This is an excerpt from Empower: How to Co-Create the Future. The full 200+ page book is available by donation!
“All routine work—anything that is on some level routine, repetitive, predictable—is susceptible to automation”
excerpt from book
David Passiak: In the late-19th century, nearly half of US workers were on farms, then by the end of 2000 those numbers were less than 2%. The economy adjusted with mass migration of workers to major cities, and then widespread access to education lead to the rise of a flourishing and prosperous middle class.
There was what you describe as a nearly perfect correlation between increasing productivity and rising incomes. A lot of economists look to the past and suggest that new jobs will be created by new industries and fears of automation dating back to the Luddites smashing the textile looms are unwarranted. What is different now?
Martin Ford: There will be new industries in the future, but they are not going to be labor intensive. They won’t hire many people. Look at Google, Facebook , all of these industries in the last decade or two, none of them hire huge numbers of people proportionate to the massive impact that they have on society. There is nothing out there like the automotive industry, for example, that created an enormous number of jobs, both directly, like people working in factories, and indirectly, in terms of people driving cars. The industries that we are generating now don’t look like that. This is what I mean by basic labor intensity.
Next, there is the nature of the work. As you said, most people worked on farms. They transitioned into the factories during the industrial era, and then from factories into the service sector. The key thing to understand in each of those cases is that the nature of work was basically routine in nature. People did routine work on farms, then they moved into factories and did routine assembly line work, and they continued to do routine work in the service sector. All routine work—anything that is on some level routine, repetitive, predictable—is susceptible to automation, machine learning, and other stuff.
This is tremendously broad-based and about any kind of job that is on any level routine and repetitive. What that means is in order for workers to still have a job in the future, they have to make a different transition than workers in the past moving from one sector to another, from agriculture to manufacturing. In the future, if you want to have a job, you will have to make a much more difficult transition into something genuinely not routine that may be creative or in some way protected from what machines are capable of doing, at least for the time being.