Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs
Are you worried about losing your job? Perhaps you should be, not because of an influx of illegal immigrants but because of robots.
Our jobs are not being stolen, they are being destroyed. A recently released report conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030. While companies spend billions trying to improve efficiency through automation, we are often complicit in the job loss, perhaps without knowing it. Do you pump your own gas? Go to the self serve line at the grocery store? These were jobs once done by people but automation and the eager adoption by consumers eliminated the need for a paid position.
Automation is not always a bad thing. Labor pioneer Walter Reuther earnestly believed that automation would be the salvation of the working man and in many respects he was right. Automation tends to replace back-breaking work that previously injured, poisoned or just plain wore out workers. Unfortunately, it is also replacing unskilled labor like cashiers. Have you been inside a major fast food chain lately? You order at a touch-screen kiosk, pay at the same kiosk using cash, credit or debit cards, even Apple Pay or Google Pay. The staff of the restaurant is a shadow of its former self. There aren’t even jobs flipping burgers, instead the patties are pressed between two searing hot rollers.
I worked in an auto factory in the late 1980s. Many of the jobs were dirty, the fetid air was poorly circulated and the entire job was emotionally and physically draining. Tour an auto plant today and most of the nastiest jobs are done by robots or eliminated by technological improvements. Many of you may think your job is automation proof but consider construction. Crews that once swung claw hammers now drive nails using ballistic nail guns that have slowly reduced the number of people swinging claw hammers. Every labor-saving job does precisely that: it saves labor thus eliminating the need for a portion of a job. It’s good news if you own a construction company and find yourself able to do the work of five people using only four, but where does it end?
This got me wondering, how big an impact would the loss of 73 million jobs make? According to Statista, there were 128.7 full time workers in 2018, leaving 55.7 jobs remaining. In other words, 43 percent of the jobs that exist today, will be automated out of existence if the McKinsey Global project plays out.
The question remains -- is automation a good thing? Henry Ford made his millions devising a simple yet clever business model: he paid his workers enough that they could buy his product. Some credit his success with creating the middle class. But the rollers at your local burger joint don’t buy burgers.
It gets worse: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is enabling companies to eliminate skilled labor as well. Much of the work that Ted Kaczynski’s PhD. in mathematics qualified him to do can now be done by a third grader with $3 calculator. What do you think that did to the manufacturers of slide rules? The sophistication of AI is increasing to the point that it is likely that driverless vehicles could supplant the approximately 3.5 million truck driving jobs, not to mention taxi cabs and rideshare drivers.
This prediction shouldn’t alarm anyone. Being a Luddite never solved anything and Ted Kaczynski’s personal campaign against the “industrial-technological system” did little to impede progress and landed him in jail. Even so, history has taught us that technological advances tend to eliminate jobs but not occupations -- we still have maps, shipping containers and candles but you don’t run into near as many cartographers, coopers and chandlers as you did in the 19th century. History has also taught us that technological advances tend to bring new jobs, While 73 million jobs may be lost to automation, how many new jobs will be created by disruptive technology we can’t even imagine right now?
Related: The Rise of the Robotic Co-Worker
Still, there are social implications in automating entry-level jobs while charging obscene tuition fees and allowing predatory lending to encumber students. Grads are no longer put through the crucible of a demeaning, soul-sucking, part-time job and many find themselves suffering from culture shock as they enter the workforce with their heads crammed filled of unrealistic expectations fed to them by academics who have never worked a day in their lives. There is now a generation of college grads encumbered by student loan debt that precludes them from spending money buying the so-called big ticket items like houses. Should this trend continue, we will have a second housing crisis that will likely drive down the value of houses owned by people currently indifferent to the problem.
Robots don’t pay employment tax, income tax or Social Security but that money must come from somewhere. Cutting social programs is one solution, but shredding the social safety net makes matters worse, not better. We could raise taxes, but something must be done. Perhaps we should tax robots or automation that replaces a worker, wait...let’s not think of them as workers, but as taxpayers.
If we don’t do something we are quickly headed to disaster. It’s tough, albeit not impossible, to start a company in a rancid economic environment but it’s tough to have that business thrive. We have to care about jobs that pay a living wage. That isn’t a partisan issue. If people are struggling to purchase life’s necessities, there is less money for luxuries, and while a handful of people made millions selling inferior goods to people too poor to shop elsewhere, the poor generally speaking, shouldn’t be your target demographic.