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How Much Unemployment Will Automation Cause?

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What does automation mean to the future of society? 

This thought, and more, were spurred by a book that suddenly appeared on my desk this spring for review. We don’t have a book review column at Automation World, though a good book may spur an interview or article. In this case, the thinking and writing may go on for a while.

I took “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” by Martin Ford (Acculant Publishing) along on vacation this spring. There is much to think about, and I had time on the beaches of Hawaii and on the plane to ponder. Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley software firm, an entrepreneur and a technologist. Reading the book led to an e-mail exchange that will probably be ongoing. You can also catch his blog at econfuture.wordpress.com.

His thesis concerns automation—the topic of this magazine—and what that may mean to the future workforce. All of us involved in manufacturing, especially discrete manufacturing, know that automation raises labor productivity by reducing the number employees needed to produce the same, or greater, amount of product. We have also begun to see automated workflows and business processes, collaborative management tools and other software applications that are eliminating middle management and other professional jobs. Even knowledge workers are not immune to this relentless march of automation.

Ford believes that automation will replace jobs at such a great rate that service jobs cannot grow enough to absorb the people. He asks, then proposes an answer to, “What will happen to a society that has 75 percent unemployment?” That’s right, he forecasts 75 percent unemployment caused by automation.

He shows great concern about the coming unemployment of middle management. I think those jobs have been disappearing for 25 years. I once led three teams at a company that designed and built automated assembly machinery—sales and marketing; project management; and application engineering. One of the project managers had been reading too much in  “The Wall Street Journal” about companies cutting middle management. I told him that I was closer to middle management than he. His job was more tangible. I just supervised the crew and reported to the president.

Get your hands dirty

“Shop Class As Soulcraft, An inquiry Into The Value of Work,” by Matthew B. Crawford, published by The Penguin Press, provided balance to my vacation reading and thinking. Crawford discusses his jobs working on motorcycles balanced with pursuit of a Ph.D. degree. He took the hard-earned doctorate and found what he thought would be a great position as a “knowledge worker” in a Washington think tank. It didn’t take long to figure out that “knowledge work” isn’t all it’s promoted to be. He’s much happier working with his hands and solving problems than writing on-demand papers justifying the political fad du jour.

I acknowledge the loss of manufacturing and middle management jobs. Those are jobs that absorbed agriculture workers when that industry became automated. We just don’t know where the next job creation engine will appear. Even those manufacturing jobs that remain are becoming lower-wage jobs. Jobs that used to pay $20/hour and higher have become $10/hour to $12/hour jobs.  As wages have been driven down, workers have either upgraded skills and entered other professions—think healthcare, for one—or entered the craft economy to supplement wages. Paper-shuffling jobs with high stress probably deserve to be automated in order to free people to become more productive. I remain more optimistic than Ford in the innate drive of most humans to be creative and productive. These are two very good books to take on your summer vacation. Makes you think about your impact on society.

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