Education may not have been a prerequisite for the jobs most factory workers previously performed, but now that many manufacturing positions have migrated from the developed world, workers may not have the knowledge or skill set to perform jobs in a high tech environment. New factory jobs may require computer proficiency to run the machines that fabricate numerous products. Retraining programs for unemployed workers hopefully will prepare them for the 21st century positions that are available. And many are available. But government must recognize that finding satisfactory work, particularly for older people, is not as simple as it once was, and support for displaced workers must be forthcoming for the duration of the process.
Because of deficiencies in K-12 and higher education, American workers are lacking in the literacy and numeracy skills seen in workers in other developed nations. Obviously, this makes it more difficult for them to utilize advanced technology well. Even college graduates and holders of master’s degrees in the U.S. fare poorly compared to similar individuals of other industrialized countries. The American education system needs to be revamped, from K-12 to graduate programs, and new emphasis placed on basic skills. Vocational schools, apprenticeships, and community colleges must also train their students properly for the job market. Continuing education while a person is working should also be encouraged. Worker skill levels must improve significantly.
The use of information technology has exploded in the last two to three decades, with new developments invading personal life as well as every sector of the business world. In the past there was a belief in creative destruction and that jobs in new industries would more than replace the jobs that were lost when previous industries vanished. This may no longer happen as major industries arise that are not labor-intensive. And mature industries that survive and thrive will do so with fewer workers.
As computerization and the use of robots increases, fewer agricultural and manufacturing positions will be available, as everything will be mechanized and productivity soars. For instance, whereas one hundred people may have been necessary to fabricate ten thousand widgets daily, computers and robots will perform the necessary tasks, with five workers doing the programing, quality checking, and making certain there are no glitches in production. Fully automated factories that make various consumer products are already in operation globally with very few workers required to keep the assembly lines going.
Picking and planting fruits and vegetables of every sort, harvesting grains, milking cows, collecting eggs, and caring for domestic animals will be handled by robots, with a few agricultural technicians overseeing the processes. In the not-too-distant past, seventy-five to eighty percent of a society’s manpower or more was devoted to agriculture and food production. Less than one percent will be necessary in the future.
Virtually any manual task can be performed by specially designed robots, machines of different sorts with computerized brains that direct their movements and actions. As noted by Martin Ford in Rise of the Robots, “the robot can work continuously; it will never get tired or suffer a back injury- and will certainly never file a worker’s compensation claim.” (One of the early backers of robotics and intelligent machines was Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who foresaw the increasing use of these in Amazon’s warehouses.)
In the near future, taxis and cars will be automated and operate without drivers as will delivery and long distance trucks. More advanced computers and robots will replace secretaries, hotel and department store workers. Fewer professionals in all areas will be required in a few decades including bookkeepers, accountants, legal assistants and lawyers. Middle levels managers will also see their jobs disappear. Salespersons in retail establishments will be replaced in a large part by sales robots. Those salespeople (the traveling salesman of yore) who have their own territories and sell large wholesale lots to various kinds of stores and those who decide on what to purchase from them will be supplanted by computerized systems which do the selling and the buying. Interestingly, artificial intelligence is being used currently by the I.R.S. to review tax returns and find tax shelters and other forms of tax evasion.
Robots will take over many of the tasks of home health aides, nurse’s aides, nurses, medical assistants, and physicians in the years ahead. Routine functions in particular will be automated, though nurses and physician’s assistants will be required to provide emotional support to sick patients. Fewer physicians will be needed as diagnostic and treatment algorhythms will aid doctors in making diagnoses and providing proper treatment. And robotic surgeons will perform many of the operations, perhaps with physicians acting as backups in the OR. As more older people remain in their homes as they age (cutting down on nursing home employees), drones and robotic assistants will handle many of the household chores and even do the shopping.
Just as autonomously operating vehicles on the ground will be a reality in a few years, airplanes eventually will use automation to do the flying. Even the military will require fewer officers and enlisted men as specialized robots protect a nation’s interests by doing the fighting and guarding its borders. As is done currently with drones eliminating enemies of the United States, men and women far from the battlefield will direct drones and robots to fight an adversary’s mechanized forces. And minimal human crews will be necessary to sail a navy’s ships, load the ordinance and fire the guns, rockets, and cruise missiles. Big bombers and aircraft carriers will be outmoded, as the nations with the best and largest fighting forces of drones and robots will win future wars.
Some computer mavens assert that artificial intelligence will never equal or surpass human ability to innovate or deal with unexpected situations, and because of this humans will always be needed for certain jobs. This may be true, but it is still likely that the majority of tasks that men and women perform can be automated and handled by machines of various sorts, reducing the number of available jobs and hours of work. Government, corporations, and people must adjust to the changes ahead, with work disconnected from income. If a well-designed system of support for citizens is not in place in time, social chaos can be expected.
Photo by Shutterstock