Andrew McAfee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying the ways information technology (IT) affects businesses and business as a whole.
Prophecy is hard, but it is easy to see that in the future there will be more things that sound like science fiction, and fewer jobs. Even in the near future drivers are being replaced with automated cars, something similar to Siri and Watson will take over customer service jobs, and automatic trolleys can automate warehouses. Replacing workers with technology has been happening for 200 years, but most people still had jobs. However, now machines are picking up skills they haven’t had: to understand, speak, think. Jobs will be replaced with machines, but this is wonderful economic news for 2 reasons.
- Technology is the reason that economies can grow, prices can come down, and quality continue to increase all at the same time.
- Machines mean that people don’t have to do these jobs any more. No more drudgery or toil, we can evolve society in a new way – to become innovators and explorers and thinkers.
So what are the challenges in this transition?
The first is Economic: it is tough to sell your labour in a world full of machines. Over recent decades company profits have increased while their labour costs (and jobs) have decreased. In the future companies will rely on a prosperous middle class to sell their wares, but the middle class is now under threat. Median income is currently decreasing, while inequality in society is increasing. To take examples of a standard white male US blue collar worker and a similar white collar professional, in the 1960s they were quite similar at 80 and 90% employment. Since then (when automation was starting), the blue collar worker’s employment rate has dropped below 60%, blue collar marriages have become much less happy (from 60% in the 1960s to 20% now), blue collars have disengaged from politics, and they are 5 times more likely to be imprisoned now than 50 years ago. White collar trends have stayed close to where they were in the 1960s.
So how do we deal with the disengagement of blue collar workers? The simple short term solution is to build infrastructure, encourage entrepeneurs and educate to create people who can be employed. But to deal with a more total replacement of workers with machines needs a deeper reaction: such as a guaranteed minimum income. This is often decried as socialism or encouraging laziness, but the US has lower social mobility than European countries with social safety nets.
Education is one solution to the major issues. Primary school education is currently pitched to create factory workers or blue collar clerks – Andrew wants to retool it to aim at a different goal. Andrew is optimistic that things will improve, but the issues need to be embraced, confronted and radical solutions devised. The facts are now becoming more widely known: that the machine age is coming. Abraham Lincoln stated that “if given the truth they (people) can be depended on to face any national crisis”.
The talk was forseeing a world very different to the one we know now, and was optimistic that humanity could work out the challenges posed by massive unemployment (at least in the jobs we now can see). Personally I am disappointed it only focussed on the decline of blue collar jobs, as I am interested in what would happen if professional jobs were made redundant as well.
Regardless, his suggestion of a minimum income seems to be the only solution to massive unemployment. Nothing else makes sense in a world where (most) people aren’t needed to do jobs – the alternatives are insane: either compelling people to apply for jobs that don’t exist or to stifle innovation so the jobs still exist.