The Coming Big Increase in Structural Unemployment

Summary:  The future holds many new and strange challenges.  And some that we’ve grappled with successfully for generations, but most be confronted anew again.  Such as automation.

Science fiction now, but fact for our children or grand-children.   Excerpt from James Blish’s A Life for the Stars (19620, second in his Cities in Flight series:

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.  The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression”  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.

For over a century every generation of parents in western civilization has worried how their children will find e5%mployment.  Farms employed 90% of the population, then automation reduced it to 5%.  The children of farmers worked in industry.  When automation destroyed those jobs, their children became service workers:  technicians, managers, etc.  Each step up increased our productivity, hence our income and wealth.  Can this continue? 

“We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.” — Dr. McCoy, star date 4729.4, in the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer

The development of semi-intelligent machines, with IQ equivalents of 60 and simple sensory systems, will destroy a serious fraction of today’s jobs.  Perhaps we’ll find new forms of employment.  Perhaps we will develop new economic systems which require fewer people to work.  If delayed into the second half of the 21st century, the almost inevitable population crash (esp. following the invention of a contraceptive pill for men) will make automation a cure — not a curse.  All of these solutions will require innovation, wisdom and luck.

Not everybody saw this coming as presciently as Blish.  In her 1989 book In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power, Shoshana Zuboff does not even use the word unemployment — or mention the potential for massive job losses.

One of the few people thinking about this is Martin Ford, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and computer engineer.  His written about this at the Huffington Post.  I suspect overestimates this effect in the short-term.  It will have effect slowly, until the next jump in computer technology.

He is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a free PDF eBook) and writes at his blog at Econfuture.

Other posts about employment

  1. America passes a milestone!, 20 January 2010 — More jobs in government than manufacturing
  2. Yes, it is a “mancession”, with men losing more jobs than women. Just like all recessions., 5 October 2009
  3. Update on the “mancession”, 2 December 2009
  4. A look at the engines of Amercan job creation, 12 January 2010
  5. An ominous trend: number of Americans working for the government vs. those making things, 5 March 2010 — Update to the Oct 2009 post.
  6. A look at US unemployment, 23 June 2010

Other posts looking into the future

  1. Is America’s decline inevitable? No., 21 January 2008
  2. Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future, 2 May 2008 — Remarks by General Michael V. Hayden, Director of the Central Intelligence
  3. Good news about the 21st century, a counterbalance to the doomsters, 9 May 2008
  4. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  5. Words to fear in the 21st century: Lǎo hǔ, lǎo hǔ, Lǎo hǔ, 14 July 2008
  6. Some thoughts about the economy of mid-21st century America, 12 January 2009 — Thoughts about future from one of the 20th century’s greatest minds
  7. A look at our history – from the 23rd century, 13 April 2009
  8. Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian, 25 September 2009 – Looking back at the Af-Pak War
  9. “Welcome to 2025 – American Preeminence Is Disappearing Fifteen Years Early” by Michael Klare, 7 March 2010
  10. A third American regime will arise from the ashes of the present one, 30 March 2010
  11. A look at the future of the world’s political and economic order, 4 June 2010
  12. A look back at our time from the 2100 A.D. edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 June 2010

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "The Coming Big Increase in Structural Unemployment"

  1. martha michaels   August 9, 2010 at 11:32 am

    If the goal is ever higher productivity, meaning more work done by fewer people, in shorter time periods, then logically, theoretically, the day will come when everything is done by one guy in China. How could massive unemployment not be the end result?I’m not suggesting intentional inefficiency, or make work jobs, rather, I’m thinking the goal should be harmonious stasis; a shorter work week for the most people, perhaps 100% employment with a 25 hour work week. Granted, not the most “productive” thing we could do, and frowned upon under our current philosophy of economics, but sooner or later, we will have to accept a fact of life, that an economic system based on eternal growth in order to compensate for the downside of eternal high productivity is a planet killer at worst and destroys our quality of life at best.