Thursday, September 29, 2011

The future of employment

I posted this Slate series a little bit ago on my facebook and twitter feeds. It's an interesting read about the future of robotics in the work place. Most people think of robots only in the automobile industry. However, they are in nearly every major industry now. All new semiconductor fabs can be run with only a handful of people over seeing the production of the product. The author notes that robots are making headway into pharmacies and other professions with menial tasks being a large component. In pharmacy computers also help ensure patients aren't on conflicting medicines, with medical records in the computer it can easily flag potential issues. You could argue that this isn't robotics it's automation, personally I don't see much of a difference. You use a machine to make a task faster and automated, it doesn't matter if there are moving parts or not.

This isn't the only recent discussion on the longevity of jobs. CNN had an opinion piece about 3 weeks ago discussing if jobs were obsolete. Which if this is the case we will have to take a serious look at our current capitalistic system. As an evolutionary economist (or at least having some training in it) I can see that this perspective is somewhat accurate. Between these two articles it really indicates that in the near future we'll have a great deal of mechanized labor through robotics and computer programs. We will need dramatically less and less people employed in the western societies. This will even eventually trickle down into the developing societies.

My roommate argued that we should stop creating pointless jobs. That we should create a system that supports these people that continually fall out of the labor pool through job type elimination. This would take a complete reworking of our society to make this sort of change happen. Also, for a huge amount of people this freeloading kills them. We hear anecdotal evidence about some old fart at a company that is forced to retire and then within the year is dead. Whether we want to admit it or not, for the vast majority of people employment is tied to self worth. There's increases in suicide rates when people aren't able to work and cannot support their families. Depression is also higher among the unemployed.

There are further problems with this future. The CNN article discusses how we should be ok with just a white collar work force. I completely disagree. When I worked at Samsung some great ideas came from the technicians fixing our tools. The greater the variety of knowledge sets the higher the number of ideas. Sure a great deal of them may be really crappy, but the ones that end up surviving through the competition end up being better ideas. Make the workforce more homogeneous would reduce this affect.

I don't have an answer to this. We need to be realistic and try to understand the fundamental changes that our economy is going through. If we see that jobs are in fact going the way of the dodo we basically have to throw out all free-market economics. Why? Because there's no one to buy anything except an elite few and they just do not have the buying power to keep an economy of this size going. We will have to evaluate our morals, ethics and goals in life. It will not be easy.

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