What To Do About Those Displaced by Automation?

In the years to come, many jobs will be lost to automation.  One rather well-cited estimate maintains that automation poses a non-trivial threat to just under half of the country’s jobs.  The threat of automation causes a lot of concern.  What should we do about it?

Not Necessarily Bad, but Threatens Problems

In and of itself, automation is not necessarily a bad thing.  We manually transcribed books until the printing press was invented.  People dug ditches manually before the backhoe.  My older colleagues tell me that, before personal computers were in widespread use, you used to send written manuscripts down to a typing pool, and you’d get a typewritten version in a few days.  Before ATMs, getting your money meant a required 20 minute wait to see a teller, and only during business hours.  Automation ate these jobs — the scribe, the ditch-digger, the typist, and the teller. Few lament these lost jobs.   Fifty years from now, I’m sure the idea that people had to manually operate vehicles will seem like a burdensome obligation and waste of resources.

The problem figuring out what to do with those who will be displaced by these changes.  Think about the advent of self-driving vehicles.  Today, almost a quarter-million people work as taxi drivers or chauffeurs.  Over 600 thousand work as bus drivers.  Over 1.3 million work as delivery truck drivers.  Almost 1.8 million drive heavy trucks and tractor trailers.  That’s roughly four million workers — about 2.5% of all working Americans — facing obsolescence as a result of this one particular technology.  What are they going to do?  This is a problem that is going to play out across a multitude of industries, and the result of many technological changes that are already clearly on the horizon.

Not all jobs are equally vulnerable to displacement by machines.  Even tasks that were mistakenly presumed to be unnameable to automation are being computerized.  (It turns out that preparing taxes, judging mortgage applications, or pricing out securities involved more routinizes calculation and decision-making than once supposed).  There are many tasks that machines cannot substitute well for people.  Frey and Osbone argue that three types of tasks that resist automation involve social intelligence, creativity, and fine perception and manipulation.  The more a job involves these things, there is supposed to be less threat from machines.

What’s the Challenge?

What is the big deal about losing jobs to automation?  If a community of one thousand people once needed 800 farmers to feed themselves, and can now make the same amount of food with only 20 people using heavy machinery, isn’t that a good thing?  Hasn’t society freed up 780 workers?  What is wrong with that?

In aggregate terms, it seems like nothing, because society still has the same amount of food.  One problem is that, under our current economic system, those 780 displaced workers need to find some other productive role in society, or they will be denied access to the food being produced by the remaining 20 workers.  When they were farmers, those 780 could lay claim to a share of the food that they were helping to farm. Now that their labor has been “liberated”, they have lost their claim to food.  A struggle ensues to find some new role in society that will reestablish food access.

Over most history, people have found new ways to be relevant, and, on the whole, their new enterprises ultimately helped raise our living standards. The problem is that we have trouble envisioning which new activities or industries will absorb these recently-“liberated” workers.  The aforementioned four million workers who seem likely to be displaced by self-driving cars aren’t all going to program apps, devise marketing campaigns, or write magazine articles, are they?  If the machines are taking over, aren’t we going to need fewer and fewer people to program them?

Sustaining Livelihoods Where People Are Still Useful

It is possible to envision how people could be engaged in some form of social or economic productivity in tasks that require creativity, social intelligence, or find spatial and motor skills.  Couldn’t more people provide companionship, programming, and aid to the elderly?  Can’t more people create programs, mentor, and train the young?  Why can’t more people create entertainment or art?  Can’t we employ more people to manicure and care for public parks, playgrounds, and trails?

I think that many workers could be employed in these kinds of endeavors, and that their collective efforts could raise our overall quality of life.  The problem is that our economy, as it is organized, does not value these kinds of tasks.  Want to be an artist?  What are you going to do about healthcare? Want to run a basketball league for your community’s young people?  How are you going to earn enough money to ensure that your child can go to college?  You want to provide companionship for the elderly at your local nursing home?  Can you do that and still afford a house that isn’t near a superfund site?  Want to make sure that your local hiking trails are well-manicured, monitored and free of garbage?  What will you do for money? Artists, youth program organizers, companions for the elderly, etc. can all do a part in making society a better place, but it is hard to envision how regular people could sustain a livelihood doing that kind of work.

How Are We Failing?

Maybe our failure isn’t devising actual occupations that could gainfully absorb those who are being displaced by machines.  There may be many low-technology jobs that could make society a better place.    Maybe our failure is thinking of ways to allow people to do these kinds of tasks and still maintain a decent basic living standard.

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