family-oriented society, where people rarely go to work in huge factories or huge office towers, where we work mostly at home and in the community around us. As abundance produced by automation increases, the demand for personal services will increase, and so we will want to, and be able to, spend most of our time at home or in the community to receive and deliver these human services. It is an exciting vision, the opposite of the dystopian world that the first industrial revolution created.
What’s important now is to embrace a paradigm shift in the idea of a “job”: not something someone gives you, but an opportunity to serve others. When we embrace this shift in thinking, a whole world of opportunity opens up and worries about machines replacing humans fades away.
The same applies to the word “income.” Income is not something someone has to give you, but something you earn through service. Forget the idea of a guaranteed income provided by government. Nothing is less needed.
For those with an entrepreneurial bent, this world of personal services opens countless business opportunities. Every conceivable service (see the list above) can be (and is already) provided by a business that specializes in that service area and provides a trained and professionally managed lineup of individuals and teams to provide the service. Personal trainers work either by themselves or for gyms and health studios, clinics and stores. There will be a great many more service businesses of every kind, providing every manner of service. Starting a business large or small will be easier than ever. This will be facilitated by automation, which enables the organization of franchises and network marketing organizations, where service providers don’t have to invent a new business idea, but only execute an existing idea well. The opportunities are already endless and growing.
Transition to a personal-services economy: As many have pointed out, the transition to the personal-services economy described above will be difficult for those whose jobs are automated-away. This transition will be on-going and continuous for the foreseeable future; we can’t wish it away. So it becomes the responsibility of those of us pushing innovation forward to address the transition. How we do this is an opportunity for innovation as well. Any permanent government-provided basic income program is an old-school solution that does not represent the best we can do, and will only delay the kind of paradigm shift that is needed by individuals and companies in a personal-services economy.
So, is automation killing jobs? I say no but what do you think?
Rather than worry about your job or your income, rather than worry about being left behind, look for ways you can support yourself by providing needed and wanted services to others – to your household, your neighborhood, your community, your church and businesses, to organizations and government at all levels. Stop complaining; start observing, creating and serving.
Stop looking to government programs to fix the future. It’s up to us to determine what the future holds. This is a paradigm shift and we can make it great or succumb to the fear.
#Entrepreneurship #BigIdeas #Innovation