- We should believe tech tycoons when they tell us that their automation will continue to lead to massive job losses and economic disruption.
- The economists are probably right that this won’t mean the end of jobs, but rather a shifting into work that is resistant to automation—but this might be a lot harder than we think.
- Human development services like healthcare and education aren’t automating, not because of temporary technological barriers, but permanent human resistance.
- There’s something else unique about this human services sector: the private sector does a terrible job of supplying it.
- Shifting into the next era of human work could require massive structural change away from a profit-driven economy.
- This kind of radical reshaping of our society is terrifying and hard to comprehend, but the stakes are too high if we mess this up.
- Building a new economic system on top of an old one doesn’t happen overnight, but the decay of old systems provides fertilizer to grow new ones.
We should believe tech tycoons when they tell us that their automation will continue to lead to massive job losses and economic disruption
Sometimes it takes angry backlash to make quiet suffering visible to those in power. The hard and sudden rightward lurch of the old manufacturing regions of the United States has finally drawn the concern of political elites to what is happening economically in these communities. Unfortunately, the establishment political solutions, a pinch of job retraining programs here, a handful of tax subsidies there, don’t seem to be enough to cope with the level of economic suffering people are experiencing, which pushes voters towards more radical solutions on all ends of the political spectrum.
Towns across the Rust Belt, entire regional economies built around a job that is no longer necessary, are becoming hollowed out shells, devastated by unemployment and poverty, abandoned homes and storefronts, and falling tax revenue bankrupting local budgets.
While demagogues direct public anger towards foreigners and immigrants, the real problem for working people in the industrial heartland of the country is that their jobs are being replaced by robots. In fact, total manufacturing output in the US has continued an almost uninterrupted steady climb upward, even while jobs in manufacturing have plummeted. New factories being built in the US or “saved” from outsourcing are simply shifting to heavily automated processes that require few workers.
Scarier than the political backlash we see now is that these towns might be the canaries in the coal mine, their early death warning us of a greater death lingering in the air, economic disruption at a deeper level than we can imagine. It’s not just the vast majority of manufacturing jobs at risk of being replaced by robots. The corporate sector is itching to replace the consumer service industry with touchscreens. Even a huge portion of white-collar office jobs could probably be done by algorithms. The tech tycoons of Silicon Valley are warning us this is coming. We’re writing about things like Uber as the future of work, while Uber itself clearly seems hell-bent on automating and laying off their entire workforce faster than anyone can stop them.
The economists are probably right that this won’t mean the end of jobs, but rather a shifting into work that is resistant to automation—but this might be a lot harder than we think
Economists often laugh off the fear that “robots will take all of our jobs”, pointing out that it wouldn’t be the first time most of the human population’s work became obsolete. They note that the vast majority of humans once worked in farming, but after technology replaced most of that work, we created new jobs that agrarian societies couldn’t have even imagined. We’ve adapted before and we will again. Productivity increases in one sector of the economy allow more resources to flow into others.
The harder question is not just what will be the jobs of the future, but can/will our current political/economic system create them?
We’ve built our entire economy on most of the human population spending their days making and selling consumer goods. Yet automation is advancing at a faster pace than new job creation, and the biggest economic disruptions, like basic artificial intelligence and industrial 3-D printing, are looming just over the horizon. If we invent machines that can easily make and sell all the crap human beings used to make and sell, what will we do all day?
Some, particularly in the tech world, say it will be the end of work. They say the human race, liberated from our old boring ass miserable jobs, will get to live free, frolicking about the planet on a universal basic income.
It’s a seductive idea. I went through a phase where I was really into it. But I’m not so sure.
People have been predicting the end of jobs, the end of work, for as long as human thought has been recorded. And yet it hasn’t happened. If anything we work even more. Humans like to invent new tools to get us out of whatever sucky task we hate doing. But we’re also restless creatures. We always want more and better, and we get bored easily sitting around all day. We’re not satisfied with a life of playing with our toys. We find it meaningless and frivolous. As soon as one task is filled by the tools we create, we find another to occupy our days, seeking another desire one step higher on our pyramid of needs. Throughout human history, we’ve adapted to technological innovation not by relaxing, satisfied with our accomplishments, but by shifting human resources to do whatever our machines can’t do for us.
But what economists conveniently fail to mention about the Industrial Revolution is that we didn’t just smoothly usher in mass technological change and all just switch jobs together. We needed to completely re-order our societies to provide for human survival in the new economic era.
