We’re now on the twelfth day of the new year. We don’t know what will happen, but we can predict and project.
I am in receipt of six interrelated views. How good are they, and what might the authors not be seeing about our current and evolving situation?
We start with the October 24th New York Times “A Peek at Future Jobs Shows Growing Economic Divides.” Ben Casselman suggested that the expected 2026 state for our economy is “more dominated by the service sector amid the continued erosion of manufacturing jobs,” appropriate since after those two, which followed extraction, we know of nothing to take over from service positions, which have hardly multiplied in past decades, as the highest level of paid work. He did well to say that jobs centering on not only machine-compatible tasks but on algorithmic ones are endangered, and that, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “overall job growth will continue to be slow.” I quarrel with a finding that “computer science and other fields heavy in math or science will grow quickly” – I think in the next decade many American positions in those fields will go away to both globalization and automation, factors mentioned in the article – and don’t think a “steep decline” for typists and telephone operators would now be meaningful, but, overall, Casselman and this study are on solid ground.
Finlay Renwick, writing in Esquire, cited a rather different source in his November 7th “Stephen Hawking Is Reasonably Worried We’re All Going To Be Destroyed By Robots.” This is not new territory, but hearing it from possibly the world’s most brilliant man gives it extra impact. As Renwick reported, Hawking told a Web Summit conference crowd that artificial intelligence “could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation or the worst,” and maintained that “we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.” Not only could the technology produce “powerful autonomous weapons,” as we should already know, but also “new ways for the few to oppress the many.” He correctly said that “we simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance.” All worthy of emphasis, especially from such a lofty perch.
There isn’t any consensus on the nature of the first three, but now, per Jim Hoagland in the November 22nd New York Times, “The fourth industrial revolution is upon us.” After steam engines, electricity, and computers, Hoagland saw some combination of machine learning and autonomous vehicles as the next fundamental leap. It’s a problem that even two-page articles based on ideas as good as this one are sometimes too long, and here it didn’t help us to hear, erroneously, that “6.1 million jobs currently sit vacant largely because applicants lack either the skills or mobility needed,” or that China is one of two superpowers because we are in “a new bipolar world based on technology.” Still, full credit to Hoagland.
One large autumn piece of employment news was a McKinsey study concluding that “Automation could kill 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, November 28th), which drew the comment, odd since it was from one of the effort’s co-authors, that “the dire predictions that robots are going to take our jobs are overstated.” Well, it depends on both the job and the timeframe, and the “huge overhaul of the economy and labor market” advocated in the report won’t, as far as we can see, happen with paid positions. The vague conclusions Davidson cited, such as that technology will replace from “zero to a third of work activities” and that from “39 million to 73 million jobs could [not will] be destroyed,” fail to inform, but the conclusions that “jobs will be created from rising incomes and consumption” and from “an aging population that will demand more health care professionals and investment in infrastructure and renewable energy” are, if obvious, worth something. Although, in the absence of something as wide-scoped as a national infrastructure project, training doesn’t seem like a national project, it was good to hear the same co-author putting blame where it belongs, by saying that “governments and businesses already have fallen short in the retraining of workers.” Ultimately, these study results are down the middle, which should make them noncontroversial and relatively easy to accept.
We have also long known about average Westerners getting older, but how is it that “We haven’t prepared for the aging monster” (Washington Post, December 6th)? Author Robert J. Samuelson correctly said that “the problem is simple,” but concluded that our only choices are higher retirement ages, cut benefits, or higher taxes. He left out the effect of not only more jobs but more good jobs for those 60 and older, without which we will indeed make no progress and need no preparation. The reason the jobs crisis continues despite much improved employment numbers is that so many Americans and others, such as the 96 million out of the labor force, are neither working nor officially jobless, and that people choosing in large numbers to drop interest in working does not mean they would not ultimately want to do that and generate federal tax revenue in the process. More career positions for those now taking early or other retirement from lack of perceived opportunities is the best aging-trend preparation we could have.
Contrary to its title, Alex Williams’s December 11th New York Times “Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?” is a survey of what individuals should know and can do about our employment situation. As I covered in Work’s New Age and Choosing a Lasting Career, Wilson identified the problem, documented the rising ability of software to replace human analysis, considered guaranteed basic income, touched on the Singularity, and looked at what career paths might stay or disappear. Although he seemed to fall into a trap by citing a TED talk saying that bank employees have not reduced in number, but rather replaced “mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills” with “more cognitively demanding tasks” when the lack of job loss has been completely due to massively more transactions, he ended with a quotation that “the robot plumber is a long, long way away.” As with other articles here, Williams’s piece is flawed but still well worthwhile. We might end the decade with the likes of December’s 4.1% official unemployment, but only if we can avoid a recession – if we get one of those, we will see even more truth in the predictions above.