Technology And The Jobless Future

Vivek Wadhwa believes we are headed toward a jobless future and he says so in the following two articles ((All quotes, unless otherwise attributed, are drawn from the two articles of Vivek Wadhwa)):

Sorry, but the jobless future isn’t a luddite fallacy.

We need a new version of capitalism for the jobless future

Within 10 years, we will see Uber laying off most of its drivers as it switches to self-driving cars; manufacturers will start replacing workers with robots; fast-food restaurants will install fully automated food-preparation systems; artificial intelligence–based systems will start doing the jobs of most office workers in accounting, finance and administration. The same will go for professionals such as paralegals, pharmacists, and customer-support representatives. All of this will occur simultaneously, and the pace will accelerate in the late 2020s.

What Types Of Jobs Will Be Disappearing?

The arrival of self-driving cars is terrible news for anyone who makes a living driving. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

I could equally well argue the arrival of the bulldozer was terrible news for anyone who made a living digging ditches too but I would never actually make such an argument, because I seriously doubt very many people actually want to return to the days when they had to dig ditches in order to make a living.

While it always has been — and always will be — true that technology will replace jobs, the first two questions we should be asking ourselves are 1) What kinds of jobs are being replaced and 2) Do we actually want to do those kinds of jobs anyway? The Industrial Age ended physical labor for many and the Information Age ended tedious labor for many more.

Looks like you’ve been missing a lot of work lately.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob. ~ OFFICE SPACE

Few people want to go back to the days when we had to dig ditches; when we had to dig through card catalogs to find books; when we had to have an army of switchboard operators to manually connect individual phone calls; and I sincerely doubt we’ll look back forty years from now and pine for the good old days when we had the privilege of working as truck and taxi cab drivers either.

Self-driving cars, widely implemented, would save more American lives than curing AIDS, stopping murder and eliminating war combined. ~ Austen Allred

Jobs Will Be Few

Some new jobs will surely be created, but they will be few.

Hmm. That is an exceptionally strong claim and it is the foundation upon which Vivek Wadhwa builds his argument we are headed for a jobless future.

Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence. ~ Christopher Hitchens

And yet, Vivek Wadhwa not only fails to provide exceptional evidence in support of his exceptional claim, he provides us with virtually no evidence at all. On the contrary, all the available evidence argues against Vivek Wadhwa’s assertion many jobs will be lost but few new jobs will be created.

There are more net jobs in the world today than ever before, after hundreds of years of technological innovation and hundreds of years of people predicting the death of work. The logic on this topic is crystal clear. ~ Marc Andreessen

Time after time, technology has eliminated jobs and, time after time, new, and mostly better, jobs have sprung up to replace them. But this time, Vivek Wadhwa assures us, this time, things will be different.

(The jobless future), like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophesies. ~ paraphrasing H. L. Mencken

The Jobless Will Be Unqualified And Under-Qualified

(W)e won’t be able to retrain the people who lose their jobs, because, as I said to Andreessen, you can train an Andreessen to drive a cab, but you can’t retrain a laid-off cab driver to become an Andreessen. The jobs that will be created will require very specialized skills and higher levels of education — which most people don’t have.

In 1900, 97% of the people in the United States worked on farms. In 2000, 3% of the people in the United States worked on farms.

I strongly suspect if Vivek Wadhwa had been writing in the year 1900, he would have argued one could train the non-farming 3% to take on the job of farmer but one could not possibly retrain 94% of farmers to take on manufacturing and service jobs that required “very specialized skills and higher levels of education.” He would have been wrong then and the existing evidence strongly suggests he is wrong now, too.

There Will Be No Time To Retrain

Vivek Wadhwa counters the future will not be like the past because, while we had three centuries to transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, we will only have one or two decades in which to transition from the current age to the Age of Joblessness.

The technology elite who are leading this revolution will reassure you that there is nothing to worry about because we will create new jobs just as we did in previous centuries when the economy transitioned from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based. Tech mogul Marc Andreessen has called the notion of a jobless future a “Luddite fallacy,” referring to past fears that machines would take human jobs away. Those fears turned out to be unfounded because we created newer and better jobs and were much better off.

(W)hat is missing from these arguments is the timeframe over which the transitions occurred. The industrial revolution unfolded over centuries. Today’s technology revolutions are happening within years. We will surely create a few intellectually-challenging jobs, but we won’t be able to retrain the workers who lose today’s jobs. They will experience the same unemployment and despair that their forefathers did. It is they who we need to worry about.

Is Vivek Wadhwa right? Is it different this time because there will be no time to adjust?


The Destroyer Is The Creator Too

Vivek Wadhwa fails to recognize the contradiction inherent in his argument. While he insists jobs may go away at an ever faster pace due to technology, he completely ignores the fact retraining will also occur at an ever faster pace due to that very same technology.

