If jobs are replaced by technology, what replaces jobs?

September 11, 2015
Taxi driver holds a flare in front of a balloon that reads " Out Uber" during a protest against the online car-sharing service Uber in Sao Paulo

A taxi driver holds a flare in front of a balloon that reads ” Out Uber” during a protest against the online car service Uber in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 9, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

“People still talk about the geopolitics of oil. But we now have to talk about the geopolitics of technology.”

These words come from Craig Mundie, former head of research at Microsoft, speaking at the Ambrosetti Forum in the palatial surroundings of the Villa d’Este Hotel on Italy’s Lake Garda last weekend. It’s an artful phrase, the geopolitics of technology, and it’s dropped into the “global conversation” at a well-chosen time.

The “geopolitics of oil” means complex and shifting political alliances linked to corporate chess games designed to capture squares of oil and gas exploitation. The geopolitics of technology, by contrast, will be the stuff of every sphere of public and private life.

Also at the Ambrosetti Forum, Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford University spelled out the next challenges: the culling of jobs by robots; the entry of the tech companies into the health business, armed with every kind of detail about their clients’ wellbeing; the growing solar, wave and wind power competition to energy systems; the deadly danger Wi-Fi poses to telecom companies.

There’s more. There’s driverless cars; the Internet of Things producing, in your home … things you want in your home. These homes will become intelligent and managed from afar, even abroad. Education systems will be increasingly detached from institutions like schools and colleges, replaced by innovations like distance learning from a cadre of super-professors. Entertainment will be increasingly instantly available, and personalized, in the home or on the move.

And on the darker web: drug dealing, pedophilia and weapons’ sales protected by ultra-strong encryption; terrorism organized across continents; cyber warfare thieving ideas and plans, and taking down computer systems of whole countries.

This world is coming upon us. The waves of migrants from the Middle East and Africa struggling into Europe are organized, and organize themselves, through the social media. Uber cars are a few pecks on a smart phone away in many cities; Airbnb rooms are replacing hotels (not the Villa d’Este, yet). We read newspapers and books on tablets — and shift our reading from newspapers to websites like Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox, fashioned for phones and tablets, born of the ‘Net.

Much of this empowers us. Learning through online courses means, in theory, that everyone can go back to school. Uber cabs and Airbnb rooms mean that unused resources are brought into play; services are provided to people who struggled to afford them previously and options for making extra money open to those who didn’t have them before. Those entrepreneurs and charities seeking finance can go to crowd-funding sites for their capital; or use peer-to-peer lending or investing platforms to get loans or investment from other individuals, with a peer-to-peer lending company as intermediary.

It empowers, too, in more direct ways. It allows us, at times forces us, to use our own power and initiative where before we had been passive. It draws us into taking more responsibility for our education, our health and our work.

Yet these changes are double-edged. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts in London, writes that “a desire for autonomy, flexibility and fulfillment is … a big part of the shift,” but admits that “some self-employment is involuntary, and much is low quality and low income.”

Try convincing a licensed cab driver of the virtues of Uber (they’ve mounted demonstrations in many cities, and convinced Paris to ban the UberPop service, which uses part-time, unregistered drivers). Try extolling the virtues of Airbnb to a couple who run a bed and breakfast business.

There’s no question that we are in for a Great Disruption (there are three recent books with that title — by the U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama, Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding and UK business journalist Adrian Woolridge). And there’s no question that those most disrupted will be the middle and working classes — who, everywhere, have been having at best a thin time for the past two decades, and are likely to have an increasingly insecure one.

Jobs have been created — but many, in the service sector, are both insecure or what the academic-activist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” — jobs which give neither pleasure to their holders nor benefit to society (he instances public relations, lobbying and telemarketing). “It’s as if,” he writes, “someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”

More, the service jobs are often wearying, and don’t provide a decent living — especially for those who live in expensive cities like New York, London or Paris. “Gone is the era of the lifetime career,” write Nick Hanauer and David Rolf, “let alone the lifelong job and the economic security that came with it, having been replaced by a new economy intent on recasting full-time employees into contractors, vendors, and temporary workers.” They imagine a young worker in her late 20s whom they name Zoe: she works on a hotel’s front desk, a job she does well but which she can only do for 29 hours a week — the maximum time a worker can be employed before qualifying for benefits that cost the employer.

