Predicting the End of Work


By Samuel Greengard

We've heard it all before: Technology changes everything.  Over the last decade, it certainty has profoundly altered the nature of work and jobs, while magnifying the impact of the recent recession.

A current Associated Press series has put these technology changes under a microscope. Let's just say that the situation isn't pretty.

Over the last 3-½ years, approximately 7.5 million mid-skill and mid-wage jobs have vanished as a result of computers, cloud computing and smart machines. In past recessions, jobs came back when the economy improved. This time, it's not happening. In fact, some economists say that the unemployment rate could approach 50 percent by 2050.

"AP's analysis finds that the self-serve world we continue to build, embrace and shape for ourselves—with work-anywhere laptops and ever-quicker access to information and services—is threatening whole employment categories, from secretaries to travel agents," the news organization reveals.

White-collar jobs are taking a hit too. Support teams, librarians, administrative personnel and business analysts are all witnessing a decline in demand.

In other words, many jobs aren't coming back ... ever.

The upside? The demand for IT and computing science jobs is on the rise, and this trend will continue to gain momentum for the foreseeable future. The downside? People in a dizzying array of other fields—meter readers, trash collectors, supermarket clerks, bankers and numerous others—must retool and retrain or face a grim future.

Think about how many more people could be put out of work when we have self-driving vehicles? When we use medical devices attached to our smartphones and tablets? When we can drive up to self-serve fast-food restaurants?

The question, of course, is what long-term effect will technology have on employment? It took decades for the disruption of the industrial revolution to subside. People who made horseshoes and hammered railroad spikes were completely out of luck. As AP points out, in 1800, two-thirds of Americans worked on farms; today the number is 2 percent.

Technology optimists argue that computers and IT will create more jobs than they dismantle. They say that disruption is an inevitable part of the journey.

But Jeremy Rifkin, author of the 1995 book The End of Work, warned about this situation. He predicted a future in which there won't be enough work to go around, and large numbers of people will be unemployed or chronically underemployed—all as a result of technology.

Where we go from here is the $64 gazillion dollar question.