Work is about to change in ways that mankind is not prepared for. It’s a revolution that started in the factories and is now invading every aspect of life. As machines pull more and more workers from the workforce, we are facing a tsunami of unemployment the likes of which has not been seen. We’ve seen revolutions in labor before, from specialization to industrialization, but automation is different. Automation isn’t the new way we’ll do work, it’s the end of work as we know it.
For most of human history, the introduction and creation of new technology helped create more and varied jobs. The agricultural revolution improved output so much that it allowed each worker to create an excess of food, thus others could then specialize with other tasks like manufacturing, services, and academia. Over the centuries, humans would continue innovating, and with each innovation came more jobs: someone to build it, someone to sell it, someone to maintain it. The very foundation of our society rests upon a person’s ability to find meaning through labor and the acquisition of wealth. However, even as early as the last century, we have begun to see cracks in this foundation. What happens when humans are removed from production?
A common refrain is that Americans are losing their manufacturing jobs overseas. Indeed, since 1984 we’ve lost two-thirds of our manufacturing jobs, once thriving industrial centers like Detroit are hitting record lows, and it has even become common knowledge that American manufacturing has seen better days. But there’s a catch, since 1984, American manufacturing production has actually doubled to record highs. This paradox is thanks to automation. While it is true that some jobs were relocated, the vast number of American workers were simply replaced by machines. As the technology improves and the costs decreases, it is no longer efficient to employ a human when a robot can do the same task. Robots don’t get sick, they don’t need time off, and they don’t protest for better wages or benefits. Even if a machine can’t do the task as fast or as well, the reduced cost often makes automation the more efficient choice anyway. Manufacturing is only the first industry to begin the long surrender to automation, many others are soon to follow.
While you may believe that the fate of being mechanized only could affect static and specific repetitive tasks like those in manufacturing, you’d be wrong. Just look at the transportation industry. While the average consumer may only care about self-driving cars for their own garages, they actually pose a bigger threat to those who drive for a living. Millions of Americans, from truckers to Uber drivers, will find themselves out of an industry as soon as these companies begin to roll out these driverless machines. As soon as self-drivers begin to beat human safety standards, we’ll see millions lose their jobs in America alone.
Computerized assembly lines and self-driving cars may be the flashiest examples of the automated job killers we now face, but more subtle and less grandiose destroyers of employment have been creeping into your daily life. Retailers across the country have been replacing cashiers with self-checkout lines managed by a single person. Some stores even promise to remove the checkout entirely. Warehouses are turning off the lights as stocking and storage is taken over completely by automatons. Restaurants are starting to use apps and kiosks to take your orders of food soon to be prepared by machines. Many companies are even trying their hand at building homes automatically, as if premanufactured homes don’t already put a damper on construction jobs. While many argue that these unemployed adults could just get higher skilled jobs (ignoring the impossible logistics and economics of putting millions of unemployed adults through post-secondary education), it’s not just blue collar workers on the edge of being unemployable, professional work might disappear even faster.
Jobs that were once considered secure bastions of employment in the face of mechanical automation are now facing oblivion in the face of computational automation. Many current high-paying jobs like law, accounting, finance, etc. can be easily mastered by manipulating numbers and information. Computers are very good at that and they’re getting better by the day. Courtroom lawyers might seem untouchable, and they might be, but the majority of legal practice takes place outside of the courtroom doing things like reviewing contracts and searching through knowledge banks for relevant information. These activities can be easily automated, letting law firms efficiently remove unnecessary staff. Half of trade on Wall Street is already automated, and the rest is soon to follow. Especially as the gig economy spins up and management software becomes easier to use, many people find themselves reporting back to phone numbers and apps rather than real people. Even my own current supervisor is the 106 Megabytes on my phone that give me delivery orders.
If the numbers aren’t hitting hard enough, let me put it succinctly. Studies have suggested as many as 800 million jobs worldwide will be automated out of existence by 2030: that’s a tenth of the planet. As much as 52% of American jobs could disappear; for perspective, the highest unemployment rate of the Great Depression was 25%. If we don’t take this change seriously and consider every option available, this could be the end of work as we know it.