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Mike Richman


Reaping the Work Whirlwind

A problem deeper than basic income, wider than training, and broader than automation itself

Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 12:03

During the last several centuries, the economy of the modern world emerged from a contract—unwritten, unspoken, almost unrecognized—between risk-takers who started businesses and the hirelings who did the work to ensure those businesses’ survival and profitability.

Enterprises of the kind that exploited natural resources, turned those resources into mass-produced goods, and then sold those goods to customers, could only get really big through thousands of people digging, manufacturing, building, selling, and bookkeeping, not to mention countless other tasks both large and small.

In turn, those workers could only afford shelter, food, and clothing for themselves and their families through the wages that the company provided in exchange for their labor; paychecks that, incidentally, helped those workers buy the products sold by countless other companies, which provided the revenues for those companies to pay their employees. And thus a complex economy arose, and mostly thrived.

This venerable contract, which has been in place at least since the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution nearly 300 years ago, may be coming to a close. What comes next is a puzzle that politicians, futurists, sociologists, philosophers, and the rest of us, together, are struggling to solve. Yet solve it we must. The future of work is a mystery that holds the key to the next stage of human advancement—or decline.

Scaling down is the new scaling up

For industrialists of the past like Josiah Wedgwood, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford, workers were assets necessary to create economies of scale, drive down costs, and ramp up profits. Conversely, for today’s mega-moguls like Jack Ma or Mark Zuckerberg, employees are liabilities to be managed, risks to be mitigated.

Consider the Jeff Bezos-led company, Amazon, which employs more than 600,000 people and may soon carry an astounding market valuation of $1 trillion. Today, large numbers of Amazon’s workforce do their labor in company warehouses, and although their individual salaries may not be impressive, in sum they represent a sizable chunk of Amazon’s total operating expenses. Now imagine that the work of those warehouse employees—processing orders, finding products, packing boxes, and arranging shipment—could be handled exclusively by robots and drones. The savings for the company would be astronomical, and that would be a great thing for Amazon, especially its top managers and institutional investors. It wouldn’t be so great for Amazon employees.

“The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots. True enough, robots do not rebel. But given man’s nature, robots cannot live and remain sane, they become Golems, they will destroy their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.”

—Erich Fromm

Extend the thought experiment a bit further, and ask yourself what would happen if not just Amazon employees but those at almost every company throughout the world lost their jobs to automation. Who, then, would have the money to buy all the stuff Amazon wants to sell?

These are issues for a future that’s not quite here, but even now, the changes that already have been wrought by automation are affecting the world in significant ways. In manufacturing, optical sensors that can scan high-speed production lines and kick out defective parts or products with awesome efficiency have cost many a line inspector her job. In the world of media, print publications, with their quaintly untrackable branded advertisements, have died the death of a thousand cuts, slayed by the abandonment of advertiser after advertiser in favor of the immediacy, precision, and provable ROI of online platforms like Google and Facebook. Taxi drivers who paid small fortunes for hack licenses and medallions have seen their investments erode with the advent of Uber and Lyft, and the coming prospect of autonomous vehicles. All these changes, and many more, have improved quality, reliability, and output for producers and consumers, but they’ve all cost small slices of the populace their gainful employment.

Of course, the people on the wrong side of early-onset automation know all about this story. And now, politicians are starting to notice and take an interest in the issue as well, at least partly as a way of proving their populist bona fides. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle talks about businessman Andrew Yang’s plans for the country, should he succeed in his long-shot campaign for the presidency in 2020. A sentence in that piece reads, “His plan, he said, would give the 68 percent of Americans who don’t have college degrees—the ones most likely to become unemployed [due to automation]—a basic income that would help boost spending and the economy while the country invests in technical and vocational training for them.”

My question: training to do what, exactly? Some of these displaced workers will gain marketable skills that may put off, but not eliminate, their vocational vulnerability. It seems me, however, that most training these workers might receive would be in fields representing the lowest of low-hanging fruit for increased, relentless automation. Therefore, retraining might just be kicking the can down the street for these folks. (And lest you think I’m some kind of liberal-arts snob, let me state my belief that automation will knock out a lot of writing and editing jobs, too, so I’m likely to be in the same boat sooner or later.)

Another piece, published on the excellent FiveThirtyEight website, further examines the possible implications of wider experimentation with Yang’s core idea, universal basic income (UBI), particularly as it applies to the coming automation avalanche that threatens to bury millions of workers. Top managers at seed accelerator Y Combinator and venture capitalist firm Union Square Ventures, among others, have spent the past few years examining the implications of automation and the broader economy, and have come to the conclusion that a complete rethink is needed about the nature of work as it relates to the priorities and time management of individuals and the human race as a whole.

Albert Wenger, a managing partner at Union Square Ventures, is one of the true thought leaders in UBI and the future of human endeavor. His free ebook World After Capital, takes a very different approach to the logic of work and resource allocation. Automation, in Wenger’s view, will unlock more time for us —all of us—to focus on big-picture, extremely long-term issues of great import for all humans: the environment and climate change, healthcare and fighting pandemics, space exploration and humanity’s ultimate destiny. Achieving our goals as a species requires that we not spend our time grinding away and making just enough money to live. With UBI, “You’re put in charge of your time,” says Wenger. “You’ll have 100 percent of your time available to you.” And think of what can be accomplished when we have all that time to co-create our future.

