In 2016, I began to devote time each day to study the impact of automation on employment in the United States. At the time, I held the simple belief that significant portions of the workforce were at high risk as outlined in Frey and Osborne’s The Future of Work study and a sufficient number of new jobs would not be generated to absorb those being displaced. Over the past three years, I’ve read and reflected on thousands of articles, blog posts, books, editorials, studies and tweets, and arrived at a series of beliefs concerning the “Future of Work”. The following is a thumbnail sketch of these beliefs.

  1. While technological unemployment is not a new issue, this time is different, as the use of automation has entered the cognitive realm and opened up far reaching optimization opportunities in the agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors, in which workers will be displaced at a faster rate than our ability to create new roles for them.
  2. The coupling of artificial intelligence, a national priority for the world’s leading economic powers, China and United States, with cloud computing, ubiquitous communications, digitization of knowledge, Internet of things (IoT) sensing, and proliferation of mobile smart devices that are able to recognize and react to sights, sounds and other patterns, will be the driving force that will define the future, with the timing of its impact being consistent with the notion described in Amara’s Law.
  3. The current low unemployment rate and effect of economic nationalism has created the need for employers to experiment with the use of automation to offset the impact of labor and skill shortages and increased cost, and this experience is laying the groundwork for widespread displacement of workers in the future.
  4. While work that is characterized as “routine” is at greatest risk, the impact will be broad-based and jeopardize all jobs that play a “middleman” role, contributing to a continued bifurcation of the workforce, with shrinking clumps of human labor at either end of the value chain, and the middle being squeezed out, regardless of the intermediary’s level of education and experience.
  5. In the future, business models and organizational designs will mirror the practices of “platform” businesses, which will lead to significantly smaller organizations and activities flowing through “digital assembly lines”, with tasks being “auctioned” in a cyber marketplace in which human workers and machines compete for work on the basis of skill fit, ability to meet quality and delivery requirements, ratings and cost.
  6. In the near-term, the role of workers will be characterized as “human in the loop”, but as confidence is gained in machine-based decision making the level of automation will rapidly progress from worker assisted automation to high-automation, and possibly full automation.
  7. Increasingly, job-related tasks will no longer be tied to a specific geography, i.e. work will be performed remotely and products and services delivered locally, with geographic winners and losers being determined by the availability of deep talent pools fed by a robust educational and job training infrastructure.
  8. An intense competition to seize opportunities in a shrinking world of work will be adjudicated by a small number of global economic power players whose allegiance will transcend regional interests leading to an adverse impact at the state and local level, further aggravating the disparities that are evident in the geography of prosperity.
  9. While globalization, technology and urbanization are paving the path to the future, the pace of change and tipping point will be determined based on our ability to overcome important non-technology stumbling blocks, e.g. agreement on a regulatory framework.
  10. As the supply of labor exceeds the availability of jobs, current economic, political and social systems will become increasingly ineffective, and reform will be needed to ensure that the transition doesn’t lead to a breakdown in collective solidarity and unrest.

When I began to focus on the “Future of Work”, the headlines were replete with warnings that robots will replace significant numbers of human workers, while others espoused the “lump of labor fallacy”, i.e. the amount of work is not a zero-sum game, and innovation would provide an abundant source of new jobs. We just needed to learn how to code! Over the past year, a more benign view of the future has emerged, especially in light of the low level of U.S. unemployment. We may be falling into a trap. This reminds me of the complacency shown by corporate giants after the dotcom bubble burst. While many giants maintained comfort in the prevailing view that their position was unassailable, especially as the Internet world seemed to go down in flames, those with foresight built digital businesses that insinuated themselves into every aspect of our daily life. Today, we have a new set of corporate leaders, with former giants struggling for survival. Similar to this “reordering” that seemed to have happened overnight, the sheer size of the economic reward that will accrue from the significant investment in artificial intelligence will lead to a world that will favor machines over humans. If the dotcom’s past is prologue, we will have fully transitioned into “a world without enough work” by 2035.

Leaders in the public and private sector rely on long-term planning to map out action plans to prepare for the future. While the short-term is generally straightforward, envisioning the future is both an art and science. It requires us to stretch our imagination. The ten beliefs that I’ve offered should serve as an organizing framework concerning the magnitude of change and issues that will need to be mitigated. In the words of an African proverb, “tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today”.

Over the next couple of months, I will expand on this thumbnail sketch, with a series of essays, which will provide a more in-depth discussion of each belief.

Joe Smialowski
March 1, 2019

A World Without Enough Work

Leave a Reply