Business Columns & Blogs

Transition stories are nice, but the bigger picture is: Where will our jobs be in the future?

Jerry Brady
Jerry Brady

Is this issue of Business Insider missing a larger picture?

We love success stories. Fundraisers know a story of one child fed is more powerful than statistics about a multitude going hungry. When considering how Americans will earn a living in the future, however, we need more than tales of individual transitions. We need a wake-up dose of truth.

Last year the McKinsey Global Institute concluded that robots could eliminate as much as 30 percent of the world’s human labor by 2040. Automation will displace between 400 and 800 million jobs worldwide, requiring more than 375 million to switch job categories entirely. The Bank of England predicted 80 million jobs lost to artificial intelligence in the U.S.

Other sources have said these numbers are exaggerated, that economies eventually create more, if different, jobs. But the Brookings Institution suggests that job loss might come upon us so quickly as to plunge Western countries into civic chaos, with unemployed youth roaming the land, bringing on authoritarian rule. (A preacher friend says this has already begun, remembering the Book of Samuel when the people called out for a king to deliver them.)

Globalization and artificial intelligence have already taken a toll. To cite just one irritating example, have you tried to connect with customer service recently, say, about a rental car? You’ll first be talked to by a machine (artificial intelligence), then be turned over to a charming Indian who goes by the name of Kevin (globalization). Finding real, employed Americans in customer service is increasingly rare.

Today’s booming economy might be depriving us of fair warning. Yes, anyone can get a job, but often it’s at McDonald’s. The opiate epidemic can be traced, in part, to a 30-year stagnation of middle-class incomes and the poor remaining poor. Digital technology has boomed, boosting productivity, but without net new jobs or wage growth.

Those responding to McKinsey often call for “a complete restructuring of education and job training” (noting, however, a poor record of job retraining going back to President Reagan [Atlantic Magazine January 4, 2018]). Others tell us which jobs will be safe from robots and which will grow (The Guardian, June 26,2017), noting the great benefits ahead for science, medicine and productivity.

However, let’s not always fool ourselves with cheery stories. The future could be scary. Shouldn’t we be talking about this?

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, a lawyer and a former newspaper publisher.