The Future of Jobs

An article in today's Knowledge@Wharton addresses the sobering prediction that "nearly half of all jobs will be killed off by technology and globalization in just 25 years." 

I was reminded of an article I'd saved from a 2012 issue of Metropolis, which considered the radical changes in U.S. manufacturing through the prism of the humble yet necessary cardboard box. The author lamented that manufacturing – the making of things, whether it's mass or small batch production – is the ballast that keeps cities real. 

Factories provide solid jobs for workers who are not card-carrying members of the creative class, and they feed the supply chain that makes it possible for entrepreneurs, designers, artisans, and others to produce greater quantities of tangible goods locally. The quaint idea that there is intrinsic value—economic, social, cultural—in making things is beginning to reemerge. 

The themes of making and local and small are reflected throughout my blog, and I understand these ideas as quiet yet radical stances against an ever-increasing disrespect for what it means to be human and to be a citizen – to feel as though one belongs and is relevant and is fulfilling one's purpose in Life. As if all of the little decisions we make about selling a product and where our workforce lives and whether by extension we are building communities that can sustain us all are not, in fact, large and profound decisions with real consequences.

These two articles are connected through their serious considerations of these consequences. To wit:

The Metropolis article celebrates a U.S. firm that designs and manufactures in Philadelphia, but concludes with the distressing reminder that on a broader scope many U.S. corporations decided it was "smarter, easier, and more lucrative to outsource manufacturing and send an entire nation's technical skills into exile." The skilled workforce and the factories that offered steady work at decent wages are all but gone. And even with a determined effort by an emerging maker class, the U.S. supply chain will not be coming back.  

Now cue today's Wharton article: It’s a phenomenon called “structural unemployment” and it affects nearly all industries and even white-collar workers.

Consider these highlights:

Can you explain . . . how the most advanced economic society on the planet will continue to thrive and possibly even survive with a 30% dropout rate from high school? We’re talking about a third of the population that doesn’t have the skills for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of 10, 20, 30 years from now. And to compound it, we’re doing something extremely well, putting aside cost, and that’s longevity. Here’s the math: A third of the population drops out at 15 and we keep them alive to 85.

We could lose 47% of all our jobs within 25 years … through a combination of globalization, automation and the fact that so many people don’t have the skills that will be required for those jobs. 

Budweiser made a delivery with an autonomous truck in Colorado. People who drive for a living, whether it’s trucks, taxis, buses, whatever, [will be affected]. In some states, it’s one of the largest [sources of] jobs. … You are talking about a dramatic change in employment in this country. This is about the heart of America. It’s not just about the bottom 20%. This is about the lower-middle class, the middle-middle class, the upper-middle class.

[From me] Tie all this to the statistic that 1 in 4 Americans works for him or her self in the so-called gig economy. Research I conducted for several clients this summer pointed out an astonishing disenfranchisement between working age Americans across all generations and American businesses. 25% of our workforce is freelancing, working multiple jobs (including as Uber drivers, see above), and already not protected by a community-political network invested in their skills training, access to a union, retirement options, health care options, or basic social opportunities – i.e., no office softball team, after work drinks, lunch time birthday cupcakes.

What would our society be like with 25%, 30% or 35% unemployment? … I don’t know how you afford that, but even if you could afford it, there’s still the question of, what do people do with themselves? Having a purpose in life is, I think, an important piece of the stability of a society.

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And this is the revolutionary and alarming aspect of this trend: that it's not just the growing class of under- and un-employed people who will be sliding down the financial ladder. It's not just that having fewer people be able to afford goods and services will impact even those people who are trained and educated and who can compete globally. It's what does it mean when as a community we allow so many of our fellow citizens to miss out on discovering or applying their purpose?

Lesley RobertsjobsComment