Before this transformation, people sustained their lives by working the common land their families had lived on for generations, self-producing almost everything their households needed to survive and trading for a few specialty goods. Now we sell our labor to a company owned by investors in exchange for wages we use to buy all of our necessities from other corporations. How did that all change? It wasn’t by accident.
From Britain to Japan and everywhere in between, the massive economic and technological change of industrialization was only possible coupled with massive social and political change that kicked out the old lords and chieftains, sliced up the common land into private property, and pushed farmers out of their villages and into the tenements of smog-choked cities.
Hundreds of years later, it seems we are finding ourselves needing less jobs extracting fossils and metals and wood from the earth and turning them into stuff we don’t need and convincing people to buy them and use them and throw them away. These jobs made up the core of our old economy and they are being replaced by robots, because the work itself is fairly mechanical. The remaining jobs in manufacturing are paying worse and worse wages, as the owners tell us if we don’t work for cheap, they can replace us with a robot, or somebody poorer and hungrier in some distant corner of the world who will do it for cheaper.
Human development services like healthcare and education aren’t automating, not because of temporary technological barriers, but permanent human resistance
As manufacturing jobs continue their long steady decline, the service industry has boomed in its place. But the service industry is a lazy concept, a label economists slapped on everything that wasn’t building physical stuff. It’s not really one type of work, but two:
One is consumer services. This is basically just selling the stuff made by the old economy, the millions of jobs being created in retail, food service, etc. These jobs are here for now, as customers struggle to find the barcode on their apples at the self-checkout line and try to explain to the self-serve kiosk that they want their burger with exactly four pickle slices. But these workers are now constantly under threat of being replaced by machines, their bosses warning them not to ask for decent livable wages or they’ll be tossed aside, their human faces swapped out for touchscreens that are getting smarter and smarter.
The other is human services, the millions of jobs in healthcare and education, from the university professor to the childcare supervisor, from the brain surgeon to the homecare aide. While theoretically some of this work could be automated, something deeper, something fundamentally human in us, pushes back against it. The much-heralded online education MOOCs, that promised to revolutionize education and destroy the traditional classroom, years later have proven to be a complete and utter failure. Turns out people want to learn from and interact with real human beings as teachers who help and challenge and inspire them, not watch scripted videos. Similarly in medicine, people scared for the health of their loved ones, making tough decisions that may be life or death, or just worried about something that feels wrong that they struggle to describe, want to talk face to face to a real doctor or nurse.
While some predictors of the future claim these jobs too will be automated soon enough, I say they’ve been watching too much sci-fi. As a general rule, if something is done by robots in a horrific dystopian fictional world, it’s probably not something we’ll want to automate in our real life economy.
My best guess is these service jobs in human development are the jobs of the future.
The Industrial Revolution was our great transformation from the majority of our population farming basic subsistence needs like food and clothing to the majority of our population making and selling consumer goods, luxuries and conveniences. But within our lifetimes, we will be able to produce all these wonderful consumer goods with a fraction of the human labor, just as we learned to feed the world with a fraction of the human labor.
Perhaps the next economic revolution we need is a human revolution. We need jobs taking care of our own bodies, minds and souls. Our survival instincts and our material wants met, this will be the next step our human desires reach for. These are the fundamentally human things that won’t be replaced by machines.
I know this sounds like hippie nonsense. But it’s fairly widely accepted among mainstream economists that education and healthcare are much of the future of human work. They even have a term for it: “Eds and Meds”. Dying Rust Belt cities are advised to attract hospitals and universities to bring “eds and meds” employment into their regional economies. Cities like Pittsburgh that managed to do so are celebrated as the alternate future to ending up like Detroit. Workforce development programs and community colleges encourage teens to train for fields like nursing and child development. Even during the recession, these were the only industry sectors where employment kept growing uninterrupted, without even a dip.
While other sectors may have a shrinking need for human work, in these sectors the need for people keeps growing and growing. It’s not just teachers, but instructional aides, play-based early childhood educators, daycare workers, extracurricular activity coaches, counselors, vocational training teachers, prison and military reentry counselors, special needs teachers, college professors, research assistants, museum curators, afterschool program workers. It’s not just doctors, but nurses, medical assistants, dental hygienists, mental health providers, addiction specialists, trauma specialists, behavioral therapists, diet and exercise coaches, physical therapists, paramedics, midwives, homecare workers, nursing home attendants.
There’s something else unique about this human services sector: the private sector does a terrible job of supplying it.
