Chronic Underemployment Goes Mainstream!

The July/August issue of MIT Technology Review features an article well worth reading by David Rotman, “How Technology is Destroying Jobs.” Now, there are many sides to this story: technologists who insist that progress never erases employment; businessmen who explain that displaced workers will skill up to better jobs; economists who argue that the dynamics of employment are changing and the past is no longer a guide; columnists explaining that in fact automation forces a job shortage because of a lack of skilled candidates; and journalists who visit real factories to tell us true stories of workers and the ‘bots that replace them.

Rotman dives into Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s book, Race Against the Machine, producing some excellent visuals for the article showing how productivity and employment levels seem to be divorcing one-another and moving in opposite directions now. But his most interesting addition to the debate comes from W. Brian Arthur, who has coined the term “autonomous economy” to denote the idea that machines and digital systems are networking, communicating and sustaining economic processes with fewer and fewer people- and these economic couplings can lead to ever-further reductions in human employment. A new economy that begets joblessness is a frightening thought, and it is even moreso given Rotman’s figures of class-based job loss, showing how the largest losses of employment share are being felt by the middle class with a very significant bias.  Every article on this subject seems to consider one of many alternative silver linings: we all will have ownership shares in our robot replacements, or we will all relax and have fun, or the productivity will mean the government can care for everyone. This time around, the silver lining is the concept that robots might not replace people; they are simply tools, like a drill press, that make people more effective at their job. The argument is problematic, of course, since increasing a person’s productivity through automation tools is equivalent to replacing others. Industry strives toward better margins, and if they pay to purchase a robot- even a relatively cheap robot like Baxter- they will only do so if they will establish a return on the investment: labor is expensive.

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