About jobs, automation, and machines taking over

As a society, we have to come to terms with one fact: within 10 years, all today’s jobs will cease to exist or transform in to something entirely different.

This is a terrifying thought for many. No one wants to hear that the carrier that they’ve been pouring their heart and soul in to, will just disappear, long before they can retire and enjoy fruits of their labor. As horrific as this sounds and as disruptive as it will end up being, is it really all that bad?

In the not so distant past, it was common, even preffered, for an employee to spend their entire working life at the same company. Today, most people will stay at the company only for as long as it works with their current lifestyle and goals. In some respects, staying too long at one place can be a detractor for a potential job seeker, because comparatively, they may appear less experienced and less diverse. While hiring and training is still costly, this trend of frequent job hopping can be benefitial to both the company and the employee. Every time employee leaves, company can re-evaluate, re-shape, and re-price the position, and then hire someone that better fits that new role and new bussines requirements. On the other hand, when the the employee moves on, they get to use the newly acquired experience to take the next step up in their career, usually accompanied by a pay increase.

Now, with the automation stepping in, companies will be adding another dimension to the decision about newly vacant positions – to re-shape and re-hire or to replace with AI? Right now, decisions in favor of AI are becoming prevalent in the manufacturing sector, but very soon, as AI matures, we’ll start to see more and more of it in all other fields. From the business perspective, long-term cost benefit is certainly in favor of automation. Since money is always the main deciding factor, that means that slowly, some jobs will simply go away as companies decide more and more in favor of automation. The good thing about this, is that this transition will happen organically and mass layoffs due to “AI taking over” are very unlikely. Regardless, as the transition happens, the pool of available jobs will rapidly dry up. The transition will cause creation of new jobs, but the volume will be extrememly limited – certainly not enough to provide work to all those that will be displaced.

For an average worker that will mean that they can either stay in the same field and move up in to a job that has not yet been replaced by automation or completely change the filed they are working in. The latter is the more likely scenario and that’s also the hardest part for the generations that are caught up in this transition. After certain point in life, most people prefer not to have to “start all over”, learn a new job or a new skill. It disrupts the routine, it demolishes the comfort zone, and completely abolishes any sense of security. I still don’t believe that this is bad… I’m not blind or insensitive to what’s about to happen; there is no question that there will be some very painfull, immediate impacts. I just don’t believe that we are considering the whole picture. The issue is, that when talking about this, most people just stop at the horror of automation taking over jobs, without thinking about how this will re-shape the rest of our world in the long term.

Let me see if I can illustrate what I mean, by going backwards. For a moment, think about our our common, municipal water supply. This is a basic convenience in all of developed world. A very common trait in such a system is that from start to finish, water is delivered from the source to your faucet without any human involvement – it’s all automated – and that’s been the case for a long time. Concept of the munincipal water supply dates back centuries. Over the years we firuged out how to do it well, how to automate the process and relized that it works the best if its automated with almost no human involvement. For this incredible convenience, we pay a nominal, almost laughable monthly fee and not even think about it. Now, imagine that we lost that convenience. Let’s say that you live in an apartment building, just a couple of floors up, and you had to somehow obtain and carry up all the water you need for daily use – showering, cooking, flushing, etc. That would be brutal for those that can do that type of manual labor, and even worse for those that can’t. This sudden change would create employment for many people, as demand for water suppliers and manual laborers would skyrocket. Everyone would have their water again and many more people would have jobs.

Obviously, this is situation is more of a look in to the past than pure hypothesis. In the past, it was not uncommon to have either permanent or temporarily hired help for these sorts of manual, labor intensive tasks. Obviously, those jobs don’t exist anymore, technology and automation eliminated them – unless you are one of those people that delivers fancy bottled water right to the doors of those that willing to pay the premium for something “special”. See where I’m going with this?

We already have a template and very good idea what will most likely happen as automation takes over jobs – we’ve been there before, many times. Most likley, once majority of this transition is over, machine created and managed product will become widely available and very inexpensive. This is will be a huge overall benefit for our entire society – cheap or free food, housing, all the other basics – just like the municipal water supply. The new, inexpensive goods and services that we will be able to get becuase of this shift will not be great, just good enough. Mening, there will still be room for small niche markets catering to those that are willing to pay for something special, something that wasn’t created by a machine. Like cars. Right now, we are not terribly far from the point in time where everything in the car and the car itself will created by automated machines. Every step: mining the ore, transporting it for initial processing, turning it to raw materials, making those materials in to sub-components and the finally assembly, will all be automated – no reason why it wouldn’t be. Cars built in this manner would be much cheaper, more widely available, all exactly the same, and about as much fun as buses and trains used for public transport today. Meaning, there will be a market for more unique cars, at least in part made by humans, for those that are willing to pay more.

All this sounds fine and dandy, very utopian, but what about all those people that will lose their jobs and can’t get in to one of these niche markets?

It is very likely that they won’t need to work. As our society advanced over the centuries, we were in many similar situations. Drastic technological changes, widespread use of steam, electricity, gas engines and the whole phenomenon of industrial revolution caused loss of one type of job while creating another one. All this still holds true, but with few big differences. The overall number of available jobs will go down, but that same change will drive down the need to work in order to have basic necessities. By the time this transformation happens, humans will become an inter-planetary species. This will bring back the Wild West fever, giving many new purpose and an opportunity to build new societies elsewhere. Lack of jobs will drive many to seek new opportunitues, much like what happened when US was colonized – history will repeat itself, just on a larger scale, where distances are measured in lightyears and miles.

The point is, we never have and we never will, run out of things for humans to do. Most certainly, those jobs will evolve more and more, the further we advance as the species. Like with everything else in life, while there are things to be learned from history, reminiscing and wishing that things go back to what they used to be, simply doesn’t work. Progress will happen whether we like it or not. Current jobs will be lost to automation. Jobs that many of us hold will cease to exist. These are the facts. We will have to adopt and evolve with this rapidly changing world, just as we have in the past. Of course, this only one way things may play out. Regardless of the future holds, there is one sure way to be ready to embrace it and to stay relevant: never stop learning.