The world as we know it is going to change a lot in the next two decades.
According to an Oxford University study, "about 47% of total US employment is at risk" of automation in the next twenty years. This is a really big number.
And it's not just basic, rote labor in trouble-- manufacturing, cashiers, secretaries, janitors, etc.-- though these sorts of jobs are already on the chopping block. According to the study, "everything from legal writing [to] truck driving [to] medical diagnoses" are soon to be automated-- in short, we can expect "a hollowing-out of middle-income routine jobs."
Automation has already displaced a great deal of these traditional 20th-century middle class jobs, and new industry isn't keeping up. According to The Economist, the number of working-age Americans actually working has decreased, "during good years as well as bad," from 65% in 2000 to 59% today. I have written before about the hidden rise in unemployment and how the actual number is somewhere around 15%. According to this study, that number isn't going anywhere but up, regardless of the overall economy.
As machinery becomes increasingly better at things like reading, writing, biometric scanning, and increasingly-complex physical tasks, the number of jobs disappearing will increase too. There are already machines able to perform complex surgeries faster than surgeons, and designs are already in progress for a machine that can 3D print the shell of a house in 24 hours. The legal field itself has already been drastically downsized, and the ABA attributes much of this to "powerful information technology that can automate or replace many of the traditional, billable functions performed by lawyers."
The changes don't stop at the eliminated jobs, as each job that disappears creates a ripple effect across other industries. Each doctor rendered unnecessary means one fewer car that needs to be built, or at least one car that will need much less maintenance, repair, and fuel. It means fractionally less upkeep necessary on the road that the doctor took to work. It means one fewer office needed, one fewer office wired, one fewer computer. It means one fewer computer shipped. Extrapolated across a single hospital it means fewer HR representatives and less support staff. Imagine it at every hospital in the country. Now imagine it happening in construction, retail, food service, and every other major industry at the same time. New technology will create new jobs to be sure, but it's hard to imagine the research, manufacturing, and maintenance of new machines replacing 50% of the existing economy.
If the Oxford study is accurate, we can look forward to a massive restructuring of the operation of our lives. The shift will demand we question the seemingly-fundamental tenet that each person must produce a certain amount of labor in order to survive. If automation equates to less work, more security, and more leisure for everyone, as it ideally will, it will be much for the better. If it is as The Economist says, however, and "no government is prepared for it," then we can expect at least an initial wave of negative effects. Unemployment will skyrocket, bringing with it everything we currently associate with unemployment-- more people struggling to make ends meet, fiercer competition for existing jobs, and larger tax burdens for the employed. Competition will keep salaries low. And more people will lean on debt to survive. Only time will tell!
So buckle your seatbelts! Oh which reminds me, your car will drive itself pretty soon too.
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