It's a Living. Part I: David's Saga. Episode 16: The End of Jobs
In the previous episode of our fictional saga, David and Susan tried to figure out the wisest approach to charity, the most worthy causes.
Having enjoyed the unusually deep conversation, they decided to go even deeper: "What will happen when ever more jobs get automated and offshored?"
This time, it wasn't much of a dialogue. It was something David has been thinking about for a long time:
"All we keep hearing is how jobs are disappearing. First it was ATMs replacing tellers, then self-checkout replacing supermarket checkers. Now they're developing driverless vehicles, robotic fast-food chefs and servers, baristas, and bartenders.
"Wonderful, transformative teachers will, on video, teach classes using immersive simulations and interactivity. The human touch will be provided by lower-paid paraprofessionals. That will eliminate millions of teaching jobs, from elementary school to graduate school.
"IBM is developing a robot that will replace those annoying clothing sales clerks---It will use a laser to instantly get your measurements and walk you to clothes and the retailer's website items that will look great on you.
"IBM is also developing Dr. Watson, software aimed at being better than human doctors at diagnosing and recommending treatment. Indeed, artificial intelligence is replacing all sorts of professionals, from accountants to insurance adjusters.
Susan objected: "They've always said that every time a technology was invented: the cotton gin was going to eliminate farming jobs. The car was going to eliminate blacksmith and buggy-whip makers. Yet every time, more jobs were created.
David replied, "This time will be different because unlike previous generations of manufacturing, when you develop a piece of software, just a few people are required to distribute it worldwide. Besides, the cost of hiring an American has gone wild, with ObamaCare merely the latest on top of disability, worker's comp, Social Security, ADA compliance, Family and Medical Leave, and defending the ever increasing number of worker-rights lawsuits. With demographic trends and the Democrats' far superior messaging machine, Internet strategy, and ground game, and with the media at their back. this ain't no pendulum: it's a long-term trend. There simply won't be enough jobs."
Susan asked, "So what's going to happen?"
"In the short run, the middle class will keep getting hollowed out. People such as software engineers for companies that make silicon-based products--the Apples, Googles, Amazons--will do fine. And people in such non-offshoreable, not-automatable professions like dentist, occupational therapist, and fitness trainer will also be okay. But most other folks will have no choice but to take a menial service job like restaurant worker."
Susan asked, "But won't that cause a revolution?"
"It could. To avoid it, the government will have to keep extending unemployment checks indefinitely, or institute a guaranteed income.
"With few people making good a good income, only companies that provide the basics will stay viable. Even car manufacturers will go out of business because people will keep their cars longer and longer, repairing and repairing rather than replacing with new. People won't be able to afford to fly--the cost of the airplanes and the fuel will be beyond what people can pay, even if the airlines were to make no profit and the government were to nationalize them.
"And of course, it becomes a vicious cycle. The more companies that go out of business, the fewer the jobs, and the less income people make.
Susan asked, "So what will happen in the long-term?"
"My best guess is that we will become a much less materialistic society. We'll live very simply, much like we did centuries ago except that with computers and software being cheap, everyone will have technology to enhance their lives. The focus of government and private initiatives will be on the basics like health care, which will continue to improve thanks to that ever improving technology.
"People need to work to have a sense of meaning, so they will continue to work at low or even no pay, just as so many journalists, artists, even reader reviewers on Amazon do today.
"And we'll have more spare time, which we will, hopefully, use wisely. Rather than getting drunk or stoned on pot--which I'm sure will be legalized nationwide if only to anesthetize the population through its jobectomy--more people will focus on creative expression through writing and the arts, and through relationships: mentoring, friendship, and family. And the lack of materialism will be good for the environment."
Susan asked, "But is human nature hard-wired to compete, to be acquisitional?"
David replied, "Possibly. If a few such people start that, it would trigger others to follow and we could end up back where we were.
"But I feel the need to be a little more optimistic than that about humankind. If so, crazy at it may seem, the end of jobs, may in the end, net, be good for humankind."
Susan responded, "So every time I hear of another job getting roboticized, I should cheer?"
And with that, David and Susan stared into the fire until all that was left in their personal pyrospectacular were a few embers floating into the chimney. Alas, tomorrow was to be less peaceful.
The final episode of It's a Living, Part I: David's Saga, will be published on the next business day.