In the long run we’re unemployable. Not because we’re lazy or incompetent. It’s because we’re replaceable.
I’ve spent much of the eighteen months trying to impress on people how real this is. It’s not something that’ll happen “one day”. It’s happening now, everywhere we look. Once upon a time, I worked at General Motors as a futurist, trying to peel back the veil of a clouded future. Sadly, I probably ended being more of a Cassandra, lucky enough to see the future but cursed with never being believed.
Still, I had a great time. Increasingly though, I find myself being a “presentist”, trying to wake people to the start of the disruption we’re living through.
Every time we use an algorithm to predict something, every time we automate a low-value process, we take another step towards the future we’re creating whether we realise it or not. A future where the machines we’ve created are better, faster, and more effective than us at using data to make “good enough” decisions.
We’re still decades (if not centuries) from being able to model the human brain. The thing is though, does it even matter? Machines don’t have to be self-aware to be effective. Google’s cars don’t work because they’re smarter than us. We’re just really good at teaching them to analyse and act on data in real-time. And, that’s all it takes; the disruption we’re creating isn’t because some genius behind the scenes has a grand vision. It’s the organic result of lots of people trying to make lots of small things more efficient.
It creates an interesting question. What does a world look like where over half of of the workforce becomes structurally unemployed through no fault of their own and yet productivity continues to rise? What happens if [Okun’s law](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okun's_law) permanently breaks down?
About the only thing that’s certain is that we’ve never seen anything like this before. Much like the move from feudalism to capitalism, “where we’re going we don’t need roads”. From here on, it’s all uncharted territory. And for all we know, here be monsters.
It’s very possible that we’ll enter a cultural renaissance, one where the nature of social security and capitalism is fundamentally disrupted. Society may split in three, those with the skills necessary to design and automate, those whose skills are no longer needed, and those whose skills are so manual and bespoke that they cannot be automated.
Those whose skills are still in demand might have the freedom to ask and receive a margin for their knowledge. With no changes to productivity or output, those who are structurally unemployable might still receive a basic wage supported through higher taxes on those whose skills are in demand. In exchange, they receive the freedom to chase cultural or creative activities, supporting the economy through their ongoing consumption. And in doing so we might move to a new equilibrium, one characterised by greater employment freedom, more free time, and a Cambrian-like explosion of cultural creativity.
Or, it might be very different. We might equally well see increasing income inequality as those whose skills are no longer relevant are increasingly squeezed out of the market. Not everyone has the skill or experience to become a data scientist, and engineer, or a bio-technician and help build our future. And, while everyone still needs a toilet, we only need so many plumbers.
These unfortunate souls may see themselves become marginalised from society, structurally unemployable with no avenue for improvement. The relationship between youth unemployment civil unrest is well known. Even today, youth only makes up 17% of the population and yet comprise 40% of the unemployed. What happens if this becomes not just a blip in our employment data but the start of an inter-generational trend?
Our future is uncertain; much depends on whether you see the glass as being half-full or half-empty. It’s also going to be what we choose to make it.
Evan Stubbs is the author of several SAS books including his latest title, "Big Data, Big Innovation."