You know a topic has attained the level of Mainstream Concern when it gets a cover story at The Economist magazine. The last (January 18th) issue of that magazine features as first leader a 1,300-word warning about imminent technological changes destroying great swathes of the market for human labor, in particular the office-worker sector of that market.
When Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site, was sold to Facebook for about $1 billion in 2012, it had 30m customers and employed 13 people. Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy a few months earlier, employed 145,000 people in its heyday. [Coming to an office near you, The Economist, Jan. 18th]
The leader comes with a longer (3,800-word) inside article and a lurid cover picture showing tornadoes sweeping destructively through an open-plan office. In a metaphor-switch almost as jarring as a pink slip from Kodak, the inside article is titled The onrushing wave and is illustrated with a tsunami.
VDARE.com’s Don Collins has been making this point about automation for a while. Now it seems to have arrived in Main Stream Media. Down at the other end of the gentility spectrum in journalism, MailOnline wants to make your flesh creep:
Claims made by an expert in artificial intelligence predict that in less than five years, office jobs will disappear completely to the point where machines will replace humans.
[Is your job under threat from ROBOTS? Expert warns that office jobs could vanish by 2018, by Victoria Woolaston, MailOnline, November 14th, 2013]
Warnings about automation destroying jobs are of course as old as the steam engine, as The Economist’s anonymous writers point out.
The indicators are, that this time it’s for real. Job-wise, economic indicators show essentially no recovery from the last recession. The labor force participation rate—adults in work or seeking work—is low and declining. Twenty percent of U.S. households are on “food stamps” (actually nowadays the EBT card), up from ten percent just nine years ago.
Scoffing at the concept of “artificial intelligence” is no real counter-argument. “Machines will never be able to do what a human nervous system can do!” scoff the scoffers. Leaving aside the fact that the truth value of that statement is utterly unknown, for job-displacement purposes they don’t need to. Automobiles very thoroughly displaced horses, in spite of the fact that no automobile yet produced can jump a fence.
Artificial intelligence doesn’t need to be human-level good, just good enough. Google Translate falls way short of human-level skill, but I use it all the time none the less (and it improves noticeably year by year).
As The Economist tells us:
Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analyzed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories.
[The onrushing wave, The Economist, January 18th.]
In order to steal your job, a gadget or app doesn’t need to respond to The Magic Flute as you do, not to take the pleasure in gardening that you take, nor to feel for a neighboring gadget what you feel about your office colleagues. It just needs to be better at mining text, processing images, and filling in tax forms.
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn`t one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise?
If not quite at the Doomed level, The Economist is uncharacteristically pessimistic about the outcome of current technological change; or rather, while it can’t quite let go of its normal upbeat economism, the direction of the trend lines is too clear for them to ignore.
…to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.
Cutting-edge stuff! Yet the leader does acknowledge, against all current journalistic orthodoxy, that:
However well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal.
Just so. The prospect, then, is for dwindling job opportunities, with handsome rewards for the Overclass of creative, very smart, and/or well-placed citizens, while the great mass of persons for whom there is no economic use vegetate in good-enough welfare provisioning, like the “thetes” of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age.
Maybe. As always with big social topics, however, it helps to descend from the abstract to look at particular cases.
Here are four young-adult Americans (YAAs) of my acquaintance. No names, no pack drill; and I have even fudged details slightly for further anonymity. Ages here are late teens to late twenties.
- YAA Green attended a very respectable (though not Ivy League) college after graduating high school, and did a year of general liberal-arts courses. She didn’t return for her sophomore year. Instead she extended her part-time waitressing job to full-time, then after a few months enrolled for some courses at a private vocational school at the lower end of the healthcare field.
- YAA Blue squeaked through high-school graduation but had no further interest in being schooled. He did kitchen work for a few years, rising to the rank of junior chef. Then a family connection got him into the union for operators of heavy construction equipment—cranes, backhoes, and such. He’s now paying his way through training in this work, with union help.
- YAA Yellow did well in high school, learned to play the piano—both classical and jazz—to a good level, and developed a mean tennis game. After graduation, however, he chose not to go to college, and sought no employment. He is what the British call a NEET: Not in Employment, Education, or Training. Yellow spends most of his time playing video games or browsing the Internet.
- YAA Red was fascinated by things military all through his middle- and high-school years. His preferred leisure activity was military-themed video games. Although intellectually sharp and a tolerably good student, he disliked schooling. Following high-school graduation he went directly into the military as a trainee infantryman. He is now stationed with an Airborne Infantry unit.
What are the life prospects for these four young working- or middle-class Americans?
Even on those pessimistic conclusions implied by the articles I’ve cited, all four could end up doing useful work.
Green, for example, might be a masseuse—a line of work fairly far out on the prospect-for-robotization scale: just the kind of personal service that Overclass customers will prefer to receive from a human rather than a robot, even at higher cost.
Blue may yield his crane-operating job to a smart machine, but it is likely that some human direction will be required at big construction projects for decades to come: Crane Operator to Crane Supervisor.
Yellow sounds like just the type to think up some new app that will enrich him sufficiently to lift him into the Overclass.
Red’s military career may end with death in battle, but on present trends is much more likely to yield to defense cutbacks. Ex-military personnel will always be in demand for security and law enforcement work, though.
So all four of my young acquaintances might be gainfully employed in a.d. 2034.
Or, all four might be in trailer camps with EBT cards, in a society that has no use for a majority of its citizens.
At the individual level, there are many futures.
But at the level of an entire nation, though, it is extremely difficult to see how matters will be improved at all for our youngsters by two more decades of mass immigration.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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