Technology And The Jobless Future

on August 23, 2015

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?

No.

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.)).

Conclusion

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.

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