If anything, the future looks even brighter than the past, because we are even more prepared for rapid retraining today than we have ever been before. The rise of the automobile destroyed the livelihood of those who made horse drawn carriages and it did nothing to help retrain those unemployed workers. But the rise of the personal computer — and in particular the smartphone — is both destroying existing jobs and simultaneously providing us with the ideal tool for retraining. Vivek Wadhwa has it exactly backwards. The rapid retraining he says can’t possibly occur in time has already begun and begun in earnest ((Oh sure, some will fall through the cracks and be reduced to writing articles for tech blogs…but that is the price we pay for progress.)).


In the 1970s, W. Karl Kapp, a professor of economics at Switzerland’s Basel University, attempted to capture the hazards of making predictions by relying solely upon straight line projections:

If there had been a computer in 1872, it would have predicted that by now there would be so many horse-drawn carriages that the entire surface of the earth would be ten feet deep in horse manure.

The problem with doomsday projections is they are always full of metaphorical horse manure. They can foresee the problem, based upon current trends, but they can’t envision solutions based upon the adjustments that will be made in response to those self-same trends. Malthus predicted mass starvation due to overpopulation but he didn’t foresee birth control or the green revolution in farming. Environmentalists in the 1970s predicted we would run out of fossil fuels by the first quarter of the twenty-first century but they didn’t foresee increased conservation efforts, or the creation of more efficient ways to wring oil from shale or energy from solar panels.

Experience tells us that tomorrow there will be ever more and ever better jobs than there are today. Belief in the jobless future is the triumph of despair over experience. Belief in a better future is the triumph of reason over fear.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

28 thoughts on “Technology And The Jobless Future”

  1. “… the triumph of reason over fear.” Fear is not a bad thing cus’ societies can be disrupted too. No one listens to jeremiads until the walls have fallen on our heads.

    A bit of a straw man argument: jobs. What evidence we have suggests jobs are splitting into the technical and the personal, e.g., engineering and childcare. The first are fewer and well paid; the second are more and badly paid.

    So a jobless future? Maybe not. But a payless future? Not so clear. Wadhwa’s pleas that we need to evaluate our economic and educational approaches make sense to me.

    In education, we are a century behind rich understandings of how kids learn. Pursuing our individual talents and passions are the best hope for individuals. Whatever happens next. And not merely to get jobs, more like meaningful work, careers, and vocations.

    1. “In education, we are a century behind rich understandings of how kids learn.:

      On this we agree. There is no one who believes more than I that our educational institutions are in desperate need of reform.

        1. “(H)ow likely is that educational reform?” – Observer

          Unlikely. Entities that are run by, or heavily regulated by, government are less susceptible to disruption than those that are subject to the pulls of the marketplace. Still, when changes come to long undisrupted entities, those changes are often dramatic and far reaching. Clay Christensen — the father of disruption theory — has written extensively on the coming changes to education at the college/university level. Perhaps the rapidly changing job market and its consequent need for rapid re-training will lead to a rapidly changing educational system as well.

    2. “And not merely to get jobs, but to secure meaningful work, careers, and vocations.”

      Benthamian Modernism says we should only focus on the utility of things. In actuality until we can conceive of education as something other than meaningful work, careers, and vocations as well as merely jobs, educational practice has little reason to change. That’s why the arts have such a difficult time in education. Arts education is not about a career in the arts anymore than studying math or science in school is about a career in math or science.


      1. My contention is that education is not about checkboxes labeled art, math, science. It’s about discovering a personal path into art, math, science. And those who have talent in and commit to art, math, science inevitably seek to pursuit it full-time. As a job.

          1. I’m not sure we disagree. Schools are still organized to produce clerks, that is, workers who will do meaningless jobs sitting near others who do the same, without conversing. I think I said education should be organized to produce creatives, that is, artists, mathematicians, scientists. That those will be their jobs. As Drucker said, all goals must ultimately become work or they are nothing.

          2. I think where we disagree is the analysis of the problem. Drucker is still operating from a Benthamite view of utility. Plus we differ in what we use as value. I say a better human being makes work, society, and culture valuable. Your view is a human’s contribution in the utility of work s the human value. My value is intrinsic in humanity. Your value is what a human can contribute. Humans only as valuable as what they contribute is a large part of the problems we see every day in the news. not just eduction.

            Work is valuable. When it defines our existence and value is my problem.


          3. Actually I speak as a longtime manager who saw his vocation as creating great jobs and finding great people to fill them. When that connection was made, the meaningfulness was equal or greater than what a counselor, teacher, or minister can do. No, work must not defines us. But meaningful work has a profound qualitative effect on our lives.

  2. I remember when drum machines first hit the music stores. Everyone said they would replace drummers, even drummers said this. After a (short) while two things became extremely obvious. The best drum machine programmers were… drummers! And many of those gigs that used drum machines (not programmed by drummers) instead of drummers? Most drummers didn’t want them anyway because they were usually too low paying or otherwise unprofessional.


