What will become of jobs in the future?
So what happens to jobs when we connect up all of the trend lines on what is already showing up in various economies around the world?
We know certain jobs are disappearing because of automation and the flow on effects of this for everyone in the job markets is something we need to talk about more often.
This TED talk by Economist Andrew McAfee suggests that, yes, probably, droids will take our jobs — or at least the kinds of jobs we know now. In this far-seeing talk, he thinks through what future jobs might look like, and how to educate coming generations to hold them.
“Which brings up another great question: What could possibly go wrong in this new machine age? Right? Great, hang up, flourish, go home. We’re going to face two really thorny sets of challenges as we head deeper into the future that we’re creating.
The first are economic, and they’re really nicely summarized in an apocryphal story about a back-and-forth between Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, who was the head of the auto workers union. They were touring one of the new modern factories, and Ford playfully turns to Reuther and says, “Hey Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?” And Reuther shoots back, “Hey Henry, how are you going to get them to buy cars?”
Reuther’s problem in that anecdote is that it is tough to offer your labor to an economy that’s full of machines, and we see this very clearly in the statistics. If you look over the past couple decades at the returns to capital — in other words, corporate profits — we see them going up, and we see that they’re now at an all-time high. If we look at the returns to labor, in other words total wages paid out in the economy, we see them at an all-time low and heading very quickly in the opposite direction.
So this is clearly bad news for Reuther. It looks like it might be great news for Ford, but it’s actually not. If you want to sell huge volumes of somewhat expensive goods to people, you really want a large, stable, prosperous middle class. We have had one of those in America for just about the entire postwar period. But the middle class is clearly under huge threat right now. We all know a lot of the statistics, but just to repeat one of them, median income in America has actually gone down over the past 15 years, and we’re in danger of getting trapped in some vicious cycle where inequality and polarization continue to go up over time.
The societal challenges that come along with that kind of inequality deserve some attention.”
One answer that Andrew puts forward are changes to the education system. Another which he steps around rather more gingerly is the idea of a guaranteed minimum wage.
In the US such an idea is politically very hard to sell. In other more “mixed economies” the idea of regulating working hours and minimum wage levels is not so rare.
However I think the very concept of a job needs a basic rethinking. Many jobs are under threat from cheaper resources offshore or from some who will work for free because they can afford to.
Most of us don’t have that luxury but many of the economic drivers in our local economies are very much related to lowering costs and increasing profits. These trends are now showing a real erosion of the middle class in terms of earning and spending power which I posted about on some research by Elizabeth Warren.
This is a debate we need to have and we need to be creative about it for all sorts of demographic reasons as young people enter the job markets ( or not) around the world.
What do you think?