What happens when half the jobs are gone? by @DavidOAtkins

What happens when half the jobs are gone?

by David Atkins

I've been banging on this drum for a while now, but someone should probably start thinking about what progressive public policy looks like when half the jobs are gone:

Two hugely important statistics concerning the future of employment as we know it made waves recently:

1. 85 people alone command as much wealth as the poorest half of the world.

2. 47 percent of the world's currently existing jobs are likely to be automated over the next two decades.

Combined, those two stats portend a quickly-exacerbating dystopia. As more and more automated machinery (robots, if you like) are brought in to generate efficiency gains for companies, more and more jobs will be displaced, and more and more income will accumulate higher up the corporate ladder. The inequality gulf will widen as jobs grow permanently scarce—there are only so many service sector jobs to replace manufacturing ones as it is—and the latest wave of automation will hijack not just factory workers but accountants, telemarketers, and real estate agents.

That's according to a 2013 Oxford study, which was highlighted in this week's Economist cover story. That study attempted to tally up the number of jobs that were susceptible to automization, and, surprise, a huge number were. Creative and skilled jobs done by humans were the most secure—think pastors, editors, and dentists—but just about any rote task at all is now up for automation. Machinists, typists, even retail jobs, are predicted to disappear...

Those trends aren't just occurring in the US, either. That second stat up there is from an Oxfam report entitled Working for the Few, just out this week. It was launched in tandem with the beginning of the World Economic Forum in Davos, in an effort to get the gazillionaires attending it to consider the gravity of their wealth. It finds that "those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1 [trillion], as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world's population." Yes, you read that correctly: The 85 richest people have $1.64 trillion between them, the same amount of money as 3.5 billion of the world's less fortunate souls.

The trend extends beyond a few handfuls of the planet's most mega-tycoons, of course: "The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world." And they and their corporations are building robots that will have the net effect of letting them keep even more of that capital concentrated in their hands.

As the Economist piece notes, there's typically a disruptive cycle when new technologies displace old ones, and replace old jobs with new ones. But this time, that cycle is one-sided—so far, there are a lot fewer jobs being created in the new information-based economy than the old manufacturing-based one: Last year, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook were worth over $1 trillion combined, but employed just 150,000 people.

All of this points towards an uncomfortable prospect: in our globalizing, technologically advanced, and inequality-laden world, we risk becoming the cyber-peasants tending (or loitering on, more likely) the feudal lawn of the machine-owning rich. Oxfam predicts incoming class struggles and social strife, and it's not hard to see why—to ensure that the 99 percent of tomorrow benefit from still-accelerating technology, we're going to have to push for policy adjustments that adapt to our mechanized world. Radical income redistribution is probably in order, even a minimum guaranteed income; ideas unlikely to prove popular to the corporate titans used to reaping outsized rewards.
I'm constantly struck by a metaphorical image of ants fighting over sand castles in the face of an incoming tide. The world is changing dramatically, and smart public policy needs to start dealing with radical and innovative solutions to the onslaughts that are coming, rather than trying to replace what is gone and never coming back.