The future of labor

A couple of days ago I was engaged in an online discussion about joblessness at age 45 and beyond. I was struck by the obvious magnitude of the problem and also by the sometimes extreme honesty with which the participants described their personal fates.

One of the moderators then tried to make everyone comfortable by assuming that it would be like in other downturns, that eventually the job market would return for everyone and that everything would be alright if one keeps looking hard enough for some new work.

I disagreed and off the discussion spun into the dark as I threw in an assertion that made everyone queasy. I said that I did not believe into the old cycle repeating itself just once again. I said that this might well be the last turn in a long history as automation starts to take a really heavy toll.

Let’s be honest. We cannot go on believing that Computers and robots will get ever more sophisticated and at the same time we will continue doing some of the simplest stuff like cleaning floors or typing letters.

This post was typed on an iPad but it was still typed. No speech recognition software involved and I count as a geek back where I come from.

A report by the American scientists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne says that by the year 2030, almost 80% of our current jobs will have disappeared because of computerization and robotization. And there is no silver lining giving us other possibilities in newly created professions to go to as it was the case in the past.

Look, no driver ...

Look, no driver …

Let’s take a peek on how far this will go. Renault has announced that by the year 2020 they want to sell self-driving cars regularly. This means that things like the Google car will soon roam our streets and this also means that essentially, the driving profession will go out of existence. Just imagine logistics. Self-driving trucks delivering goods when you want it, where you want it.

Companies would just have to buy the new vehicle model and it’s all set. No vacation, no drinking and always 100% alert and attentive to anything that happens. How many people make a living today by driving vehicles? Taxi drivers, truck drivers, train conductors, bus drivers, you name it. They will all disappear.

Let’s go further. How many people today make a living from working in a supermarket or in a bank or in any other business that sells things and services to people? Last year I have been invited at a consumer event and they had set up a prototype automatic supermarket. No sales people in there anymore – you just go in, pick your wares, swipe your card and that’s it.

But let’s go even further. In Japan, companies are experimenting with the first robot nurses. Field tests have shown that not only patients liked them but also that they were much better accepted than many people believed they would be. Always friendly, always attentive and no medication errors. Together with automatic cleaners this will wipe out whole armies of workers in the health profession.

But don’t believe that the white collar section is safe. I have an iPhone and with the iPhone 5 I started to use SIRI in earnest. It started out as a little here and there but today I talk a lot to my phone as it just makes my life easier. I don’t have to fiddle on a small screen with my big clumsy fingers anymore.

Imagine a SIRI on steroids as it will sure be reality in 2030. It will be as good as any personal assistant will be minus the paycheck, the mood swings and the funny looks from your wife. It will be always on, ready to execute any request in a minute, keep your schedule, run your correspondence, run researches over complex matters as you tell it to, and on and on and on.

You will not want the flesh version anymore. And this is going to apply to virtually anything that can be done in an office. Most office jobs consist of doing pretty simple, repetitive things just because someone has to punch data into a computer. If computers have some form of conscience and can freely communicate and if they can relate things to each other, most office jobs won’t be necessary anymore. Welcome the virtual CFO or Head of Legal.

Better than humans ...

Better than humans …

But this also applies to decision making processes. When decisions have to be made according to known metrics, managers usually come into play. But computers are specialists in decision making when known metrics are involved. The problem so far was interfacing which as you see with SIRI progressively goes away

Imagine a computer a bit like Jarvis in Iron Man, a computer that is always on, always present, witty, smart and more like a companion than a machine. It would combine the knowledge of the world and if you can interact as Tony Stark does with Jarvis, you won’t need any white collar anymore in tour life. Your Jarvis will do it all.

But now, you will ask, if the factory floor as well as the head office has been cleansed of human presence, where will humans persist?

We must be clear about one thing. Eventually, machines will do everything that humans do including composing music, directing movies and producing art installations.

Unaltered humans will disappear from the labor process. Craftsmen and artists will certainly prevail the longest but they also are eventually doomed and it will happen in our natural lifetimes.

We will have to think hard about what those laid off masses of people will eventually do. We will have to find ways of keeping them fed, clothed, catered and entertained. And we will but don’t expect the transition to be smooth.

This is not for you? Think again. If you are 80 years old today you might be right but if you are just 60, in 2030 you will be 75 and you will see lots of it. If you are younger you will see it all unfold. Now you will say, but I am retired so why should I care?

Simply because such a deep change in society will forcibly leave its marks on everything including retirement systems. We cannot hope that our little lives will be left out.

So, if all this is about to come. How to position oneself for the time after the big change?

There is one domain that will hold out longest. Single entrepreneurs will be safest and they will even drive this process in their never ending quest for the bigger, better mousetrap.

The world as it evolves right now will usher in the end of big corporations and mass anything and become as individualistic as you can imagine it. Because in a world where labor is cheap and plentiful, anything can be done.

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