The Graveyard of Employment and the Future of Jobs

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Written by Bailey Piazza

Looking upon the graveyard of fluorescently lit cubicles abandoned by a generation of the tele-abled, the “new machine age” has revolutionized the way we work and demands a reevaluation of the Future of Jobs. With each groundbreaking innovation unleashed unto the world, labor becomes more and more obsolete while society benefits. Given the current trajectory, the journey to 2050 encroaches upon the job market with each new advancement in technology, economics, education, and war.

A crowd of voices have attempted to define what the future of jobs looks like. On one side of the debate, Digital Optimists champion robots replacing humans in the workplace, resulting in human flourishing, as people will have more free time to do what they enjoy with more technology to benefit the entire world and bring individuals together. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat predicts “a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.”

Digital Pessimists, however, maintain that replacing human labor with robots will mean labor is no longer enough to achieve social mobility, the social gap will increase between those who have technological jobs and those who do not. Ethical thought will be at risk as more people focus on the next technological advancement and less on the impact it will have on humanity.  David Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, sees “… an era of technological unemployment, in which computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work, and the total number of jobs declines steadily and permanently.” When predicting the future of the cybernetic world, the plot runs both ways: grand or grim.

The Technological Dimension

With over 47% of today’s jobs susceptible to computerization, we are confronted with the reality of a world where the majority of people are unemployed because of technology. This allows output of products to increase, prices to drop, volume/quality of products to exponentially increase in a state of abundance. In the case of the world’s most common jobs (i.e. retail, cashiers, clerks, and drivers), computerization of these jobs means scores of unemployed people who do not need to work anymore to survive.

Without a 40-hour workweek to fulfill, humans have more time and resources to dedicate to innovation, and inventing better medical technology means we live longer, healthier lives. However, without an earned salary, there is no means to purchase the abundance of goods, even if prices are low. Humans loose a sense of purpose without work. In the case of Youngstown, Ohio, where once-ubiquitous manufacturing jobs shifted overseas, the sudden regional economic depression resulted in a cultural collapse, breeding depression, suicide, spousal abuse, higher crime rates/incarcerations, and mental health cases.

Limitless information technology can expedite the deterioration of our health as well, rewiring our brains to retrieve information quickly but not retain or deeply digest ideas, a condition similar to dementia patients.

The Economic Dimension

Offering labor in a 2050 machine market will be exceedingly difficult as computerization rivals human intelligence and efficiency. In 2008, approximately half of the 7.55 million jobs that disappeared in Europe were mid-wage positions. A society without work (and thus an earned income) will continue to drive down the median income, as it has been for the past 16 years by approximately three percent. This causes the socioeconomic gap to increase and inequality and polarization in the world’s societies to skyrocket.

To reduce tremendous gaps between classes in the present day, Germany, Sweden, and Canada have provided universal/guaranteed national incomes (GNI), which other countries may replicate in the future. A GNI is an unconditional, regularly given lump sum of income to subsidize the existing capital flow of the individual. GNI can be provided either by the government or other public institutions to everyone, regardless of their bracket or means requirements. It replaces the welfare system with a simple, transparent, effective program, allowing people the freedom to buy what they need and want with the money they now have. A GNI could also reduce government paternalism in the lives of poorer people, who would now have to learn financial skills not available through in-kind aid.

It is argued that under the guaranteed income system, the future economy can survive and technology will maintain its flourishing. People will continue to enjoy plentiful resources to buy and enjoy the constant creation of new technology, thus closing class gaps altogether.

However, some democratic countries are heavily resistant to socialism making the likelihood of universal income laws being passed by government improbable. A guaranteed income could mean the collapse of social mobility with no means of promotion, locking people in a social class. A GNI is also an expensive undertaking, costing just the U.S., for example, $4.4 trillion.

The Education Dimension

Sixty-five percent of children entering primary school this year will ultimately end up working in completely new jobs that have yet to be created. To prepare young students for this still-invisible job market, educational systems will encounter substantial overhaul, computerizing classrooms and restructuring curricula.

The past decade has seen a big push on STEM disciplines, since a constellation of actors—from educators to employers—assert STEM will solve the unemployment problems many countries are facing. As a result, since 2007, there has been a 48% increase of university students majoring in STEM subjects.

Echoing the evocations of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, while pushing children of the future to pursue STEM careers, society is in danger of starving the next generation intellectually by robbing them of the exposure to liberal arts. One UK study observes that kids who use their home Internet, play video games, or are otherwise fixated on a screen for more than four hours/day do not have the same sense of mental wellbeing, emotional/social intelligence, and ability to retain information long-term as those who use that technology for less than an hour/day.

With so much focus on the scientific and technological innovation of learning in the classroom, humanities are pushed to the background. As more dangerous technology is created, teaching ethics encourages students to question how technology could benefit/inhibit society. Backgrounds in political science, sociology, semantics, communications, human rights, and theology combined with software and computer engineering provide the technical and ethical backgrounds employers of the future will desire for the sake of the business and preservation of values irreplaceable by science.

Forward to 2050!

In 2050, we can expect machinery like networks of Hyperloops around the world propelling travelers at 700 mph between cities via magnets. Clothing and prosthetics that give the human body new abilities will fly off department store shelves. Space expeditions will send people to Mars and beyond. Artificial intelligence, like Google’s Deepmind project, will mimic human consciousness, opening the doors to entirely new branches of technology.

The economics of the Post-Employment World will challenge the way society makes, spends, and spreads capital. A new economic order will be established with China topping the charts and India rivaling among the top five global economies. With technological and economical advancement, our society must educate upcoming generations to adapt to a reshaping of culture, often heavily based on the religion of labor.

Books will be fossilized as digitization claims their place. Children will experience a digital divide that limits intellectual capacity and the ability to understand why such technology was needed at all. Finally, as countries improve their military methods and equipment, the threat of such technology in possible war scenarios is a theoretical yet valid fear, especially as autonomous weapons are in the process of being banned before their prototypes have been finalized. The midcentury poses many woes and wonders for the world. Now is the time to prepare for and carefully co-create our world of 2050.