  3. @john kirk: Debating this issue with generalized statements isn’t serious.

    There are serious research works that claim that 40% might be replaced by technology in 20 years, and talk in details about those jobs. Please write another column detailing what kind of jobs , in what kind of numbers would replace those.

    I’ve failed to see any such column, from the whole internet! So maybe there aren’t new jobs coming ?

    1. I’ve seen that too. I have one real problem with that theory. If society hits such a devastating jobless state, who is left to be paying customers? Do you really expect everyone to only sell to so few people? Capitalism does require a certain quid pro quo from a free market.

      From what I can see if that happens there will be one of two results—either the 40% create their own economy or jobs become less necessary. You can’t make things no one can buy.


      1. I agree with you that there would be huge effects across the economy if so many people won’t be needed.

        As for what shape this will take , we can look at places through history with high unemployment levels: today’s spain(maybe) and greece, russia after the collapse, u.s. in the great depression – and this doesn’t look good.

        Or maybe there are places in recent history that managed 30%+ unemployment and did it well – but i don’t know about any, and i would be happy to learn about it.

        And sure it did create an increase in the informal economy lie you say, but it didn’t make jobs become less necessary.

        1. But what you ask of anyone in response to this position is unknowable. For instance, in timely fashion, there is this article from NYT:

          Things shift in unexpected ways, always have, always will. Few if any are capable or able to map out that shift in advance. If someone tried you can’t even call it speculation, never mind an educated guess. But such as it is with the 40% unemployment guess. No one can respond because there is nothing to respond to. It is circumstantial conspiracy theory at this point.


          1. There’ll always be jobs. Jobs that will be outsourced to the less progressive nations. While those that lead or pioneer new breakthroughs wil inadvertantly create new jobs along the way. How many jobs or roles that may be remains to be seen though. As to the retraining part, that seems a bit sketchy at best. ReTrainings are costs. Costs thats are risks to companies. Might as well hire the young ones rather than hiring the disrupted as they say: you cant teach an old dog new tricks.

      2. “Please write another column detailing what kind of jobs , in what kind of numbers would replace (the 40% might be replaced by technology in 20 years).

        In 1900 97% of people in the United States were farmers. Could you, I or anyone have predicted with exactitude the kinds of manufacturing jobs that would spring up over the next 50 years? In 1950, almost all the people in the United States were engaged in farming or manufacturing. Could you, I or anyone have predicted the service jobs that would spring up over the next fifty years?

        Let me flip your question on its head. History has demonstrated time and time again that technology creates more jobs than it eliminates. Can you provide me with a single shred of evidence that this will not happen again in the future?

        It is easy to read the obituary columns and note when we have lost the services of great men and women. But there is no way to note when great men and woman have been born. Only time will allow us to learn of and appreciate their greatness. The same is true for jobs. It’s easy to mourn the passing of old jobs — the media shouts the news from the rooftops — but it is not at all easy for us to mark and celebrate the unheralded birth of great new jobs.

        1. You are right no one can predict the future and those who can are only horse manuring.
          Great to read another article from you.

        2. “Can you provide me with a single shred of evidence that this will not happen again in the future?”

          Can you provide a single shred of evidence that this will keep continuing into the future?

          Past does not always predict the future.

          1. On it’s face that is a ridiculous question. That’s like asking for a shred of evidence that a plane won’t crash into my house today. Past does not always predict the future.


          2. Kirk says “retraining will also occur at an ever faster pace due to that very same technology; we are even more prepared for rapid retraining today than we have ever been before.” I believe that is more than a shred of evidence.

            If you want to be Mr. Gloom, go ahead, but you won’t make yourself happy that way.

  4. Seems like Vivek Wadhwa has been watching Wall-e over and over again. Binge like to fortify his theory. Almost sounds like the continuing reporting of Apple Doooooooom from some writers that have a deadpan line about Apple. Nice art.

  5. Nice article! The one thing I would add is that we can predict that basic energy and informational resources will grow much faster than the population, so the need to work to survive is likely to become much less common. In fact, as the cost of virtual reality shrinks compared to physical reality, most jobs are likely to be in the virtual world.

  6. Technology can, will, and must move forward. Ideally, for the betterment of the individual, and by extension, for society as a whole.

    A culture’s political and economic systems are secondary to the values of that culture. Technology only helps to propagate those values, for better or worse.

  7. Maybe the time has come to implement a basic income to avoid the problem that there will not be the people to buy all these services and goods. Your argument sounds right, but who will take part in this future?

  8. Conditions that are hazardous to humans can surely deploy robots. It is beginning to happen. In precision manufacturing where consistent quality is of prime importance, robotic deployment makes it happen. These are costly ventures. Other than that if they try to replace humans with robots in low pay jobs, they will lose customers who can only buy goods if they have income.

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