Technology is great. What is not exciting about automated vehicles, Amazon packages delivered at your doorstep by drones or supermarkets that do not require a human cashier that have to scan each item individually?
Not a day goes by where there is not a new story about a start-up revolutionizing a process or even a complete industry; new advances in machine-learning and cloud computing or factories run entirely by robots. The unfortunate part is that for each of these success stories, real-life humans beings are losing jobs…
Rapid Population Growth
In 2016 the world’s population exceeded the 7.3 billion mark, meaning that the number of people on earth has doubled in the last 45 years.
The United Nations predicts that the figures will be somewhere in the region on 9.7 billion by the year 2050. At the current rate it would require the equivalent of almost three planet earths to sustain the population if we were to maintain our current lifestyles.
In addition to this alarming population growth, people continue to migrate to urban areas. The United Nations further predicts that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities. In the year 2000, the number was only 47%.
In order to sustain these numbers and the extreme demand on resources, we simply have to do more with less. In practical terms it means that we will continue to turn to science and technology to find better and faster ways to keep up with the demand. And the more we improve, innovate and automate, the less we require human beings to be part of the workforce.
These jobs are lost forever…
During the last 20 years, globalization has seen many manufacturing jobs moved from First World countries to relatively poor countries that still had some basic education systems. This has been great in improving the economies of these poorer countries, but the tide is slowly turning for them as well. If one worker (with the help of a robot army) can achieve the same output as 100 factory workers, you simply don’t need to employ these 100 workers.
More production, less employees…
When Apple sells an iPhone, what percentage of the cost of the sale actually go to the labour force that produced it?
Less than 2 percent.
So when politicians throw around popular slogans like “bring back the manufacturing jobs” they are basically talking about the 2 percent labour required to manufacture an iPhone. Or a flat screen television. Or a vehicle.
Breeding ground for revolution
The net result is that millions of people worldwide are seeing local job opportunities diminish, especially in rural areas. With the migration of people to cities and jobs to foreign countries, so too has the hope of a prosperous future vanished.
Many towns and small villages’ survival depend entirely on the surrounding resources and industries – sometimes a single factory. As these industries close down, entire communities are left without income or the means of learning the skills required to work in newer “smarter” factories.
This is unfortunately a breeding ground for revolution and politicians have grasp the negative sentiments towards globalization and automation with open arms. And since a lot of the traditional voting power still lies in these effected rural areas, many politicians have found huge support in promoting anti-globalism, anti-capitalism and closed borders and markets.
So this is the current situation. The real question we need to ask is what we can do about it?
Fortunately for us this question is also on the mind of many wealthy and powerful business leaders. Elon Musk, the billionaire and co-founder of companies like Tesla and SpaceX believes that the answer lies in a universal basic income. This might come to a shock to many capitalists, but it means that each person on the planet receives a certain amount of money each year so that we can keep the economy going and ensure that workers displaced by automation can at least maintain a basic living standard.
But where will the money come from to fund this scheme? Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and present-day philanthropist propose that we should tax the same companies that are displacing the workers in the first place. Again, this might not please the owners of such companies but is it really fair that only a select few benefit from a system while millions other suffer?
The problem with all these people losing jobs is that it has a rippling effect through the economy. Middle-income workers might belong to a medical aid, go to restaurants once or twice a month or can afford to put their children in private schools. Without an income, these types of luxuries will be the first to be given up in order to make ends meet.
But just think for a moment how many other jobs will eventually be lost in the process – administration clerks working for that medical aid, the groundsmen of the private school, and the kitchen staff of the struggling restaurant. The cuts will come with the “low hanging fruits” first – jobs that could in itself be replaced by robots or simply be dropped in order to pursue profit.
Even low-income workers that support local economies and spaza shops will change their buying and lifestyle habits. And as all these workers lose the ability to contribute to the economy or fall out of tax-paying brackets, where will governments get the money to support their population?
Robot workers don’t pay taxes, don’t belong to medical aids and don’t buy Christmas gifts from local arts and crafts markets. So I think Bill Gates is definitely on to something.
How will a world look like where robots are doing all the work while humans get paid?
It sure sounds a lot like the plot of some utopian science fiction novel. I personally think that society as a whole will uplift themselves to a higher level because without the daily struggle to provide basic needs, people can pursue other passions. Entrepreneurs and business-minded people will still seek opportunities to make money or provide services but now people that previously had no way of entering the economy suddenly can be part of it. Bill Gates also believes that we could focus more on humanitarian work, looking after our children and their education as well as caring better for the elderly.
Yes, there will always be crime, corruption and other social problems – as there has been throughout history. But there will also be people that seek higher forms of fulfilment like art, music, literary and poetry.
We hold the cards
I have read somewhere that one of the last jobs that will be replaced by robots, will be that of the politician! The irony is the same people that has the power to do something about workplace automation will make sure that their own jobs are protected until the bitter end.
So why not make use of that power for a greater good and start having a serious look at ways to address the issue? We know that the problem will only get worse in the future, so now is the ideal time to come up with a solution.
The World Population Prospects: 2015 Revision (http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-2015-revision.html)
“Those jobs are gone forever. Let’s gear up for what’s next.” (Quincy Larson, Medium, 2017-02-06).