We May be Reaching a Tipping Point in our Understanding – Insight from Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work”

Second Machine“the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.” 

Many medical doctors used to have their dictation sent overseas to be transcribed. But an increasing number are now happy with computer transcription.
As futurist Kevin Kelly put it “You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.”
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age


You can begin to sense when a tipping point is arriving. I think I am seeing another one. This tipping point?: people, experts, observers are becoming increasingly convinced that automation (robots; software; machines) really are going to replace a huge percentage of jobs. People who were saying “no, it’s not a real problem” to this threat are now reconsidering (from the article by Thompson – see below…):

When former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was an MIT undergraduate in the early 1970s, many economists disdained “the stupid people [who] thought that automation was going to make all the jobs go away,” he said at the National Bureau of Economic Research Summer Institute in July 2013. “Until a few years ago, I didn’t think this was a very complicated subject: the Luddites were wrong, and the believers in technology and technological progress were right. I’m not so completely certain now.”

I included five takeaways in my synopsis of The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (this book is referenced in the article by Thompson). Here was number three:

The less-than-well-educated will be in real trouble — We will lose more jobs than will be created. And this job loss problem will most likely accelerate… 

And I remember reading the classic Neil Postman work a few years ago: Technopoly. And one impression that has lingered is that he described a future when all the work that needs to be done, that can be done, will be done by a quite small percentage of the people.

Derek Thompson
Derek Thompson

So, I thought of all this, and more, as I read the lengthy cover page article in the latest Atlantic, A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing? by Derek Thompson. (Derek Thompson has become one of my “must-read” authors).

I seldom state this quite this bluntly, but I strongly encourage you to clear a small chunk of time and read this entire article.

Here’s an excerpt:

The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force, or more workers than there are in Texas and Massachusetts combined. Each is highly susceptible to automation, according to the Oxford study.

And this:

In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees—less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.

And he mentions the threat to drivers – another large segment of the workforce – posed by driverless cars. (Yes, they are coming; and, also, driverless trucks. Think about the loss of truck drivers to the workforce numbers).

His essay includes insight in these areas:

  • the loss of jobs; of work
  • thus, the loss of consumer capability
  • thus, the loss of meaning, and places of belonging…

Though the entire article is worth reading, this idea of the loss of meaning resonated especially with me. From the article:

Work is really three things, says Peter Frase, the author of Four Futures, a forthcoming book about how automation will change America: the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives.

Andrew Jorgenson, CEO (Gregory Peck)
Andrew Jorgenson, CEO (Gregory Peck)

This reminds me of the speech by the fictional CEO of New England Wire and Cable in the movie Other People’s Money:

A business is worth more than the price of its stock. It’s the place where we earn our living, where we meet our friends, dream our dreams. It is, in every sense, the very fabric that binds our society together.

Though Mr. Thompson points toward some possible “remedies,” I think we have to all acknowledge Step 1 first: we do, in fact, have a problem here.

This article is worth a careful reading. I encourage you to do just that.


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