[On Sundays, this blog explores diverse issues. Today we think about life when there is no work.]
The Real Job Killer
As humans, we want to be in control. When something goes wrong, we look for a cause, and – too often – we blame other people. One of the areas where this is most prevalent is job loss. In the current debate about immigration, opponents of reform claim that undocumented workers are taking jobs from Americans. To some degree that claim might be true. However, it’s equally true that immigrants have traditionally done the work that nationals don’t want to do, menial tasks with low pay. We also blame outsourcing to other countries. Again, this is a piece of a bigger problem, an important piece and one that should be addressed by politicians in Washington (Buy American!).
The real job killer is something we all love and can’t do without: technology. From the invention of the wheel to the iPod, humans have looked for a better way to work and more ways to live comfortably. In the age of the computer and advanced technology, those same innovations have led to work processes that need fewer and fewer people. Think about the self-service options we now have. Whether you’re pumping your own gas, ringing up your own groceries, or buying tickets for travel or a movie tickets online, you’re doing work that an employee once did. Similarly, automation has led to incredible efficiencies in manufacturing. In one of his State of the Union speeches, President Obama pointed out that steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers to operate now only need 100. Great for technology and profit, not so good for working people.
Technology moves forward like a steamroller. It doesn’t go backward. Jobs can be brought back to the U.S. from China or Mexico. We cannot undo automation or the ability to work remote via our computers and smart phones/tablets. Social scientists once predicted this trend and thought it would mean people would have more leisure time. They were wrong. Instead, too many people, especially those who are poorly educated, cannot work in the new system.
What can be done about this problem? I don’t see a simple or fast solution. Too many people are making money off the current system. Too often those most affected are poor and powerless. We blame them and label them as “takers.” I believe the first step to a solution will be to stop blaming people and really analyze the problem: How can we enjoy the benefits of our technology and still have work for people?