BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
If you’ve even tuned into the news at least once over the past twenty months, you’ve probably heard a certain “someone” talking about jobs, and how to best bring them back to American shores. Regardless of your personal politics, it is hard to deny that the labor market is on a sharp downtrend for a wide variety of reasons.
This week, a group of scientists and economic advisers attached to outgoing President Obama released a White House report that aims to track current economic trends in the rapidly changing United States, and their diagnosis is not particularly optimistic. Their predictions align with Trump’s rhetoric in at least one respect: over the next 25 years, your job could go to a newly-arrived worker without a visa. The difference is that your replacement will be made out of metal and arrive from a factory, not Mexico. Within the next 25 years, economists predict that more than 47 per cent of available jobs will vanish as robotic laborers get faster, cheaper, and smarter – and there’s no wall to impede their progress.
Humans love to automate. Throughout history, humans have invented labor-saving devices and used them to replace long or tedious tasks…then quickly deployed them into the market without much thought for the jobs that they replaced. For centuries, weavers honed their crafts on their looms. Then in 1895 George Draper and Sons invented the fully-automatic Northrop Loom, which could handle the same workload for a fraction of the effort and a tenth of the employees. The next big breakthrough came with Henry Ford and his “assembly line” model. It didn’t take a genius to see that a machine could fulfill the same one-track job as the men employed on the factory floor; after Ford established its Department of Automation in the 1940 postwar boom it was just a matter of time until the technology caught up with the company’s ambitions.
Things didn’t really heat up until the 1980s. That was when US auto manufacturers began to toy with the idea of “lights-out” manufacturing – the idea of a 100 per cent self-sustaining factory that could churn out cars even when there were no humans around to run it. We’re not quite there yet. For all their tirelessness, even the best-maintained robots need a carbon-based technician around to make sure everything’s tickety-boo.
For managers in low-skilled manufacturing and service jobs, the rise of automation might seem like a godsend. After all, robotic arms rarely get sick, never need time off, and aren’t likely to sue for damages if they get injured on the job. The problem with automation now is that it’s an increasingly exponential process. As technological innovation increases, the rate at which jobs disappear in favor of robot employees will skyrocket. Robots have already crept out of the car factory and moved into other minimum-wage jobs as employers adapt to a changing economy. Next time you’re in a McDonald’s, check out the automated order menus. These giant touchscreens handle orders and payment entirely autonomously, effectively killing half of the labor force required to keep fast food restaurants afloat.
If you think this is all ominous, then check out shipping giant Amazon.com, which recently unveiled a line of “fulfillment” warehouses. In these fully-automated buildings, robot forklifts trundle up and down the floors, busily importing and stocking customer orders. Once upon a time, a major operations centre like this would have employed several hundred people and likely kept a community alive. Not anymore.
So is there any way to fight this? Not likely, say scientists. Barring the introduction of drastic new labor regulations, the best we can do is to start retraining old blue-collar workers for new jobs in robot maintenance, gussying up the machines that replaced them. Estimations vary, but over the next 20 years, 83 per cent of jobs that pay 20 dollars per hour or less will be under threat from the robot invasion. Economists worry that the automatic revolution might backfire. Whereas once we imagined that a robotic workforce would create new opportunities and alleviate pressure on workers, the rate of roboticization that we see today might just lead to the rich getting richer while workers watch from the sidelines.
Policymakers, the report finishes, must start exploring alternate job creation strategies and even consider increasing social safety nets to deal with the oncoming robot onslaught. Or, as Trump might suggest, build a firewall and make the robots pay for it.