During this challenging, unstable time, every story on the news seems to be pointing to a new threat to our existence.
Between video clips of Greta Thunberg at the latest climate emergency protest and the current political unrest in every continent, the supposed threat of “robots taking our jobs” seems like the least of our worries. But is it really as far off in the future as some of us may want to believe?
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has been known for many things, besides being the only Asian American Democratic presidential candidate, he is also the man who became famous for proposing a universal basic income for all American citizens 18 years and older. One of his many reasons behind the proposed “Freedom Dividend” is to aid U.S. citizens through the rocky years to come as a result of workplace automation.
Just like with climate change we cannot point to any particular storm and say that climate change was the cause, yet when we look at the bigger picture it is undeniable that something significant is happening.https://t.co/mupUrpNaCV pic.twitter.com/UJ6ae0XNdK
— DaveM0820🧢 (@dmit0820) September 4, 2019
Most people would gladly take the $1,000 monthly check, no questions asked. Millennials, in particular, have become avid supporters of Yang for his policies. However, most voters are completely unaware of the potential short and long-term effects of automation in our own personal lives or how soon we could be looking at this shift.
Young Americans seem to be under the impression that this issue is only a concern for blue-collar workers, meaning Yang’s Freedom Dividend will simply be extra money in their pockets. But if history is any indication, such a dramatic shift in the workplace can and will inevitably affect all of us.
Millennials have been shown to hold conflicting views on automation — while many of us understand the growth of productivity that can come with this change, we also understand the potential economic repercussions both in the short and long terms that can be especially damaging to the working and middle classes.
— YangGangDefence⏩🧢 (@YangGangDefence) September 4, 2019
According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, half of the jobs available today could be automated by 2055. Within the manufacturing industry alone, roughly 5 million jobs have already been lost since 2000. In the years to come, we could see this same pattern of job obsoletion spread to white-collar industries such as medicine, finance, and journalism.
In his New York Times bestselling book “The War on Normal People,” Yang recalled a demonstration held by General Electric in which human doctors with decades of experience could compete with computers in reading patient films. It became obvious by the end of the experiment that the computers could more effectively and rapidly diagnose tumors as their software programs allowed them to recognize various shades of gray on a radiology film that were invisible to the human eye.
In the finance industry, 5,500 traders at the New York Stock Exchange once walked the bustling trading floors; that number has now been cut down to less than 400. In 2000, Goldman Sachs had 600 NYSE traders on the floor and in 2017 that number dropped to just two traders. Similarly, in the media industry, a company called Narrative Science has developed AI that can write and produce cohesive recaps of breaking stories in real-time using data.
One thing all of these white-collar jobs have in common is that they perform routine tasks. According to the Federal Reserve, 44% of all jobs in the U.S. can be categorized as “routine,” meaning 44% of the jobs we see today can eventually be at least partly automated in the future.
This will leave us with very low-end, blue-collar service jobs and high-end, upper-class cognitive jobs with very limited opportunities for average, middle-class Americans. When such a dramatic gap in income goes unchecked, it has been proven to lead to more crime, shorter life spans, and damage to economic growth and the GDP.
The future isn’t all bleak, however, as in many industries the number of jobs lost to automation is predicted to eventually be offset by the number of jobs created. In some industries, this is set to happen as early as 2030, although it’s difficult to say how accurate this prediction could be.
This long-term potential for automation and artificial intelligence to help boost workplace productivity and innovation is precisely why so many millennials are drawn to this idea in the first place. In fact, many companies have been incorporating more AI into their offices and modernizing their facilities to attract more millennial employees.
The Deloitte 2017 Millennial Survey found that 62% of millennials believed automation could improve overall productivity in a workplace and 53% believed it could increase economic growth. In large, those surveyed saw automation as an opportunity to pursue career paths that focused on more creative activities within their companies. However, 53% also believed that the workplace will become more impersonal and sterile as a result.
A GenForward survey showed that 40% of millennials believed that automation would threaten their jobs, with people of color being especially concerned for their employment statuses, while a majority believed advancements in technology will lead to a decrease in the number of jobs available to them.
Additionally, a clear majority of millennials of all racial backgrounds agree that the government carries an obligation to look after those who are left unemployed or displaced as a result of automation, even if this means raising taxes substantially.
Different surveys of millennials point to different views on the expanding technology, painting a rather complicated picture on the future of automation and the opinions of younger generations. In many ways, millennials, as the most tech-savvy generation, are driving workplace automation. And as a result, we will be the first generation to fully feel the impact of the age of automation.
Millennials are a generation born into the aftermath of the financial crash and entering the job force during the Great Recession. Despite being more highly trained and educated compared to our parents and grandparents, we’re struggling to find better jobs, buy homes, and afford the same standard of living as our predecessors have enjoyed.
Possibly the most unnerving aspect of workplace automation and the advancement of artificial intelligence is that we cannot accurately predict what will happen as a result of this fourth industrial revolution.
Some of the more negative predictions have declared that it would be impossible for the job market to create as many jobs in order to cope with the rapid losses. While product innovation can offset the losses through a “substitution effect,” in which the success of a newly introduced product can make up for the jobs creating the now-redundant product, process innovation would only displace jobs rather than produce new ones.
In just five years, millennials will make up an overwhelming 75% of the workforce, entering into this position with little to no savings and for many, no clear plan for retirement. In an already-unfortunate situation, government intervention is not only welcome but necessary to ease the public through an uncertain transition period.
With the inevitable advancement of automation and AI technology, the solution here is not to reject technology altogether. Rather, we need to train the workforce to be able to adapt and perform a new set of skills, while providing the means to survive in the meantime. This is where Yang’s proposed idea of the “Freedom Dividend” comes in.
For city-dwelling white-collar workers, the threat of automation seems too far off to worry about — we’re too focused on our own lives right now. We’ve got rent, bills, and student loans to pay and still have yet to find high-paying jobs that will allow us to have health insurance and eventually purchase our own homes. But as Yang would argue, automation is rapidly changing the world around us, economically and politically.
“We’re going through the greatest economic and technological transformation in our nation’s history,” the Democratic presidential candidate told The Hill. “It’s called a fourth industrial revolution, and it led directly to Donald Trump being elected in that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa.”
And if you think your profession is an exception from this coming change, Yang himself put it best, “you’ll probably be wrong eventually.”
In this dystopian future scenario, Yang’s idea of a universal basic income, as crazy as it may sound, could be the most logical solution, at least in the short term, to avoid another financial debacle.
If handled well, in years to come, automation could be an opportunity to upgrade current jobs, but if handled poorly, we could be looking at a widening income gap.