Can Automation Turn Fewer Jobs Into Better Ones?
We must shape a future in which technological progress means freeing people to work fewer hours for fairer compensation and to devote themselves to social advancement.
The cruelest hoax of the automation revolution that is now in the first stages of transforming the nature of work is the suggestion that it will play out as the industrial revolutions of the past: with people, perhaps grudgingly, perhaps happily, moving from one kind of work to another. That’s not going to happen.
This revolution is moving people out of work altogether. Digital applications and automation innovations are creating a future where robots will do most of the work that was once performed by human beings. Bizarrely, shamefully, this reality continues to be obscured and even at times denied by elite analysts who spin the fantasy that the future of work will follow the familiar patterns of the past.
It won’t. Capitalism guarantees that this revolution will be dramatic. The only question facing the great mass of Americans who are not currently occupying the top rungs of the economic ladder is whether it will be dramatically worse or dramatically better. For those of us who prefer the dramatically better option, honest recognition of where we are and where we are headed is essential.
The multinational corporations that already profit from the dislocation and disorientation of workers continue to peddle old understandings of industrial change to maintain that work is simply evolving and that workers need only adapt to new opportunities. A chipper headline from The Atlantic in January promised to explain “Why Computers Aren’t Going to Steal Everyone’s Jobs.”
But consider the case of Uber, the multinational ride-sharing conglomerate that advertises incessantly about the employment prospects it offers those who have been displaced from steadier work (and the security associated with it). Its radio ads promise drivers a quick route to prosperity.
Innovations are creating a future where robots will do most of the work that was once performed by human beings.
“How many different driving jobs are there?” Uber’s website asks. “A lot,” it answers. In fact, the most popular driving job in the United States is truck driving, which employs about 3.5 million people. Uber has only been around since 2012. “Despite this,” its website claims, “it’s growing the fastest because of the great earning potential and flexible schedule.” What is not mentioned is that, in 2015, Uber hired 40 scientists and researchers—yes, 40—from Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center to envision “autonomous cars that could someday replace its tens of thousands of contract drivers,” explained The Wall Street Journal.
In our research for People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, Bob McChesney and I found countless examples of corporations investing in research designed to replace the jobs of the future with robots, automation schemes, and digital applications. No matter what the starry-eyed futurists may tell you, corporations are not going to create millions of new robot-repair and oversight positions to fill the void that is being created. Nor will there be enough positions for software designers and managers to maintain a middle class. Companies are not going to pour resources into automation while at the same time creating jobs for displaced and downsized workers—doing so would negate the very profits they seek.
In this new age, old models for employment must be replaced. There will still be work, but there will be less of it. Will the work that remains be viciously exploitative, with workers pitted against one another in a fight for the last job? Or will workers begin to think of themselves as citizens of a new era, when the promise of technological progress can be made real?
Automation can and should eliminate drudgery, freeing people to work fewer hours for fairer compensation and to devote themselves to social advancement. To do this, however, citizens must assert themselves by demanding not just political but economic democracy. We must replace fantastical talk about “the future of work” with the honest understanding that there will be less work. We must shape a humane future in which corporate monopoly and inequality give way to a sharing society where technological progress benefits everyone.