Are our jobs safe? For some, yes. For others, we need to act quickly. 

(Originally posted on August 8, 2017 at https://medium.com/@jeremyerdman)

Natalie, a friend of mine and accountant at the time, attended a presentation for software intended to hasten auditing. Accounting demands a lot of time and attention to detail, and busy season requires auditors to spend 12+ hours a day, seven days a week, at work. As expected, the presentation and possibility of more free time excited the crowd. She, however, saw the writing on the wall. She saw that the software’s ability to automate certain components of her work would eventually reduce demand for auditors. She no longer is an accountant and had plans to switch careers before this presentation, but I am certain this presentation did not cause her to second-guess her decision.

The manifestation of artificial intelligence and automation ranges from stereotypical robots depicted in movies to software improvements that make tasks and jobs simpler. In this way, economic changes from artificial intelligence and automation technology will be both very blatant and subtle. Job risk can be as expected as replacing airplane painters with machines that do the same task, for longer hours, and do not require continual costs like wages or health care and as unexpected as the gradual decrease in the number of accountants.

Natalie was correct in recognizing the potential threat of automation to her job, but she had less of a reason to worry compared to many blue-collar workers with lower education levels. In December 2016, the Obama White House put out an Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy report that discussed upcoming trends in artificial intelligence and automation technology and policy. This report shows the upcoming threat to the lower-paid and less-educated, with 83% of jobs with an hourly wage less than $20 and 44% of jobs requiring less than a high school education being highly automatable.

This data shows the potential for significant social and economic upheaval. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year, $40 hourly wage comes to $76,800 annually, which is about 36% higher than the median household income of $56,516 in 2015. Based upon this data, at least half of American households would fall into to earning brackets that have a decent chance of losing earnings to automation. Unemployment during the Great Depression peaked at around 25%, and, if we do not take necessary precautions, artificial intelligence and automation can force a similar economic downturn as millions lose their jobs.

The economic threat presented by automation and artificial intelligence is not due to the technology itself. We have seen this cycle before: technology changes, jobs emerge as other disappear, and workers shift. However, past workers have had advocates and organizations, often in the form of unions, to protect them from negative impacts of executive decisions designed to boost profits. Despite the recent onslaught of arguments that union are now corrupt and ineffective, union advocacy brought us the following benefits we now take for granted:

  • the standard 40-hour work week
  • safer working conditions
  • banning of child labor
  • health benefits
  • aid for work-related injuries

The International Monetary Fund states that union membership has declined 19% since the early 2000’s. This decline removes a safeguard and advocate for many of these workers, who may have no clue their job is at risk and have no contingency plan in place. This decline shows no sign of reversing, as right-to-work laws become more common. Right-to-work laws, as stated by the Heritage Foundation, provide workers the option of joining a union rather than requiring it as a condition of employment. The Foundation argues against union membership by asserting that workers should not pay for union membership because they usually do not notice the benefits of membership. This argument is flawed. If a union does it’s job correctly and protects workers against incoming threats, then workers will not see all of the benefits accrued through union membership because the union stops problems from growing and directly impacting employees. Sadly, arguments against unions stick. A few days ago, workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi voted against unionizing by a two-to-one margin. This trend continues the slow march towards a reduction in workers’ ability to prepare against automation and lay-offs as companies continue seeking ways to increase dividends to shareholders.

The lack of advocates and protections for workers causes the coming economic shift to threaten many Americans’ ability to find work. This threat, however, is a symptom of a larger problem with the American workforce. We do not see workers and employees as people, but as replaceable cogs in a machine. If we did not treat people as machines, then the substitution of human beings for automation would not occur as effortlessly as it has. We can trace this mindset back to the introduction of the assembly line, which broke down highly skilled labor into small, repeatable tasks. As a result, a sizable portion of our current workforce has become replaceable and dispensable as employers and companies seek workers to fill very narrow and niche roles. If we want to create an economy of the future, then we need to begin focusing on providing the tools and runway for workers to cultivate their skills and talents. We must advocate for and push forward a suite of policies that achieves the following:

  • Strengthen the safety net for workers and families who lose their income due to automation and artificial intelligence
  • Develop robust retraining programs to shift these workers into roles more suited for an automation-dominated economy
  • Create trade-based education programs to equip coming generations for careers of the future

Most importantly, advocacy for these sort of policies cannot come only from the working class. We all must push for these sort of policies. If blue-collar workers and families lose their jobs and livelihoods to automation, then we all will suffer. As we learned from the Great Recession, our fortunes are intertwined, and it is our moral obligation to catch each other when we fall, help each other up, and move forward. It is the American way.

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