Every recession in the past forty years has been accompanied by a flurry of articles and op eds hailing 'the end of work' and 'the jobless recovery'. They've all been wrong - so far. But maybe this time really is different?
Megan McArdle blames software - or rather the culmination of decades of automation and falling real (and nominal) prices for hardware, software and the telecommunications services that connect them. Referring to analysis by Arnold Kling she observes that:
The jobs that are being automated are the stable, well-paying jobs where you could settle in and know exactly what you'd be doing for years. As Arnold says, if you can define it, you can probably outline it specifically enough to outsource, either to a lower-wage worker somewhere else, or to a computer.Sounds like an advanced case of what Kevin Kelly calls The 7 Stages of Robot Replacement. Now coming to a business sector near you...
Megan wonders why we are not happy to see dull, dreary jobs replaced by automation? Of course, just as the jobs are going, a lot of people are beginning to realise that 'dull and dreary' wasn't all that bad after all, given the (lack of) alternative.
The implication is that we are all going to have to 'upskill', becoming knowledge workers: fewer burger flippers and more chart flipping instead. But even that isn't especially secure, nor rewarding. In a typically insightful post, Seth Godin captures the angst of the pre-recovery labour market perfectly (and it is as true of Ireland as elsewhere):
The industrial age, the one that started with the industrial revolution, is fading away. It is no longer the growth engine of the economy and it seems absurd to imagine that great pay for replaceable work is on the horizon.But the technology that caused the discontinuity will also open up a new era of opportunity:
This represents a significant discontinuity, a life-changing disappointment for hard-working people who are hoping for stability but are unlikely to get it. It's a recession, the recession of a hundred years of the growth of the industrial complex.
When everyone has a laptop and connection to the world, then everyone owns a factory. Instead of coming together physically, we have the ability to come together virtually, to earn attention, to connect labor and resources, to deliver value.Personally I'm not so sure. The very people observing and reporting on the changes we are witnessing - people like Megan and Seth - are the likely winners from the changes they describe. But far fewer people are cut out for flipping charts than flipping burgers - and no amount of third level participation nor retraining for ex-bricklayers is going to change that soon. If ever.
Stressful? Of course it is. No one is trained in how to do this, in how to initiate, to visualize, to solve interesting problems and then deliver.
Still, I believe we will find our way through the challenges ahead - muddling or otherwise. I take inspiration from Keynes, who in a famous passage anticipated a future in which:
We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.In other words, it is people - not machines nor software - that will provide the things we value most in the future. Though I have no idea who those 'teachers' will be, nor what they will teach. Luckily for me there are now 7 billion of us engaged in finding the answer.