The Jobs Problem

Last week’s jobs report from the United States Department of Labor was HORRIFIC, but this is not a problem of politics or ideology problem; it is a problem of demographics and technology:

  • Outsourcing and globalization have spread wealth globally, from hundreds of millions of people to billions.
  • Significant numbers of baby boomers are retiring some 5-10 years early than expected.
  • Men are leaving the workforce as women take over as the majority of workers. In opposite-sex households, women are increasingly becoming the primary breadwinners, while more men stay at home.
  • The youngest working demographic is seeing the highest unemployment globally, but many of them in developed countries already have a “gold collar” philosophy about work: they work when they want to, change jobs frequently, and make just enough money to party on the weekends (which is really a negative way of viewing them; they are increasingly living in city centers, socializing, and focusing on leisure activities because they have the time and freedom to do so now).
  • Companies are seeing record profits, paying historic low taxes, and increasing spending on robotics and automation.
  • The robotics industry has just experienced its best quarter ever.
  • Manufacturing is returning to the United States in the form of robotics factories that require many fewer humans to run. Stay tuned: we are just a few weeks away from an announcement by Rethink Robotics that will shatter all of our beliefs about robots and jobs.
  • Outsourcing and globalization have run out of new centers of cheap human labor. Developing nations are rapidly investing in robotics and automation to replace their human workers so that they can remain industrial centers.

The trends are unprecedented. Politicians are pointing fingers and thinking linearly, instead of embracing the change and constructively thinking about solutions that will ease the transition for all of us. They are currently powerless to affect any change, caught up as they are in their strange ideological and moral irrelevancies. 

So what must happen? Here are my suggestions:

  • Local, national, and global discussions that FINALLY places demographics and technology in their rightful, primary positions.
  • Local organization forming to learn and act together. Join my h+ club if you are in Tucson. 🙂
  • Honest consideration a post-job/post-scarcity society at its ramifications. What would it look like? What steps do we need to take now to begin this transition? What does it mean for you as an individual, for your family and friends, your home, your country, and the world?
  • Retraining and a focus on life-long learning. This does not avoid the inevitable, but it just might give you a little extra time.

You and your job are *not* special. Your job is *not* the one job that will never be replaced by robotics and automation. I have family members and friends who are watching as their industries and activities are being transformed before their very eyes, and many of them are living under constant stress from the prospect of losing their jobs to robots and automation. Even in my job I am automating my team’s tasks as quickly as possible, knowing that budgets are dropping fast and that I will not be able to replace staff as they leave through attrition. This is not something happening to other people; this is happening to your friends and family, too, and it *will* happen to you soon. 

Our failure to recognize the impact of these trends and adapt to them immediately will lead to unnecessary suffering and pain. There will be too many people who have no idea what is going on. There will be 20% unemployment and rising without any near-term relief for the unemployed. There will be ridiculous and unnecessary class, race, generation, and ideological chasms with no evident bridges over them. There will be strikes, demonstrations, riots, violence, and other increasingly negative events, because that is what we humans do when we are frightened and our livelihoods are threatened. This is all just so unnecessary! We can avoid this!

I do not think that robotics and automation are evil; in fact, I am very excited and hopeful about these trends. I don’t think we should try to stop these trends. There is a strong possibility that we will end up in a semi-utopian post-job/post-scarcity future. If we are proactive then we can possibly even enjoy this transition, giving us a better quality of life even *before* the full realization of these trends. We *can* deal with this transition, and come out the other side happy, satisfied, confident, eager, and relevant.

Look, I understand that many of my readers think I am harping on something that is straight out of science fiction, but I am not alone, and this is not science fiction. There are a number of thinkers who are much more eloquently and usefully addressing this transition than I am: Marshall Brain, Parag and Ayesha Khanna, Steven Kotler, Peter H. Diamandis, Martin Ford, Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, Federico Pistono, Thomas L. Friedman, among many others.

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