These are great jobs. There is huge need for them. They require a broad diversity of skills, aptitudes, educations, and experience levels. They tackle deep problems in our society, create investments in our mental and physical well-being, in our health and productivity. There are tons of people who want to do them. They’re fulfilling, intellectually challenging, meaningful, interesting, skilled jobs people can be proud of and find personal growth in.
But the economists forget about one problem. There’s another unique thing about healthcare and education. The private sector does a terrible job at providing them. It always has. They’re what economists call “public goods”– things that our society wants at far greater levels than for-profit corporations are willing to provide.
Education benefits the individual recipient of that schooling, but its real benefits are to the whole society whose innovation and productivity grows. Healthcare benefits the direct recipient of that care, but it has far greater benefits for the society whose basic functioning improves when people aren’t sick and spreading diseases all the time. As a society we have a nearly unlimited desire for more education and healthcare, but as private customers we can and will only pay so much. This is even further limited by the fact that those who most need education and healthcare are those with the least ability to pay: the very poor and the very sick, the very young and the very old.
So despite being massive and growing segments of our economy, they’re faced with chronic underinvestment because they’re not actually that profitable for Wall Street. And in an economic system where people are only hired to do a job if a corporation can make a profit from it, not nearly enough people are being hired to provide public goods like education and healthcare to our society.
The vast majority of hospitals and schools are either run directly by the government, or by nonprofits who rely heavily on government aid to allow their patients and students to afford them. For-profit colleges, for example, are generally considered to be somewhere between a joke and a scam, while the nation’s most elite private universities are all nonprofit organizations. Even the parts of these sectors that are occupied by private corporations, from the pharmaceutical industry to textbook companies, really only survive because of a parasitic relationship with the public sector, utterly dependent on government funds and protections to make their business model work.
Another thing economists will say about eds and meds is that their costs are ballooning. They seem dumbfounded that education and healthcare somehow seem stubbornly resistant to the “improvements in productivity” you see in consumer goods and services. What they really mean is we are witnessing the effect of our natural human instinct to push back on these fundamentally human things being replaced by robots.
We don’t mind so much if our phone or our shirt was made by a robot, but we don’t want a robot teaching our daughter how to think, we don’t want a robot helping our brother who’s struggling with depression and addiction, we don’t want a robot taking care of our ailing grandmother. This resistance to the machinelike automation of the care of our loved ones is hardwired into us. It’s a concept economic models will always fail to calculate: love.
Their simplistic models of economic behavior can’t explain it. They can’t figure out why every year the cost of college tuition and health insurance goes up without an end in sight. They constantly say we have shortages of nurses, shortages of teachers. Yet according to their theories these things are not supposed to happen. There are not supposed to be constant shortages of any things we need, there are not supposed to be prices that can’t stop rising. Isn’t this the supposed beauty of the free market? That the invisible hand will take care of these things?
Shifting into the next era of human work could require massive structural change away from a profit-driven economy
The signals are already here. You can hear them if you listen closely, the sounds of the strain on the old system, creaking among the planks of a slowly sinking ship.
Our profit-driven system hasn’t found a way to re-allocate our resources towards human needs that can’t be replaced by robots. On one end, we’re experiencing economic suffering from a lack of quality jobs for human beings who want to work. On the other, there are huge numbers of people who need access to healthcare and education that isn’t being provided to them. Somehow our financial system seems unable to connect the two.
It’s a simple problem of resource allocation. A profit-based financial system doesn’t devote enough resources to these human development services to meet our society’s demand. We’re not hiring enough people on the ground to do these jobs at a reasonable workload or paying them enough to attract the skilled workforce required. Our teachers and nurses are underpaid and overworked, the symptoms of a strained and starved system. Not enough people are willing to do this work under the current conditions, and those who do often quit early under stress.
Talk to anyone working in any of these jobs and they will tell you of the chronic shortages, the understaffing, the frantic pressure of trying to provide adequate care with too many people in need and never enough hands to help. We desperately need more human beings doing these jobs.
Yet Wall Street is not shifting their investments in that direction. They are investing in the places that make the most money for shareholders: High risk and high reward new financial gambles like mortgage-backed securities. New methods of extracting untapped resources from the ground like fracking. New more efficient ways to produce material goods, like automating factories with robots.
After all, the motive of Wall Street is not to benevolently serve humanity. Wall Street makes investments that maximize profits for shareholders, full stop. Any benefits to workers and communities this produces are incidental side effects. If a massive wave of automation means the interests of workers and shareholders become increasingly aligned in different directions, a profit-driven system will move towards the direction that generates the highest returns for stock owners, even if it threatens the survival of millions of human beings, abandoning whole regions of the world like the post-industrial towns of the Midwest.
