John Calvert, Published February 01 2014
Calvert: When all the jobs are goneFour years after the end of the Great Recession, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7.2 percent. Among Americans aged 18-24 years, it stands at 15 percent, while in parts of Europe it exceeds 50 percent. Even these dismal figures understate the problem because people who have stopped looking for work are not counted as unemployed. Further, they don’t measure underemployment among people who work below their potential; almost half of U.S. college graduates hold jobs that don’t require a degree, and in Britain, 90 percent of the jobs created since 1992 have been temporary or part time.
Much of this reflects a rapid expansion of the global labor force, but some is due to the accelerating pace of automation. Technology has always disrupted work, but earlier industrial revolutions – those wrought first by steam and then by electricity – probably created as many jobs as they destroyed. Yet some analysts are now saying that today’s digital revolution is different – that jobs lost to technology will not reappear in new economic domains because technology will soon disrupt all domains at every skill level, both in services as well as physical production.
“Man vs. machines” was the topic of a conference at Cornell University where 40 specialists recently debated unemployment. Some said jobs will return when workers acquire higher skills; others said U.S. jobs will come back as wages rise in India and China; and still others recommended bolstering unions and the minimum wage. A few, however, said that humanity may soon face a future in which there will be no jobs at all. None.
If that last prospect sounds like science fiction, then just think about it: Is it realistic to suppose the progress of machines will simply stop – that there is some natural limit to their potential, and that scores of millions of jobs will remain safely beyond their reach?
For example, if incomes are severed from work, then incomes – generated not by people but technology – will have to become a guaranteed right for everyone. The great economic problem will be not how to earn wealth but how to apportion the wealth created by machines. There will then be little justification for extreme inequality of wealth. Or, machines might be banned from certain kinds of work; or public programs like those of the 1930s Work Projects Administration might keep humans busy and provide incomes.
But what will be the spiritual effects of relentless leisure upon people who find dignity and meaning in work? Will the world’s billions devote themselves to poetry and art? Or will they find relief from boredom in causing trouble?
Conclusion: Consensus at the Cornell convention is that leaders are not thinking about this.
Currently, automation disrupts mid-level jobs more than low- or high-level jobs, which is one reason the middle class is being “hollowed out.”
Calvert, Fargo, is a retired university teacher, and contributor to The Forum’s opinion pages.