Will you have a job in 5 years? Or 10 years? Maybe not, if some predictions about our economic future are accurate. Technology — computers and robotics — are rapidly changing the face of our workforce.
Beginning around 1990, our economy began to shift out of a mature Industrial Revolution and into a Technology Revolution. The result of that could be the loss of millions of jobs in the coming years as some businesses die and others become highly automated.
This isn’t the first time the world has seen such a change. From the late 1700s to the middle of the 20th Century, industrialization dramatically changed our economic and labor landscape. Trains, power looms, steamships, the telephone, phonograph, lightbulb, cars, airplanes, radio, television, air conditioning, antibiotics and thousands of other inventions changed our economy dramatically. Some jobs were lost while new jobs were created.
Just think about how Northeast Georgia looked in 1930s. We were largely an agriculturally-based economy. Rural areas didn’t have electricity yet. The Great Depression created havoc in the area. Rural farmers began to transition off the land and into factories, mostly textile manufacturing.
Between the end of WWII and 2000, the economy changed even more. Full-time farming declined. Textile manufacturing peaked, but then moved overseas. The economy shifted toward service based jobs — retail, banking, insurance, real estate, restaurants, etc.
Other areas of the country changed, too. Air conditioning pulled manufacturing out of the North and into the South. The advent of our interstate system and the growth in air travel dramatically changed where people lived and how they did their jobs.
Now, we’re seeing another major shift. Bank of America is experimenting with self-serve banking locations that are totally automated. These “robo-banks” threaten to make bank tellers, and other traditional banking jobs, obsolete. Online loans, an increasing use of debit and credit cards and online banking, especially with cell phones, is revolutionizing the financial industry.
The Washington Post recently quoted former banker and former U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald as saying, “Bank branches are dead. They were killed by the iPhone.”
But it’s not just banking that may lose service jobs. Self-serve checkouts at grocery and other stores is growing. Fast food restaurants are starting to automate (I went into an automated McDonald’s in Australia last year where we ordered food on a computer screen.) And computers have already replaced many secretarial jobs that were once a major entry into the workplace for women.
Retailing is changing, too, as online ordering has grown putting pressure on traditional bricks-and-mortar stores and the jobs they offer.
That online landscape has also changed other traditional service job markets — automotive sales, real estate and insurance all come to mind.
Some of these service jobs are not high-paying, but they serve as entry level positions for young and lower-skilled workers who don’t have a college degree. Where will those people find jobs in this new automated economy?
Beyond these changes to the service sector, robotics and automation is already dramatically changing manufacturing jobs. The loss of automotive jobs isn’t just because of foreign plants, it’s mostly due to robotics.
And coal miners aren’t losing their jobs due to overwrought environmental regulations, they’ve lost jobs to automation, too. Most of our coal doesn’t come from West Virginia, it comes from Wyoming. The reason is that through automation, the open mines in Wyoming produce 28 tons of coal per hour while West Virginia mines produce only 2.4 tons per hour. (Competition from natural gas is even a larger part of the problems in coal country.)
Now, newer technology threatens even more jobs. Driverless trucks, 3-D manufacturing and artificial intelligence could all upend many other positions across a number of job sectors.
A professor at the University of Virginia recently predicted that a “technology tsunami” could mean the loss of 47 percent of American jobs in the coming 10-15 years.
Think about that. Such a massive automation would leave millions of American unemployed.
That has huge political and social ramifications for the nation. What do we do with that level of unemployment?
Not all sectors will be hit as hard in this transition. Jobs that require human interaction (medical care, for example,) and creative positions will not lose as many jobs.
Still, the prospect that millions of jobs across the nation could be automated in the coming decade or two means that schools will have to completely rethink their education programs. How do we train people for a world that is changing so rapidly?
Politically, how does a nation survive when tens of millions of its people become unemployed? And what do we do with people who lack the basic skills to be retrained for higher-skilled positions?
It took the Industrial Revolution around 200 years to evolve. It destroyed a lot of jobs along the way (think buggy makers and blacksmiths), but it also created new jobs.
It’s likely that our Technology Revolution will evolve much faster — perhaps only 20-50 years to mature — and it’s uncertain if it will create very many new jobs as it makes old jobs obsolete.
For those of a certain age, the science fiction of our youth is becoming reality.
But what will it mean for our children and grandchildren?
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I do, I am taking someone's job, and I am working for the store.
I might do it if they gave me a discount, say, ten per cent, maybe.
03/13/17 at 10:17 AM
I find it a convenience, especially for just a few purchases, just like pumping my own gas instead of having to wait for the gas station employee to get around to doing it every time. Maybe you are too young to remember that inconvenience.