Why Automation Sometimes Races But More Often Chugs

Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation is a study by McKinsey & Company, released in 2017, that examines work around the world “that can be automated through 2030 and jobs that may be created in the same period.” McKinsey concludes, “Even if there is enough work to ensure full employment by 2030, major transitions lie ahead that could match and even exceed the scale of historical shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing.” Only a year later it was hard to know what kind of comfort to take when former Secretary of State George P. Shultz wrote of the “sophisticated use of robotics” laboring alongside “human colleagues.”

McKinsey’s “scenarios” suggest that by 2030, somewhere between 75 million to 375 million workers, which will be three to 14 percent of the worldwide workforce, will “need to switch occupational categories.”

It’s too easy to make too little of what may wind up being an enormous problem for many people in the United States and elsewhere: a future in which they truly won’t fit because of inadequate or wrong skills. I’m not suggesting or predicting this, in fact, will be the case, as I usually live on the reasonably optimistic side of such ledgers. But it takes only one conversation over lunch with a friend who has a particularly expansive and sober grasp of Artificial Intelligence to envision half-full glasses turning into half-empty leaking ones. Or at least until a drink at dinner replenishes.

Or until one perhaps retrieves hope by reading a very good countervailing essay by Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, “Is Technology Destroying the Labor Market” in the Spring 2018 issue of City Journal. “If automation,” he writes, “were rendering workers obsolete, we would see the evidence in rising productivity, major capital investments, and a shift in the ratio of production workers to managerial workers. None of these things has occurred. If technology could render workers obsolete, the radical advancements of past generations should have done it. They did not. “If this time is different,” Cass concludes, “we should find evidence that a large share of current workers [is] uniquely vulnerable to the particular set of technologies on the horizon. We do not.”

Okay.  But what about ATMs?  Haven’t they led to the loss of jobs by multitudes of live tellers?  Evidently not, as Cass cites a study by economist James Bessen of Boston University that found “bank-teller employment never even declined.”  This was because the “hundreds of thousands of ATMs across the country . . . lowered banks’ cost of doing business, and they responded by opening more branches.”

But what about the kinds of skills gaps, the kinds that “manufacturers lament”?  Manufacturers “say that they need hundreds of thousands of new workers with more advanced skills than their existing workforce can supply, a problem they present as a market malfunction.”  Cass contends this is not true.  Rather, the market is working “properly,” as it’s “sending a clear signal: automation will be harder, slower, and more expensive than you may like; and to make it work, you’ll have to design your processes with the capabilities of the nation’s workforce in mind.”

The implications of all this for Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree are what?  More importantly, what are the implications for the mid-level and essential jobs the project focuses on, as well as the men and women who either hold them now or will in the future?  This is especially important since McKinsey’s “scenarios” suggest that by 2030, somewhere between 75 million to 375 million workers, which will be 3 percent to 14 percent of the worldwide workforce, will “need to switch occupational categories.”  A first thought, or at least a first sense, is that three, four, or maybe five percent sounds pretty much like normal change; certainly nothing catastrophic. Or, more precisely, it won’t be personally catastrophic for me, as I’ll be 82 in 2030 and probably will not have been called on to switch jobs in the previous dozen years.

What do predictions like these all mean?  Take your pick.  But here’s an all-purpose answer that would be on-target even if the brilliant men and women at McKinsey and other consulting firms never crunched a datum:

When it comes to landing a good job and building a solid, middle-class life, people need to bring “something” to the proverbial “table.”  Which is shorthand to say, they need to have learned solid and marketable skills and have the capacity to perpetually learn refined and new skills for the rest of their working lives.

Will this absolutely assure anything?  Of course not.  But on the chance pivotal points like these hit home better metaphorically, think of the peace of mind and guarantees of “whole life” over “term” insurance.