Saturday, February 05, 2011

Jobs, Technology, and Population... It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

Jack Bellis

In a Feb. 4 story, “Layoff notices sent to 115 of 144 Atlantic City casino inspectors,” the layoffs were in part justified by “significant technological advancements.” Never mind that in this isolated story the ‘advancement’ seems to be phone calls to a central location(!), the theme is most definitely not isolated: every day it takes fewer people—and jobs— to produce the same goods and services. This one unrelenting and accelerating trend is the overriding phenomenon that will dictate the prosperity or misery of our children’s world.

The loss of the casino inspection jobs, despite the politics at play, is instructive of the larger story. The jobs might have finally been eliminated because of the economy, but it was technology that made them unnecessary in the first place. To use a weather analogy, we tend to blame storms for knocking down tree limbs but most of the limbs that fall are already dead or overextended. This downsizing has been occurring for a century and it didn’t hurt us too badly. One reason was that we had 40 trillion barrels of oil to burn, to expand the economy and outpace the job losses with what is now obvious as busy work. Our head-in-the-sand reaction now is that the economy will improve. We’ll grow our way out of it.

But the peaks and troughs of our economic cycle are more pronounced than ever. And growth is not the solution. In fact, growth is not just unsustainable, it is the very opposite of sustainability. We have grown to 7 billion people and are destroying the environment at a rapid pace. In the 70’s population control was a topic in the public discourse; now it is as if it’s taboo. But it’s time to talk about it again before technology—with the catalyst of a bad economy—strips away jobs in ever-increasing waves.

If you think the current wave of unemployment is bad, you’re not getting it. Here are some of the possible losses we will soon see. The US Postal Service could be decimated in a flash… much faster than you think. After we have perhaps two more rounds of college graduates (I call that 4-year period a ‘technologic generation’), all that may be left of daily mail will be junk mail. Vaporized: 500,000 jobs. Telecommunications: when wifi is everywhere, all that will be left of the ‘phone companies’ will be cell towers and fiber-optic trunks and the mechanics to maintain them. Disappeared: 300,000? Think ahead to when commercial (truck) transportation is finally reengineered to a low-friction, remote-contolled rail system very similar to amusement park roller coasters. Unnecessary: 1.5 million drivers. Perhaps you’ll like this one better: when the economy finally forces the government to pare down the IRS by merely simplifying the tax code, about 100,000 of what might be the ultimate in busy-work jobs will disappear.

Will innovation save us? Ironically not. Innovation will create different new jobs but invariably reduces the need for labor. In the 70’s Buckminster Fuller postulated that efficiency could afford us vast population and wealth simultaneously. Well, bad news: we’ve already surpassed his prediction of 6 billion people. And industry, while it might bring us efficiency, just as often delivers efficiency along with downsizing, Enron, the housing bubble, Wall Street greed, and ustoppable oil well failures. Ultimately, we must match our population more closely to our environment and our willingness to distribute wealth… called ‘jobs.’ The run-up was fun, but it’s time to face the real issue. It’s up to you, kids.

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