Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Captain's Table: Permanently Unemployed

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida
Back in engineering school at Clarkson in 1963, I was required to take a course that considered engineering ethics. They put the question to the class, "Automation will take people's jobs away. Is that OK?" Well, clever little snots that we were, we rejected the question, saying that automation would create more jobs than it destroyed. As it turns out, we were mostly right for many decades, but recent trends are decidedly the other way, and the future is ominous. Automation will make having a job a privilege, not a duty.
From my view, the earliest and most visible job category eliminated was that of office workers. We called them secretaries, but at the engineering consulting firm I worked at they worked mostly on the production of printed documents. Those jobs and millions of others like them are gone because of a single software application -- Microsoft Word.
The Internet has done a marvelous job of putting sellers of all kinds of products and services in touch with would-be buyers. is among the most notable of these. This development has eliminated or threatened the jobs of countless people who used to earn their living as middlemen. Travel agents are a good example. Today in the USA, threatens the job of each and every Amazon competitor in retail sales.
A recent article said that fast food restaurants will soon have a tablet at each table where you can place your order and make payment. Automation in the kitchen will replace other workers. The rush hour staff at your local Macdonalds might be decreased from 15 people to 5.
An item from today's news talks about robots that have learned how to cook by watching YouTube videos.
IBM's Watson has already proved itself as a better medical diagnostician than any human. The work of paralegals, and then even lawyers, are a natural extension for Watson.
In the 1970s, I once wrote that the killer app for software was a program to replace programmers. Just tell it what you want, and it writes the software for you. That was science fiction then. Today, it is on the threshold of becoming reality.
In short, I think that in coming decades, more than 50% of all jobs in developed countries are in danger of being eliminated. I'm not the only one saying so.
The problem is that most industries formed since 2000—electronic auctions, Internet news publishers, social-networking sites, and video- and audio-streaming services, all of which appeared in official industry classifications for the first time in 2010—employ far fewer people than earlier computer-based industries. Whereas in 2013 IBM and Dell employed 431,212 and 108,800 workers, respectively, Facebook employed only 8,348 as of last September. --- Carl Benedikt Frey, writing in Scientific American
A front page article in the New York Times, recently said that since 2007, more than 6 million Americans have disappeared from the job market. The way the USA counts unemployment statistics, those people do not appear as unemployed, In this manner, even though the unemployment rate has nearly recovered to 2007 levels, those 6 million people are redefined from unemployed, to invisible and permanently unemployed.
I did a little research of my own using Wolfram Alpha, and plotted the data in the curve below. The vertical axis is the percentage participation in the job market for the USA. We see it first rise as women went from being housewives to being employed. Since 2000, we see a big decline. That decline is my subject. I expect it to accelerate.
I think that this trend is inevitable. No government nor groups of governments can stop it or substantially slow it down. Compare it to the industrial revolution. In the near future, having a job will be a privilege that most people will never enjoy. Job losses in the 2008 recession will never be recovered. That was but a harbinger of things to come. But we are not poor, not starving. Products, goods and services are produced and delivered to all citizens at accelerating rates, but produced with fewer employees. That is what I believe.
So, what is my point? I believe that a substantial fraction (perhaps even the majority) of the first world's population will be permanently unemployed and unemployable. When that fraction becomes big enough, we can no longer look down our noses at such people and call them loafers or parasites. As a civil society, we must abandon the work ethic as the basis of social status. We must learn to treat people with dignity, and respect regardless of past, present, or future employment status.
Wow, what a daunting challenge. Speaking as a person who has always derived his very identity from his job, I can not imagine a more difficult about face.
I feel pretty alone in making this statement. Politicians and the media want to talk about income inequality because of political advantage, but they will not talk about the inequalities between employed and the permanently unemployed. Nor are they willing to even acknowledge that we have such a big class of permanently unemployed people that we need to do something other than promising to find them jobs.

1 comment:

  1. It will take an evolution in our society on a profound level. But, I think it is coming. We just haven't reached the saturation point yet, where the 100th monkey gets it. Despite what the fear mongers in the lamestream media project, we are all connected. Change is coming. But it isn't being brought to us by anyone in politics. Those people are and always have been tools of those who would manipulate their greed.


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