And yet what do the Gods of Wall Street do for us, that we as a society have decided to compensate them so richly for? Why did we decide they should be the richest men among us? I was taught in my economics classes that their job is the most important in our entire system: to efficiently allocate resources. Their job is to take all of our immense collective wealth that humanity has ever created, look at the vast sum of human economic activity, and invest that wealth in the most productive places it can be used. This, I was told, would benefit all of us.
They had One. Fucking. Job.
It seems that maybe that job is beginning to outlive its usefulness. If it’s true that the big task before us as a society is to massively shift our resources, to move the majority of the human labor from producing consumer stuff to providing human development, then our current financial system will not get us there.
It’s so hard for us to imagine that our profit-driven system could fail to allocate the resources of our society towards what we need. Yet the evidence is all around us.
This kind of radical reshaping of our society is terrifying and hard to comprehend, so we just live with a cognitive dissonance and avoid it, but the stakes are too high if we mess this up.
This economic system is not just what we’ve always lived in, but what our parents and grandparents lived in, all any of us have ever known. But we have to remember that human beings existed before this system. We cannot allow ourselves to lose the memory that we came first. That before this system, for the vast majority of human existence, we had other ways of life. The times when we roamed the open land in tribes and lived off it together in balance. The times when our families farmed whatever land we called home and made everything we needed with our own hands. We should never pretend we can go back to these times, but we must never forget them. Because in each of these times we reached points of crisis when we decided that we needed new systems, new rules, new ways of life to sustain the human race.
Now again we are a society in economic crisis. It’s been a slow crisis building for decades, but the great crash pulled back the curtain and revealed it. As Wall Street broke farther and farther away from the daily realities of the rest of humanity, the social contract unraveled. The stock market and corporate profits continued to reach new heights while everyday people struggled. The high-wage union factory jobs of an old manufacturing economy were tossed out. The jobs that replaced them were the jobs we as a society had never valued before. The shop clerks and waiters and cooks and maids and nannies. The kind of jobs that an old society had handed to women and kids and immigrants and slaves. The jobs we had decided weren’t worthy of a decent day’s pay or healthcare when you got sick or retirement when you got old or enough to send your kids to college for a better life. Now we see that this work was always undervalued by our sexism and racism, but it might be too late. The millions now doing this work, including many of the old decimated middle class, are under constant threat that they will be replaced by glittering screens if they ask for too much. The financial crash was the wake up call, when the top-heavy gold-plated casino came tumbling down, and the house still won anyway, while everyone else was left holding the bag. But now, as we struggle to pick up the pieces, we feel the longer, slower crisis. We don’t see better days over the horizon. We only see the same old problems stumbling on.
And when a society is in an economic crisis, when our little monkey tribe finds less bananas in the trees, we turn to one of two solutions: Redistribution or exclusion. We come together and change the rules to make sure every monkey has enough bananas to survive, knowing even if it slows us down, our tribe is stronger if we stay intact. Or we narrow our circle and cast some of our monkey tribe out into the forest to either fend for themselves or die.
And here we are. Staring each other down in the jungle, wondering which choice we take.
In the last great crisis of our economic system, almost 90 years ago, we fought this battle, and although it left behind scars, redistribution won. This kept our system going, patched up some of the widening inequality and economic suffering for a time. But although our most recent crash was less severe than that time, our slow crisis now looms even larger.
If only our monkey ancestors could see us in such misery after inventing machines to make more bananas than they could have ever imagined, they would hoot and howl in monkey laughter. Only in a crazy upside-down world would that be a problem. But here we are, in this crazy upside-down world we’ve created, with too many bananas and not enough jobs for banana-pickers.
Building a new economic system on top of an old one won’t happen overnight, but the decay of old systems provides fertilizer to grow new ones.
We may have to remember deeper, the last time this happened. Not the crisis of 100 years ago, but 300 years ago, as we learned how to produce more food than ever before with a fraction of the human labor. Rather than creating a land of plenty, it created misery. Peasants turned into paupers. Those who had worked the land of their ancestors for generations, ensuring them a basic level of survival, found themselves with nothing useful to contribute to the new society. The new unnecessary human beings stayed in their ancestral lands as they always had before, begging on the cobblestone streets of their towns, putting deeper and deeper strain on the old system, until society had to rewrite its old feudal rules to kick them out of the streets of their villages and force them into the booming cities of iron and coal to work in the new factories who needed them.