I’m not saying that automation will replace most or even many flesh-and-blood workers this year, or next year, or even by this time next decade. But at some point this century, if people far smarter than I are correct, we’ll have few, if any, human beings earning their living through physical labor in factories and warehouses, preparing food and waiting on customers, transporting goods and delivering packages, or diagnosing patients and nursing the very young and extremely old. It’s quite possible that even building, programming, maintaining, and repairing machines will be handled by machines.

VUCA and you

To get a better sense of this issue, it helps to consider an acronym that the U.S. Army coined more than 30 years ago: VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Strategic instructors at the U.S. Army War College began using the term to describe the unpredictable New World Order emerging at that time from the ashes of the Cold War. VUCA is a handy concept for any period of immense change, when established rules no longer apply. At its heart, VUCA is a risk-management, or more appropriately, a risk-mitigation theory that focuses on awareness and preparedness, even though events will almost always bypass preparation. Stated in a better way (by doubling-down on a military analogy) VUCA can be embodied in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous precept, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Thus it is with the unknowable unknowns found in pondering the future of work.

This problem is deeper than UBI, wider than training, and broader, even, than automation itself. At its core, it concerns the reason why any of us get out of bed in the morning, why we go through our day, why we raise our children, and why we, quite simply, continue to live. Work, meaningful work, is one of the most psychologically anchoring activities in which we regularly engage. For many of us, it is the automatic answer to the question, “What do you do?” It is the thing that gives us security, financial as well as emotional. Without it, the soul and sometimes the body withers and dies.

Want proof? I recommend to you a fascinating bit of research, “Deaths of Despair and Support for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” written by Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of rural sociology, demography, and sociology, and a research associate in the Population Research Institute at Penn State University. My purpose in citing this paper is not to take sides in any political debate, but merely to demonstrate that the lack of purpose found in those who are un- or underemployed metastasizes into a host of adverse behaviors and conditions. In this work, Monnat demonstrates a clear link between depression, opioid addiction, and suicide, and the absence of high-quality blue collar jobs, especially in Appalachia, New England, and the Midwest.

That the struggling voters in these areas supported now-President Trump is less of a surprise than the fact that they were motivated enough to vote at all. It shows that candidates who directly appeal to “forgotten men and women” with promises of change can win hearts and minds, not to mention elections. The moral of this piece of the puzzle is that those in distress will seek to be soothed, and that candidates who make strong, populist claims to be able to fix things will be able to cut through VUCA and capture people’s love and devotion. Humans naturally seek meaning and connection. Work is one place they find it; family is another; faith resonates for many, too. But if none of those positive outlets exist for the individual, he may turn to the negative options represented by conspiracy theories, or demagogues, or extremism. There are deep, dark alleys that humanity is always capable of traversing.

Lighting the way

But I don’t want to end in darkness. Answers and options exist to the quandary surrounding the future of work in the coming age of automation, and they can light our path going forward.

One part of the solution, I believe, is a substantial (think on the order of a trillion dollars or more during the course of the next decade) additional investment in K-12 education in this country. Everyone supports a heavy focus on coursework revolving around science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) because those help prepare kids for great jobs today, which many parents assume will be great jobs tomorrow, too. But the focus cannot and should not just be on STEM. We also need motivated, well-paid teachers to better educate our youth in entrepreneurship, critical/creative thinking, economics, sociology, psychology, politics, culture, and more. This is a complete toolkit that will enable people not just to manage machines, but also to bring their humanity to the deepest issues confronting our society. Solving problems like scarcity of resources, environmental upheaval, overpopulation, fairer access to goods and services, and better health and education will require a flexible mindset and a multiplicity of perspectives. This cannot just be the responsibility of leaders. Everyone needs to be fully engaged in finding answers, so that “work” becomes not just about making money for the man, but about making positive change for the human species. Perhaps this will be our collective job.

It’s also possible we’ll realize that the things we’re really good at and most enjoy are those for which we don’t want or need machines: teaching and learning, cooking and eating, creating and sharing ideas, caring and being cared for. These are occupations in the realm of the human connection, and although they can all theoretically be automated, why would we choose to do so? Efficiency on an assembly line is one thing; efficiency in reading to a 4-year-old is quite another. We may find that automation enables us to pick the tasks we most wish to pursue, and take our time doing them, because that work, those acts, reward the giver as much as the one who receives.

Or maybe, just perhaps, a huge human workforce of machine minders will be even more necessary than ever because robots will never (or not soon) be able to build, program, maintain, and repair themselves. It’s also quite possible that we won’t permit them to do so. It seems that such protections would exist for logical reasons (we’ve all seen The Terminator movies), but bear in mind that history contains few examples of potential innovations that people didn’t aggressively explore and exploit.

I believe that automation is inescapable, and that it will permanently alter peoples’ relationship with the planet and with each other. Hearkening back to Fromm’s quote at the top of this article, we need to decide if the men and slaves of the past will become the robots or Golems of the future. Our relationship with work will be determined by a new contract, one not between people, but between people and machines, setting the boundaries for each and thereby allowing the human spirit to flourish. It will be measured by our ability to manage and make peace with automation, which will in turn determine the ultimate potential of our species.

The future is coming, one infinite moment at a time. Are we ready for it?

First published March 21, 2019, on Richman Business Media Consulting.


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Mike Richman