Thursday, February 27, 2014

The End of Jobs...Hurray?

This appeared in the April 2014 edition of the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer.

The End of Jobs…Hurray? 
by Marty Nemko

By now, everyone knows the unemployment rate severely masks the true employment situation. Not only does it not count people who have given up on looking for work, it doesn’t count the underemployed: for example, college-degree holders with jobs that don’t require a degree, or people working part-time/temp when they’d prefer a full-time, secure position.

Ever more jobs are automated. Bank teller jobs have been replaced by ATMs, supermarket cashier jobs by self-checkout, tolltakers by FastTrak. In the face of increased minimum wage and living wage ordinances, robotic fast-food preparers and servers have been developed: custom burger and burrito makers in California, sushi makers in Japan, cookie makers in Poland. The automated barista may replace that failsafe job—Starbucks barista. There’s a robot bookstore clerk and IBM is developing a robot retail clothing clerk.  Many but not all customers will prefer that to the $10 an hour pushy but often incompetent sales clerk. And retail employers will prefer not having to worry about employees taking sick days when not sick, being bad with customers, and/or quitting soon after being trained—turnover in retail is over 100 percent. Bartending jobs are at-risk. I just went to a dance at a venue where the bartender was a machine: stick your credit card in, pick your drink from the screen, and out it comes, just like from a soda vending machine. Leading companies such as Google, FedEx, and Amazon are investing big in driverless vehicles—bye-bye jobs as taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, even train engineers. Even home-building is at risk. 3D-printers are projected to be able to print homes out of concrete in under a day—bye-bye thousands of construction jobs.
And of course, there’s offshoring. While politicians keep urging more Americans to major in a tough science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field, ever more of those tech jobs are being offshored, notably to India and China, which have a long tradition of valuing science, math, and technology, and populations many times the size of the U.S.’s. Already, there's an oversupply of STEM graduates. Evidence:THIS  and THIS and THIS and THIS.That can only accelerate as ever more work product can be sent over the internet. Ever more companies are figuring, “Why should I pay American wages plus Workers Comp, Disability, Social Security, ObamaCare, paid family leave, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance costs, plus that of ever increasing employee lawsuits, when I can get someone in Asia for a small fraction of the cost? Are American workers really so superior?”

In a TED talk, Dr. Thomas Frey, Google’s top-rated futurist speaker, projects that, by 2030, half of all jobs worldwide, two billion, will be lost. An Oxford University study projects that half of U.S. jobs will be lost just to automation. One could quibble with the percentage but our job security certainly will be at ever greater risk.

Then what will happen?

It’s easy to project a dystopian scenario: mass unemployment leading to mass destitution, armed robberies, and drug abuse to anesthetize the pain. 

But I thought it would be more interesting here to do a thought experiment in which the end of jobs would actually be a net positive for society.

With fewer people earning good incomes, only companies that provide basic products and services will thrive. That will be good for the environment. For example, car manufacturing will shrink and sell only affordable, economical cars. And people will repair and repair their old vehicles rather than buy new. Even if government takes over the airlines, the cost of planes, fuel, maintenance, and personnel will discourage people from flying. Again, good for the environment.

Also, today’s materialistic society tempts people to cut ethical corners to make more money so they can buy more stuff: new car, nicer clothes and jewelry, fancier vacations, live in 3,000 fancy square feet rather than 1,000 serviceable ones. In an economy in which fewer people are working let alone earning big bucks, materialism would be less core to societal values, reducing those pressures to be unethical.

Plus, with people having more time, more people will replace gratification from “stuff” with gratification from learning, creative arts, and in relationships from mentorship to family to involvement in pro-social organizations: from Rotary to SmileTrain to Mensa.

In the meantime
Even if you have a good job, might this column’s look at the future justify reconsidering your priorities? Yes, perhaps do more to secure your employment: upgrade your skills, work a little harder, build relationships with people who can abet your career, consider starting a business. But might replacing a materialistic lifestyle with a more meaningful one be good preparation not only for a scarce-jobs future but for your current life?


Travis Porco said...

I think there is flaw in your article.
Namely, lack of material prospects doesn't seem to cause most people to become less interested in them.

For example, when my husband was in a very poor country he had the uncomfortable feeling that people were always trying to get him to give them money.

In another, more Western, country with many poor people he felt people were constantly hawking religious trinkets at him as well as at one point trying to get him to at in a way that would justify robbing him.

This seems untrue only of people who have decided for religious or philosophical reasons not to pursue wealth but they are always a minority.

Also, many things that are non-material cost time and/or money.
To do visual art you must have a computer and a graphics tablet and/or physical supplies.

Music can be made just with your voice but often requires expensive instruments and electronics. Dance can be done with nothing but dance without at least a drum seems artsy and pointless to me.

That doesn't mean people can't happy with less but I don't think if people have less they will stop wanting more. In fact if they see other people have more they may want it with single minded obsession.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Marty, but I don't see your optimistic outlook happening. Technology and foreign labor will continue to destroy/take more jobs simply because it's cheaper. The people who are doing this are many of the same people who are fighting so hard to have the social programs destroyed. They don't care what happens to the rest of society as long as their money and their own little piece of America is peaceful and wonderful. If the poor start rebelling, just build more gated communities and arm the security.

Becky Washington said...

"The cost of planes, fuel, maintenance, and personnel will discourage people from flying."

How about more travel by ship? If we have more time, we can travel more slowly and goods are being shipped around the world anyway.

I'll take the "Learn about Shakespeare" cruise, the "Learn to Dance the Flamenco" cruise and the "Think Like an Economist" cruise.

Rex said...

Your article made me think about my old libertarian ideas...Would the jobs outlook be so negative long term if we had a more limited government? Or would the automation and off shoring trends have happened anyway to around the same extent? It seems automation would have happened regardless of government size. Off shoring...maybe not quite as rapidly.

Marty Nemko said...

I do think that government inadvertently kills jobs

For example, every time they extend unemployment benefits, a number of my clients say, "Cool, now I don't have to look for a job for another 13 weeks." Or "Now I can hold out for a really good job."

In this world of expensive-to-hire Americans, automation, and offshoring, there simply aren't enough "good jobs" to go around. The choice is between educating people to realize that all ethical work is worthy work or eat America's seed corn to pay them to stay home rather than take a not-great job.

K-Man said...

Late to the party, but must make a comment.

If jobs in construction and elsewhere are evaporating because of new technology, then just who is going to buy these houses made of concrete by 3-D printer?