Three trends are conspiring to make 2017 a year of higher job insecurity and higher odds of individual economic ruin. First, jobs everywhere now require more analytical, social, and emotional skills than ever before. In the 1930s, “shovel ready” jobs were literally that: give a person a shovel and put them to work. Today, even jobs that don’t require college educations require a much higher level of skill. Roads aren’t built by a crew of shovelers; they require skilled equipment operators.
Second, the gig economy is a brittle one. While some prefer the flexibility, for too many it’s a way to pile on even more hours in a struggle to make ends meet. That exacts a physical and psychological toll. And it often comes without health care, vacation, and other benefits, which buffer individuals from the random bad stuff that happens in life.
Third, the rise of artificial intelligence will reduce the need for people in many roles, ranging from driving services to customer support to finance. That’s the baseline. That’s already underway.
But there’s a scenario where it gets much worse. The US educational system isn’t geared to address the analytical, social, and emotional skill gap. It’s a system that was designed for a different age: a time when memorizing facts was the right preparation for jobs that were often highly structured and repetitive, at companies that faced far less competitive pressure and both chose to and could more easily afford to offer lifetime employment, pensions, and even a holiday turkey for every family.
The gig economy could also get worse. As it grows, average worker income will drop because not only will an increasing supply of more gig workers (who often come to gig work for lack of alternatives) drive down the average labor rate, but the companies coordinating the work will seek to extract more profit.
And artificial intelligence will be here faster than anyone expects. 10 years ago there was no iPhone, let alone self-driving cars, let alone an Alexa device that lets you do all your shopping from home by talking to it. It’s an odd moment to realize that 70 years of science fiction — Star Trek’s communicators, Knight Rider’s autonomous car, and Asimov’s all-knowing, voice-operated Multivac — happened in the last decade. It’s hard to imagine how much further technology will go in the next 10 years.
Put all this together, and we’ll see a growing gap between workers’ skills and employers’ needs, an increase in job and wage insecurity, and a potentially rapid elimination of even the service jobs (driver, restaurant server, broker, etc.) that we thought were safe. And it will come far faster than we expect.
All this leaves one feeling like Woody Allen, when he said,
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
But there might be a third way. A difficult, nose-to-the-grindstone, un-sexy, non-heroic path. It will require three enormous, ponderous communities to work together. The educational system needs to become more focused on analytical, social, and emotional skills. I don’t mean spending 100% of teaching time on these areas. But hypothetically, even going from 8% of time spent on these areas to 10% would be a 25% increase. And if resume writing and interviewing practice became standard, that wouldn’t hurt either.
Employers too need to invest in this kind of training. The workforce doesn’t today have all the right skills in all the right places. That’s why unemployment hovers around 5% but millions of people are facing stagnant or declining wages.
Employers also need to hire differently, and get better at assessing potential, instead of writing someone off because they don’t have the right experience.
Finally, the government needs to encourage this. It should provide incentives for employers to take bets on people and make longer-term investments, and support and reward non-profit educational institutions that experiment with and implement new curricula.
That’s the path out. And there’s no glory in it. Just a steady, relentless, vital, necessary slog. But otherwise the future is going to increasingly be one of workers who won and workers who lost. Today we’re at Woody Allen’s crossroads. Unless …
“Warning to All” image copyright Isaac Asimov (1956) from his short story “The Last Question”