So she gets gardening jobs through the TaskRabbit site; does some shifts on Uber; rents her apartment on Airbnb while moving into her parents’ house; and sometimes does temp work if she has time. She never takes a holiday or goes on a date, works every day — and can’t afford to buy a house, go to college or save. This sounds extreme to me (better to have found a real worker); but not impossible, and indicative of a trend which is quickening.

Work — making sure it’s there, making it meaningful, giving it the dignity of being part-constructed by the worker — will be the largest domestic issue in our economies. Governments have to take it on (who else can mediate between competing forces?). But citizens have to be active in their own betterment, too. We’re past the era in which all boats rise with the tide: the geopolitics of technology will be shaped by reversing the decline of the middle classes, ceasing to acquiesce in vast enrichment for a few, insecurity for the many.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Excellent article.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

This problem is not new. There are more people one earth, than jobs that need done. It will get far worse. It is is an accelerating spiral. Because technology also allows for more people on earth (better medicine, sanitation, air conditioners in ridiculous places like Arizona and Sudan…). Each day, there are more people on earth than there ever has been before. That same technology does more of our work for us. What used to require 20 editors at Reuters can now be done with spell check and nasty comments. These conflicting forces (more people on earth, less need for people on earth) will intensify.

So we need a different concept. I say let the robots do all the work. Let’s all retire.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Player Piano. K. Vonnegut. 1952.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

@Alkalne State..er..Solidar wrote:

“This problem is not new. There are more people one earth, than jobs that need done.”

um, no. There exists considerable room for productive employment when the economy gets wrested from the clutches of the troglodytes advocating an extractive supply side economic theory.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Read the article once more – indeed an excellent piece. This is the first meaningful article that I have read by Mr. Lloyd in years. I am really wondering – is this the same John Lloyd?

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

And no one is really addressing this. With robots and technology replacing human workers, where will these workers go? It’s practically proven by other articles how “over qualified” employees, those people already affected by technology, are applying in the fast food industries. Maybe that’s the plan, keep as many at minimum wage and on government assistance, giving corporations MORE net income for the big shots.

Posted by painman | Report as abusive

Lost jobs are just the tip of the iceberg…Crime should be these pampered ivory tower dweller’s concern as the working class will transition to the working poor while the working poor will have descended into the already filled ranks of the criminal caste.

Posted by TZODnmr2k5 | Report as abusive

Return to 20% tariffs. That’s what China charges us? We now charge them only 1%? Why is that?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

It seems to me that good jobs create increased value to society. The problem is that the value of training/education continues to drop as the cost of education continues to rise. Why hire a software engineer at 100K when an H1b visa slave can be hired for 43K? Illegal aliens will work for less than minimum wage for cash and drive down wages for the poorest people in society. Then automation cuts the number of human jobs as people become more efficient at work or that job is totally automated.

All this leads to ever higher unemployment and greater dependency on wealth distribution through the Government. The real answer is more R&D, and a system to incentivize the creation of new companies creating new products and services.

Posted by Galactus4333 | Report as abusive

Twenty years ago I was invited by Seiko to visit their plant in Japan. I was totally shocked by the technology of the Japanese that from process of assembling the movement of the watches to completely produce the watches. All the process are finished by robots. At that time I worried that technology will replace human and escalate unemployment. However,the unemployment rate of Japan has not seriously affected. The Japanese just changed their product to high-tech product such as HD and 3D television,digital camera and hybrid car etc. When the technology replaced the tedious work, people have more time to spend on creative writing, tourist industry, green farming etc..So don’t worry! Source: http://aug.so

Posted by augso | Report as abusive

Need a job? kill a robot.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive