I stumbled across this podcast by accident–it’s geared as a story about Millennials and the resentment and hatred they engender. And it’s on a comedy website (Cracked.com) where the commentators (Executive Editor Jason Pargin (aka David Wong) and Cracked Editor-in-Chief Jack O’Brien) are paid funnymen. That said, it’s a surprisingly mature discussion. It echoes a meme that’s been around for nearly 50 years at a minimum. Those of us who remember the Jetsons (a cartoon series from the 60’s that I remember watching on a then-modern Philco TV) might remember that George Jetson wasn’t working all that hard. He wasn’t working long hours, because the creators of the show figured that most of his job (and the jobs of those around him) would be automated. This was the learning from the previous century, when the armies of hard-working people needed to build cars or harvest crops or keep the telephone lines (remember copper wire? When all phones were attached to Land Lines?) hung up on the big poles. And now, not so much.
As Jeremy Rifkin pointed out over a decade ago in his book THE END OF WORK, the relentless rise of automation and machinery will eventually render a significant portion of humanity obsolete. We would still need certain kinds of work that machines can’t do–we will still need doctors and attorneys and scientists, and there will always be a need for creative people–the bulk of what people do better than machinery. But manual labor, especially the boots-on-the-ground jobs that have resisted offshoring are vulnerable. Hospitals may be sending their billing and their diagnostics to Mumbai, but they still need orderlies. But other specialties are at risk. Minneapolis Airport has eliminated almost all wait-staff jobs. When a hungry traveler sits down, there’s an iPad at the ready, to allow them to order food and pay online (each station also has a sweep-card reader). Order your sandwich and a beer and within a few minutes a very lonely waiter will deliver it. That’s the future envisioned by restaurants like AppleBees and mail order companies like Amazon (experimenting with package delivery by drone). This is on top of the news that Google has successfully driven its robot controlled car some 300,000 miles without a problem. At what point will insurers decide that they will not cover those who do their own driving? And what happen for the five million or so who make their livelihoods by driving–everyone from long distance truckers to cabbies?
And our plans for pensions and Social Security are dependent on all sorts of calculations that assume something close to full adult employment. There’s the dependency ratio–the delta between working age population vs those not able to work (largely kids and retirees). Societies do best when the former outweighs the latter. And we are going to have fewer of those adults working under these scenarios. Rifkin posited that society had some really big questions ahead. Would we increase the amounts people on the dole receive? Do we mandate job sharing? Would we pass government edicts making (say) 25 hours the maximum work-week? That would allow for more workers and less stress on those who were doing the jobs, but such jobs would have to pay living wages. The bulk of the EUROZONE countries already have variations on this rule for dealing with recessions, reducing work hours for individual employees in order to get more people working. Under such conditions people change some behavior. They cook at home, they buy less, they’re involved more in local communities. But all of this is pie-in-the-sky– the plutocrats are not about to divide up jobs this way, and they’re paying lots of K street lobbyists to keep from paying the taxes needed to support a permanent underclass. And there’s a question about what you do with that unemployed class. Do you let them make their own schedules? Do you create ‘make-work’ jobs? Do you have them working on community activities, such as replanting parks or mounting neighborhood patrols? One of the quotes that echoes here came from the podcast: We’ve reached the point where we need to give these people enough so that they don’t riot in the streets.
This is not something we can put off much longer–it needs our attention right now. The Millennials in the Occupy Movement have already figured it out–they’ve graduated into an economy that doesn’t generate living-wage jobs. And the Boomers, whose savings took a big hit during the 2008 meltdown, are on their way to addressing it. Most of the Boomer population doesn’t have the option of working past ‘retirement’ age–employers are very involved in hiring the youngest and cheapest workers. Just sayin’.