In time, the disruption of this new system created wealth beyond what the old peasants could have imagined. Free from the daily labor of farming the land to produce the most basic necessities of food and clothing for survival, human beings began to make more and more new things to buy and use, new gadgets and toys, life’s little luxuries. We created a society built on this consumerism, the making and buying and selling and using and throwing away of material things.
The industrial revolution also left behind a fraction of the former massive human workforce of subsistence farmers, sharecroppers and peasants. This skeleton crew of farmers could produce as much food as ever before, and continue feeding a planet teeming with human beings doing other things.
Similarly, the consumer economy and all the beautiful fun consumer goods it produces won’t go away, just like the land-based economy and the food it produced haven’t gone away. But at some point in the future, this consumer economy might not be the primary occupation of the daily lives of most human beings on the planet. It could require a fraction of the people, a skeleton crew. Three or four people in a factory or department store, watching screens, analyzing, troubleshooting, stepping in when needed. Fifty in a corporate headquarters office, the people whose jobs couldn’t be done by algorithms. People who research and invent new things. People who write the code needed to make them real. Enough to make and sell just as many consumer goods as ever before, with a fraction of the human labor.
And of course some jobs always survive mass economic disruptions, the ones that seem as old as human society itself. The chieftains’ advisors and the drummers and storytellers. The royal court and the bards and jesters. Law, criminal justice, and government policymaking. Arts and entertainment. Sectors that play too important and complex a role in human life to be handed over to machines.
But just as most of us moved from the farms to the factories, it’s possible that over the next century the majority of the human population will have to move from a consumer economy to a human development economy of healthcare and education. Perhaps in the future, free from the drudgery of spending our days making and selling material goods, we can devote our lives to our next calling, our next human desire– improving our bodies and minds in a human revolution. I believe the next great need for our work is to care for, inspire, heal and teach one another.
The Industrial Revolution wasn’t a single event that uniformly changed the entire economic system worldwide, where one day everyone woke up and everything was different. A human revolution wouldn’t be a quick and seamless transition either. It would have to be slowly built atop the old system, growing as the other dies. Green shoots beginning to sprout on the decaying trunk of a fallen tree.
But nothing provides better fertilizer for new growth than old rot. Whenever hugely disruptive technological change displaces millions of people from their old work, it also creates immense new gains in productivity, leading to unimaginable new wealth. The tricky part is capturing that new wealth from an old system and redirecting it to grow a new one.
All life is born of capturing the energy from old death. Our sun, a cloud of gas that collapsed, burning until it goes out, radiating energy out into space, is the source of every living thing you or I have ever known. And yet it seems to be a rare miracle in our lonely universe to find a planet where something actually evolved to capture that energy and convert it into new life.
If the Industrial Revolution’s technology had advanced while leaving the old feudal system in place, we would have been left with nothing but increasingly wealthy lords sitting atop peasants bound by law to toiling on their land that was far more productive than ever before. There would have been no one to work in the factories, and the new industrial system would have starved in its infancy as the old feudal system grew fat, and collapsed under its own weight.
The new has to feed off the old, but that requires evolution. If exploding productivity continues to result in more and more wealth accumulating in the hands of the owners of machines, we will need to take that wealth to make public investments in a human development economy.
The ones who truly reap the benefits of automation will not be the upper-middle-class engineer or software programmer, but Wall Street, those who ultimately own the technology they create. We have to tax the true owners of wealth—through capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and closing their loopholes and deductions. We need to use this capital to invest in unprecedented expansions of the healthcare and education systems. Providing universal pre-K and free higher education. Hiring more teachers and counselors in public schools and hiring more nurses and doctors in public hospitals. Adopting Medicare-style single payer for all. Expanding underserved parts of the medical system like mental health and reproductive health. Creating reentry programs for former inmates returning from prison, readjustment programs for veterans returning from war, rehabilitation programs for former addicts in recovery, retraining programs for the unemployed reentering the job market. We need to target these investments in the places that have been abandoned most by the peeling back of the old consumer economy. The urban industrial neighborhoods and rural factory towns that have been suffering for decades. The places literally dying from the inside out, with rising mortality rates from poor health and lack of economic opportunity, crack and heroin addiction, suicide and youth violence.
If the level of economic change coming will truly be as disruptive as the titans of tech predict, then we cannot paper over the flaws of a profit-driven consumption-based economy that hurtles us towards economic apartheid and ecological disaster. We have to build on top of the old consumer economy a new human economy. We have to redirect our energies towards investing in each others’ human development, spending our days helping each other heal our sufferings and reach our aspirations. That’s the revolution I’ll sign up for.