There have been books, articles, and TED presentations about the Future of Work, as if life on earth has so drastically changed. Much of the claims have been that not only computers taking over any number of jobs but that robots will do most of the low wage work. China has a few robots that can ‘flip’ hamburgers and in Japan one fast food establishment has automated most of the jobs. One places an order at the counter and swipes the payment card. Wait a few minutes and your order is carried to you on a tray held by a robot. The job prospects look bleak for all those fast food workers who are pushing for a living wage of fifteen dollars an hour. They may get the wage and lose their jobs.
One professor of economics has predicted that only those individuals who can interface well with computers and robots will have work while the rest of us will be unemployed. Somehow I am not convinced. There are far too many dirty jobs that robots cannot do. You may have discovered that if you watched that particular reality series. Automation, meaning robots, needs standard units. That is, irregular work surfaces, areas, etc, tend to be very difficult for a robot to traverse. Take the case of using human labor to clean out storm drains. Such drains are of different sizes, shapes, and filled with very irregular objects. And there are a great many other jobs like that in this country. In order to make it economical for robots to clean storm drains, sewer pipes, and the like we would need to dig up and replace a great deal of those facilities with standard sizes suit to robots. That is not likely to happen due to the expense.
True, at some point when automobiles are unitized to an exact standard then robots will do all the assembly of those automobiles, but no one has quite figured out how to do that yet. Even iPhones are not manufactured completely by machine. The problem with collective societies like labor unions is that the cost of labor is increased until there is enough incentive to find a way to bypass human labor. I am told that right now there is a shortage of truck drivers, mostly the over the road driver. One of the problems in that industry is that the professional truck driver who drives over the road is not being paid well. It is a difficult job and a hard life. Fewer people are willing to take the lower pay. On the other hand we see the beginnings of robotic semi tricks hauling freight from coast to coast. In the next year the only human truck drivers will be the local driver who ferries an empty trailer to a docking yard, drops its, and picks up a loaded trailer for delivery with in a city where he lives. The robot tractors will simply pull trailers from one docking yard to another several hundred or several thousand miles from each other. Then driving truck will not be in the top ten most dangerous professions as it is now.
Few people realize that John L. Lewis had a goal of getting coal miners out of the mines. He had been a miner himself and knew the dangers all too well. And the more his union members struck for higher wages the more machinery would be used in the mines and fewer miners would be killed. Robots aren’t prone to the careless errors humans make. And mining is one job we should be glad to leave to machines. So in many ways computers and robots are a boon for mankind. On the other, unskilled men and women have far fewer possibilities for jobs with creditable incomes. Even with the possibility that California, Nevada, and Arizona may suffer great long term drought and that those states that border them will be greatly affected, the future of unskilled labor still looks bleak. True, population shifts from the west will increase the need for building of single family houses, apartments, and commercial buildings, but that will not provide enough work for the many. We could use more fire and police personnel but with sky high public union wages we are far more likely to see a cut in such services until the public unions are broken and some semblance of common sense restored. On the other hand we will likely see more private security forces and perhaps private firefighting firms. People might opt to live in neighborhood protective associations where such services is provided on call twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. And perhaps the public will become fed up over paying for educational services their children are not receiving at prices they can’t afford. Private neighborhoods might very well create their own schools and hire their own tutors while keeping public teacher unions out and the NEA at bay.
The assumptions is that things don’t change, that police, fire protection, and education are too well entrenched in the hands of local, state, and federal government. When neighborhood groups become unified groups they become voting blocks quite capable of changing public policy and practice. One key ingredient is the coming economic meltdown. the fact is, there is a great reset coming and it will not be stopped. There is so much local, state, national, and global credit out there (think borrowed money) that as slowdowns in the economies of more nations slow or even stop growing the tipping will be reached and the collapse will come. It’s the deflation that’s the bitch.