This is going to be a longer posting than normal, so please bear with me. This topic is important and it cannot be covered briefly.
Climate change is inevitably going to wreak havoc here and abroad, and the impact will be far worse than is necessary because few are willing to face the danger. Stupidity will be its own reward. The Obama administration has been valiantly trying to stem this rising tide – pun intended — most notably with his just-announced more stringent carbon emission standards. However this is more intended to goad international efforts than to mitigate climate change directly. I can’t help visualizing Obama as King Canute commanding the waves to cease. We simply can’t prevent this looming threat, although we could significantly minimize its damage through prudent preparations beginning right now.
But long before this catastrophe strikes something far more ominous is on the horizon, especially here in the United States. Our entire economy predicated upon lives of work is being threatened by technology. People are just as dismissive of this threat as they are with climate change. What they don’t understand must surely be either untrue or overstated. The world couldn’t change so dramatically from what we have known all our lives and since the founding of Western civilization, could it?
Well, consider this. The best estimates from those who really understand the technology is that 40-50% of all current jobs in the United States will no longer exist in as little as 20 years. Robots and associated technologies are here now and are progressing an order of magnitude faster than the technologists themselves predicted only five years ago. You, or more likely your children, will live in a far different world. Meanwhile our legislators and our education system are blundering forward heedlessly. This picture shows a current factory floor. Can you find Waldo, the sole human operator needed?
The past is prologue. In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees—less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday. Today, that kind of change will take place immeasurably faster.
Don’t believe it? Well it has happened before. The industrial revolution beginning in the mid-18th century replaced human work with machines and processes in massive proportions. It was probably the most important economic event in recorded human history. In that case, however, two mitigating factors reduced the suffering and turmoil. First, many new jobs were created and displaced workers could fairly easily adapt their skills to them. But most importantly, this was a slow-moving revolution that lasted about six human generations.This new industrial revolution of robots, artificial intelligence and inexpensive electronics is moving far faster because it is springing from a much more advanced technology base.
Jobs are at risk across virtually all sectors of the economy: agricultural workers, warehouse and distribution workers, retail clerks, tellers, cashiers, stock clerks, hotel staff, porters, waitresses, barmen, fast food workers, welders, machinists, cabbies, subway operators, assembly line workers, bakers, butchers, clerical staff, psychologists, legal assistants, golf caddies, optometrists, insurance salesmen, investment counselors, pharmacists, tax preparers, and on and on.
The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force, or more workers than there are in Texas and Massachusetts combined. All are at risk.
Telerobotics will leverage some professionals so that many fewer will be needed in the legal, medical, accounting and teaching fields. Meanwhile artificial intelligence will replace most computer programmers, researchers, diagnosticians, help desk operators and librarians. The impact will be felt not just across the employment spectrum but up and down the social strata. This is an entirely new aspect, quite unlike the earlier industrial revolution. Oddly, one area likely to be relatively untouched is the scorned performing arts, and people are going to have scads of free time to appreciate them.
The examples I have depicted are necessarily from current technology. No one can confidently predict how this will evolve, other than to say that its impact will be enormous. This won’t happen instantly and there will be moves to restrain it by latter-day Luddites and by those being ground under the wheel of progress. But it is inevitable, and soon.
Robots don’t require health insurance, 401K plans, vacations, parking spaces, motivation and encouragement, pay raises, tips, etc. They don’t get tired and they aren’t distracted by family responsibilities. You can replace a poor-performing robot with the stroke of a pen. In many cases they don’t even need lighting. From a management perspective, what’s not to love? But if you are in the management class, don’t get too complacent. Many managerial jobs are on the line too, in first-level supervision, human resources, accounting, personnel management and corporate planning.
Of course, as before, many new jobs will be created and the robots will need service and support attendants. But few displaced workers will fit these high-tech roles. Eventually, the economy and education system will catch up with this employment revolution, but that will take generations. And never again will we need such a large portion of our population to maintain and improve our way of life. The coming crisis of tens of millions with not the slightest hope of gainful employment will create a tsunami of unrest.
So, put climate change on your back burner. There’s nothing practical we can do to prevent it anyway. At best we might mitigate its impacts, but don’t bet on our legislators to be that farseeing. Many probably believe the millennium will arrive momentarily, so why bother? Nothing else could explain their conscious refusal to believe the science. I wish I could be around decades hence when I could say, “There it is, you imbeciles! Look out of your window. I told you so.”