The Future of Work – I

The mariner has pondered for decades how human culture would operate in the age of the Jetsons (animated TV show from 1962-1990 sporadically). Everything in the future was automated; automatons were everywhere and performed virtually every job requiring hands and decision-making. What did George Jetson do at work? What was his actual job? What was his product? A humorous cartoon show about the future is not the place to wax culturally about the ramifications of such intense automation.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, it was the Luddites who protested against newly developed, labor-economizing technologies. The Luddites were textile workers that were put out of work by improved methods for making frames and looms. These jobs were lower income jobs and labor-intensive in nature. The Luddites were simply left on a limb without options or income.
At the turn of the twentieth century, it was carriage makers, harness makers, blacksmiths and farriers among many other skilled laborers who were dropped from the work force as the automobile suddenly replaced the horse as the common form of transportation.
Throughout the later years of the century, especially from 1970 to the present, millions of jobs disappeared in the US due to automation and trade policies that sent many surviving labor jobs to less expensive labor markets in less developed nations.
In the twenty-first century, disappearing jobs is a chronic issue that is rising to the surface of the workforce. Automated services already are affecting very large sectors of employment. Consider the following:
• Within fifteen years, fast food restaurants will no longer require counter workers or preparation workers. Perhaps the manager and a helper will be all the humans required to serve the public. Anyone who has visited a fast food restaurant recently can see the transformation to automated service occurring systematically. In the United States alone, 4.4 million workers depend on these jobs.
• Even now, retail sales are undergoing massive conversion to automated service. Simply ordering online instead of shopping at a store is decimating “brick and mortar” outlets, forcing many large and familiar retail chains to go out of business or close significant numbers of stores. The floor sales person is coming to an end as more and more products can be bought or ordered via machines. Many retail sectors will have growth in sales but the number of employees will diminish drastically. Today, retail sales support 42 million jobs.
• Within two decades, the transportation industry will drop millions of transportation jobs because of automated buses, trucks, trains and automobiles. A 2013 study by Oxford University predicts that automation will replace half the jobs in the US by 2040.
Being employed is not the only issue. Since 2000, the average wage of college graduates has dropped over 7%. US wages in general have stalled since 1985 for economic reasons but now face further cuts without relief. In every case the mariner could find, trade agreements have reduced job opportunities in the US. President Obama claims the TPP will return manufacturing jobs to the US but every indicator of future employment suggests that the wages will be low and the opportunities, even as they occur, will be lost to automation.
Setting jobs and income aside for the moment, there are two cultural issues. The first is if vast numbers of men and women cannot find work, what do they do all day? Especially in America, where having a job has become a permanent part of the American psyche, how does one feel successful? What is a person’s worth if they cannot produce income or physical participation in society?
The second cultural issue is class stratification. There will be sectors where jobs escape automation, will likely have better salaries, will be more influential in the evolution of politics, culture, and are able to participate in the benefits that come from financial security. What we consider lower level jobs today will be the common job of everyone whose job has disappeared. Quite likely, a worker will work part-time.
The automation of work is similar to the effect of a tsunami as it comes to land: It comes quickly and silently until it is too late; it literally erases the cultural fabric that binds every citizen to another; it makes present ideas about economy useless.
Yet, it is almost impossible to guess what the future looks like. The future is so different that we cannot envision it. It sits on the other side of a solid wall that blocks our view and our imagination. Like the tsunami, it is approaching us even now – but we have no way to protect ourselves.
What shall we do?
Ancient Mariner

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