Saturday, August 18, 2012

Jobs, Technology, and Population

If you're wondering how or when we will ever end the tiresome news cycle lamenting high unemployment, the answer lies in two inescapable realities of the modern world: first, with each passing day it takes fewer and fewer people to produce the same goods and services. Second, using 'growth' as both the daily yardstick and ultimate goal of economic health is not merely unsuccessful and unsustainable... growth is the polar opposite of sustainability. With growth as the goal, the cycle simply won't end.

Back in the 70's we talked about automation taking jobs, but for some reason now it's as if we're surprised at the relationship. Yet it's a certainty that human labor will be replaced by new efficiencies in increasingly larger waves. For instance, when we are finally forced to stop moving mail by burning gasoline, look for a few hundred thousand jobs---and not just in the public mail carrier---to be made 'redundant' as the corporate euphemists like to say. After that, perhaps education will be the next and larger wave. It could be from kids learning much faster from tablet computers, or from completely universalized testing and accreditation on the Web. If you think education is immune to the job loss from automation—and it might be more resistant than other sectors—consider telecommunications: as soon as wifi is ubiquitous, upcoming generations will completely abandon traditional phone service, and thousands of customer service jobs will disappear.

As for growth, it should be becoming clear that we can't build cars and houses fast enough to stop chasing our employment tails. Growth based on endless consumption can't possibly be compatible with, well, with anything! And cars are the worst case, having clearly proven to be the most brilliant machine ever devised, to chase us from the planet. Think about it in these numbers: we've produced about a billion little machines spewing toxins and insulating gasses for a hundred years; try to undo that damage. Even if personal transportation is made cleaner when driving, the manufacturing is still a losing proposition, resource-wise.

If young people---and this is only about our children---want jobs, they're going to have to pursue societal activities and priorities that A) match population to the wealth of society and the environment's ability to absorb our effluence; B) mitigate the employment shock waves of the upcoming technology tsunamis with laws that balance corporate and personal interests; and C) actively "create" the right amount of jobs to spread the wealth around. The wonderful engine of corporate America is only that---our engine. It must be used wisely to manage the march of technology in a sustainable way. There's a chance it's driving our children off a cliff.