Prepare to be automated out of a job

robotIsn’t there a civic responsibility to plan for massive dislocation?

What should we do if we knew that, in the near future, a large sector of our country’s workers, currently employed with good-paying jobs, would be put out of work by new technologies? Would we ban the new technology to save those jobs? Or, do the scientific breakthroughs and related increases in growth and productivity outweigh the job-loss negatives?

These questions are not theoretical. Thomas Friedman explores these issues and others in his 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. And a December 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that the US economy is only reaching 18 percent of its “digital potential.”

The McKinsey report projects that “about half the activities people are paid almost $15 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology. While less than 5 percent of all occupations can be currently automated, about 60 percent have at least 30 percent of constituent activities that could be automated. ”

Going forward, McKinsey projects, more occupations will change than will be eliminated through automation. Even a 4-year-old study done at the University of Oxford’s Martin School “estimates that 47 percent of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years.”

As the studies illustrate, it is very clear that technological advances are now coming faster and faster and starting to supplant even white collar skills.

Take, for example, the potential impact of autonomous vehicles. In the US, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers, in addition to all of the drivers for mass transit, local deliveries, taxis, etc. One out of every 15 workers in the country is employed or associated with the transportation industry. Clearly, the impact of this new technology could be devastating to a large part of the nation’s workforce and their families.

If these disruptive technologies keep probing for efficiencies in our economic system and accelerate the obsolescence of certain classes of workers, isn’t there a civic responsibility to prepare for that inevitability? Living in a world reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of positivism, where it is the survival of the fittest and “tough luck” to anyone else, is not going to sit well with the millions of the soon-to-be-unemployed Americans.

“When the rate of change eventually exceeds the ability to adapt, you get dislocation – when the whole environment is being altered so quickly that everyone starts to feel they can’t keep up,” Friedman writes in his book. “There is a mismatch between the change in the pace of change and our ability to develop the learning system, training systems, management systems, social safety nets, and government regulations that would enable citizens to get the most out of these accelerations and cushion their worst impacts. This mismatch is at the center of much of the turmoil roiling politics and society today.”

Bill Galston from The Brookings Institution suggests that many of the displaced workers have not been able to find new jobs that pay as much as the previous ones, with wages dropping an average of 40 percent when they do find a new job.

Eric Teller, CEO of Google X Research stated, “We certainly don’t want to slow down technological progress or abandon regulation. The only adequate response is that we try to increase our society’s ability to adapt.” For workers going forward, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning.

Governments (federal and state) are going to have to do better in two areas. First, they will have to provide a much improved “safety net” for the unemployed.  There will be more of the unemployed and these workers will be out of work for a much longer period of time. It will certainly take longer to find a comparable job that meets the worker’s skills (with fewer of these jobs available). And it will take longer for the worker to get additional training to qualify for those jobs that are available.

I suggest that we need a new system of wage insurance to minimize the negative effects of extended unemployment. The system would provide workers going through a training program with supplemental wages over what they would be currently receiving to give them time to be retrained for a higher-paying job.

Secondly, the US will need to adapt its institutions and training pathways to help workers acquire new skills.  The nation’s educational system and job training programs have not been sufficiently agile to respond to the needs of those businesses that are expanding and hiring. Even a college degree is not sufficient to guarantee a new job in the new economy. New online training modules that can be adapted and adjusted in short order will be needed to fine tune a prospect’s skill set to match a company’s requirements.

According to Friedman, the new workplace employers will value workers who can demonstrate the needed abilities for the job. These employers will need to provide multiple avenues for lifelong learning that are priced right, available on demand, and seamlessly responsive to the changing needs of the workplace. They also need to be fueled by a regulatory and tax policy to assure their widespread adoption.

What is very clear is that the status quo is not an option. Government will soon have to acknowledge that one of the greatest threats to our society will be the wasting away of our human resources. If there is no hope for the future (a job, a family, a home) for everyone in America, then the golden age of America, as a land of opportunity for all, will be a thing of the past.

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