Saturday, February 04, 2017

Jobs, jobs, and jobs. But, hey, incomes?

"I am especially keen to have you involved in the panel given your distinguished track record," was a sentence in a lengthy email inviting me to a session at the upcoming international conference.  After years of marching to my own drumbeat of scholarship that is aimed at public engagement, it is encouraging that there is some recognition of the urgency of the issue--and, of course, recognition of what I do as an academic.

I won't hold my breath for any recognition within my university.  The latest was an email from my dean who pooh-poohed my work and external recognition with a note on how I need to work on "scholarly activities."  I.e., my public scholarship is not "scholarly activities."  I figured that his email is best ignored--no reply.  I hope at some time--sooner than later--he and the rest will understand that intellectual onanism is not necessarily what "scholarly" means.

In many op-eds and blog-posts over the years, and in classroom discussions with students, I have been worrying a lot about automation's impact on jobs and incomes.  My bottom-line to students has always been that they will experience a fantastic future thanks to automation, but that jobs--and well-paying jobs, in particular--might not be easy to come by.  "It could be a challenging future" is what I typically tell them.  But, like my faculty and administrative colleagues, most students too do not listen to me.  Why should they, when they hear from those faculty and administrators that awesome jobs wait for college graduates!

This POTUS does nothing to help people understand the rapidly changing employment scene.  He thinks believes that jobs--and well paying middle-class jobs--can be brought back by him beating the pulp out of the CEOs, as if his job is to be the mafia chief.  Why doesn't he explain to his faithful followers, and to the unprincipled Republican leaders, the reality about automation's impacts on employment?
Trump knows virtually nothing about technology — other than a smartphone, he doesn’t use it much. And the industries he’s worked in — construction, real estate, hotels, and resorts — are among the least sophisticated in their use of information technology. So he’s not well equipped to understand the dynamics of automation-driven job loss.
One does not need to even work in the information industry, or in manufacturing, in order to understand the impact of automation.  Consider, as a contrast, the former POTUS, whose experiences were shaped elsewhere--"community organizing" that the unprincipled Republicans always ridiculed:
“The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas,” Mr. Obama said. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
Even if he is informed enough, the current POTUS does not want to talk about automation because that will mean speaking truth with people.  And he has made it immensely clear that truth is nowhere in his mind, ever.  While he makes a grand spectacle out of his "negotiations" over plant closings and offshoring,
automation-related job loss is difficult to negotiate about. It’s the silent killer of human labor, eliminating job after job over a period of time. Jobs often disappear through attrition. There are no visible plant closings to respond to, no press releases by foreign rivals to counter. It’s a complex subject that doesn’t lend itself to TV sound bites or tweets.
If only his people will understand this:
Technology delivers its benefits and harms in an unequal way. That explains why even though the economy is humming, it doesn’t feel like it for a large group of workers.
The solutions to this are not simple, and "they’re not easily summarized in a sound bite."  Certainly not in 140 characters!


Ramesh said...

Yes automation is one of the biggest reasons for decline of low level jobs. It has always been so; well before the IT revolution came. Mechanisation in factories has been going on for decades.

But this trend does not mean that jobs as a whole will decline dramatically. History has shown jobs will be created in different areas.The problem is adaptability. Humans seem to be less adaptable to changing circumstances.

Take health care for example. There is a massive explosion in the number of jobs in nursing. However in the Western world very few want to come to this profession. It is a noble profession and no less of a bore than say filling boxes. Hence the influx of nurses from other parts of the world since few natives want to do it.

The key is adaptability. All jobs are 90% grunt and 10% interesting. If we can be adaptable, spot trends and learn new skills, I suggest we will be allright.

Sriram Khé said...

Nope. I have disagreed with you on this before, and will continue to do so. The automation this time around is vastly different from the mechanization of decades past. Unlike the past, this digital automation will not lead to more jobs and will not lead to more well-paying middle-class jobs. It will make those who are able to participate in this new economy really, really better off ... and then the rest will be losers.
There are plenty of influential thinkers--especially economists--who have been talking/writing about this worrisome dynamic. You can dismiss me as a nutcase, but you can't write all those thinkers off ;)

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