Are we about to experience large-scale technological unemployment? I believe we are. Every where you look, old professions are under attack. Self-driving cars threaten to make legions of truck drivers, cabbies, and body shop operators obsolete. Robots that make 360 hamburgers per hour could displace your local fast food employees. And massive open online classes are poised to undermine the very foundations of the higher education industry.
When you really ponder the promise of near future technologies, very few current jobs appear to be safe.
However, the economic data is still inconclusive, and predicting the future is never reliable. All I have is my intuition, which is founded on two main points:
- Technology today appears to be moving extremely fast.
- No one seems to have a clear vision of what the new jobs of the future will be.
But just because we can’t easily imagine the jobs of the future, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. As is often pointed out, people working on farms in the eighteenth century couldn’t imagine the jobs created by the industrial revolution. Maybe we are in the same position today—ignorant of the economic activity that is just around the corner.
So should we just take it on faith that new jobs will appear, as they’ve done in the past?
I am reluctant to do so.
LET’S STRAIN OUR IMAGINATIONS AND TRY AGAIN
Really what might the jobs of the future look like? Can we actually come up with a plausible answer? One that employs a substantial number of people and allows capitalism to continue? Without resorting to some sort of welfare mechanism, like an unconditional basic income?
To tackle this question, we might start by asking:
“What are the things that a human can do that a robot can’t?”
But this may not be the most useful framing. For the time being, humans can do lots of things robots can’t. For example, only a human can enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich, or feel moved by a piece of music. But generally no one is going to pay a human to do those things. While these things make us human, they do not guarantee employment.
Moreover, this framing essentially just takes us back to where we started. The farmer back in the eighteenth century could not have come up with the answer “only humans can do assembly line work.” (Which was true back then.) The farmer didn’t know what an assembly line was.
Instead we need to frame the question in a way that stimulates new thought experiments and also takes into account economic realities.
JOB OPPORTUNITIES ARISE FROM SCARCE RESOURCES
Economics is based on scarcity. Every successful business is engaged in the monetization of a scarce resource. A grain farmer sells scarce grain. A consultant sells scarce advice. A radio station sells the scarce attention of its listeners. Scarcity enables businesses and businesses create jobs.
Conversely, it is because technology creates abundance, that jobs are destroyed. Thanks to digital files, music is more abundant than ever before, and as a consequence the record industry has shrunk.
So if we want to locate possible areas of possible future employment, we need to ask the question:
“What are the resources that will stay scarce?”
Or put more specifically, if we assume a near future full of 3D Printing, intelligent software, dextrous robots, and frictionless communication, where do scarcities still exist? Where, perhaps, do new scarcities appear?
In coming posts I’m going to examine various resources—both tangible and intangible—that may be resistant to technological abundance. Resources that are likely to stay scarce, and could form the basis of future economic activity.
First Up: “Authenticity”