The fear, of course, is that robots are coming to eat your job. This is true whether or not you are on the factory line, in a hedge fund, or even if you’re behind the sticks at the local bar. Innovation--never one to wait idly while we silly humans amble to catch up--now inserts itself directly into practical uses at stunning speed. The worry is that we are not doing enough, as a society, to account for these changes.
“I think the jury’s still out on that,” Oliver Libby, venture capitalist and Chairman of the Board at the Resolution Project, told VICE Impact re: job-eating robots. “There’s a big debate on whether or not there are going to be new jobs. But even if the new economy spits out these new jobs, the question is how rapidly that happens and how often a person will have to learn a new career, because their skills have been overtaken or become obsolete.”
Economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin posits that we are in the midst of a Third Industrial Revolution, predicated on drastic, nearly simultaneous changes to three essentials of modern economic life: communications, energy production, and logistics. The advent of the Internet forever changed the way we communicate; with improvements to wind/solar power, energy production can now be stripped from monopolies and hyper-localized; and, if Elon Musk has anything to do with it, driverless drones, trains, and automobiles are just around the corner. Marginal cost for many products is going to take a nosedive. All of which is hugely exciting (and for some, hugely profitable). This is also profoundly disconcerting.
“There’s a big debate on whether or not there are going to be new jobs. But even if the new economy spits out these new jobs, the question is how rapidly that happens and how often a person will have to learn a new career, because their skills have been overtaken or become obsolete.”
Rifkin uses the sharing economy as an example of a sharp tack that left dozens of once impregnable industries scrambled and scrambling. Publishing, public transit, college courses, whatever remains of the music business--whole swaths of industry, accounting for billions of dollars and millions of jobs, gone, or greatly diminished, within a generation. Napster-ization as a totally new economic system, the first to emerge since capitalism and communism, according to Rifkin; this is no small thing. Nor is it entirely beneficial. People have been left behind. There have been casualties.
This is a period of flux, says Kristin Sharp, Executive Director of Shift, a commission exploring the intersection of work and technology.
“We’re trying lots of new things, but haven’t identified the storyline that explains it to people. That’s part of the frustration we’re seeing,” she told VICE Impact. “We used to have a very clear storyline.”
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The story went like this: you find a career, you work for the company, you save money, you buy a house, you send your kids to college, you retire after a life well-led. The frustration Sharp is talking about manifests itself in less haloed terms: community exodus, opioid epidemic, populist anger. And these issues aren’t necessarily the responsibility of the futurists.
“People getting left behind is a policy choice,” says Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party. “Whether the benefits of the technological revolution are concentrated on tech entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors, or whether they’re spread more broadly across society, that’s a policy question. Those are things we can and should be fixing.”
The jobs of the future, according to Sharp and Libby, are going to revolve around that most American of concepts: entrepreneurialism.
Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.
“In general, we are moving away from people trying to find an established job that has clearly defined responsibilities, into something where you have to figure out what you want to do, how to connect to the training for it, figure out how to brand yourself and prove to other people you’re good at it and that it’s necessary,” said Sharp. “Everybody will have to get much more involved with creating the work they want to do. That’s just a fact.”
The drag on coming around to this idea of being an entrepreneur of self, as it were, is partly because of the story we’re telling. Whether or not you’re an Uber driver or the founder of a billion-dollar start-up, you’re participating as a go-getter member of this 21st century economy, but it’s not often held up that way.
“Interesting though that in an economy where we’ll be requiring people to behave more and more as entrepreneurs, and we’re asking people to take more responsibility for their work life, we’re still only lionizing a very narrow slice of what entrepreneurship really means,” said Libby.
Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg, but many more people can try to open a retail business in Detroit (that low marginal cost doesn’t just benefit the big guys, after all). However, the problems that attend being one’s own boss remain the same as ever: lack of security, lack of stability, what to do if Amazon cocks an eyebrow at your business niche. The question becomes how we as a society mitigate personal risk in a future where jobs are mercurial.
“We are going to have a society in one hundred years; will they look and ask, ‘Did we wait until the problem got so acute that it was a massive, disruptive thing, and a whole generation was devastated? Or did we take action in time to smooth the transition for as many people as possible?’ So far, we’re not doing that.”
Dinkin believes that ensuring healthcare is one of the easiest ways to insulate people from the shock of this new economy, since it takes one of the most stressful aspects of leaving a job out of the picture. The other suggestions are even more systemic. Rifkin thinks that massive infrastructure projects focused on clean energy and communication can help transition the construction fields. Sharp sees as necessary portable benefits or benefits that accrue to the individual rather than the job, as well as an education system that identifies skills that are on the upswing, and a more efficient communication of those skills to people who are looking for a change.
But the challenge isn’t just can you do it, it’s how quickly. Can humans learn and keep up with what is seemingly becoming an inhuman rate of progress? Libby suggests a system of continuing education modeled after, of all things, the military: the military upscales one’s job every few years, and are able to do so because they have proven training methodologies that work at every educational level. Plus, the costs of your training are covered.
These are huge, costly recalibrations to the way we consider and even conceptualize work. But we need to prepare, because the future is already here. Libby likens the needed social changes to a health problem. If you go get screened, you’re probably going to catch the heart attack before it happens. If you have a heart attack today, it’s far more costly, has chances of recurrence, and you’re recovering for life.
“The wave is washing over us,” Libby said. “We are going to have a society in one hundred years; will they look and ask, ‘Did we wait until the problem got so acute that it was a massive, disruptive thing, and a whole generation was devastated? Or did we take action in time to smooth the transition for as many people as possible?’ So far, we’re not doing that.”