Robots & executive bonuses may have (already) taken your job

Peter Jones Social Systems Design, Strategic Foresight

From AP and reposted everywhere:  Recession and technology killing off middle-class jobs

Entire employment categories are beginning to disappear faster than labor economists had believed as computer software, robots and other devices become more sophisticated and powerful — and millions of more jobs will follow suit

 Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over.The situation is even worse than it appears. Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What’s more, these jobs aren’t just being lost to China and other developing countries and they aren’t just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

They are being obliterated by technology.

Year after year, the software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful, and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done. For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines; an Associated Press analysis finds that the future has arrived.

“The jobs that are going away aren’t coming back,” says Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of Race Against the Machine. “I have never seen a period where computers demonstrated as many skills and abilities as they have over the past seven years.”

The global economy is being reshaped by machines that generate and analyze vast amounts of data; by devices such as smartphones and tablet computers that let people work just about anywhere, even when they are on the move; by smarter, nimbler robots; and by services that let businesses rent computing power when they need it, instead of installing expensive equipment and hiring information-technology staffs to run it. Whole employment categories, from secretaries to travel agents, are starting to disappear.

“There’s no sector of the economy that is going to get a pass,” says Martin Ford, who runs a software company and wrote The Lights in the Tunnel, a book predicting widespread job losses. “It is everywhere.”

Corporate culture, and executives seeking extreme profits from short term thinking are largely responsible, as it is humans making decisions about technology motivating this trend, rather than technology as agency. So-called conservative politicians are egging this on as hard as they can, if you recall Romney’s campaign.

So if we plotted a multifactorial system of reinforcement of productivity extraction since the late 90’s, with each so-called “financial crisis,” or market decline, many corporations have extracted more productivity from less labor by instituting ever more clever rounds of layoffs and the resulting fear dividend that each cut generates among its harder working but demoralized workforce. Headcount is not replaced. After a while, this adds up.

The Toronto Star asks (today) where the supposed new jobs are that Harper’s people claim have flooded Canada with prosperity. Its not clear on the ground of the real economy that this is so. The housing market across Canada shows a near-term secular trend of asset deflation, exactly as occurred in the US after the suburban house-building construction economy boom of Bush’s “ownership society.” Too bad all housing “feels” local, because Canadians didn’t notice they were being played buy conservative policy intended to goose up construction jobs to bridge the economic crisis period. Yes, as new residents and US citizens, we were lied to twice, and experienced two false economies, both with real effects on personal wealth and trust.

In a similar vein, Paul Krugman notes the trend in social services (disability) based on demographics and takes on the American political shibboleth that people have become “takers” of government services.

When rent seeking and productivity extraction are the main formula maximizing profitability, its harder to wring more from the system at some point. Yes, robots will take North American jobs because we let that happen. In Tokyo, where they invented the modern labor saving robot, people have all sorts of make-work jobs as a type of cultural solidarity and pride. You will see things like two grown men as street crossing guards working a hotel’s parking entrance, for stopping pedestrians to wave in about 5-10 cars an hour. All day. They make a living, so that others might. Why can’t we do a reasonably modern version without worrying about the executive bonus that might suffer from this extension of middle-class values into the work culture?

See the comments in Krugman’s column. People get it, but have no idea what to do about it ….  Such as this quote from “LG, Indiana”

Work is a funny thing. At my last position, there were quite a number of people who could not work quickly, see well, walk fast, but could do a certain limited set of things pretty well. They were all forced to take disability basically because they couldn’t keep up with the fastest employees. When they were forced out, they were not replaced. Their jobs landed on the remaining faster employees, each of whom knew that the budget axe comes like a lion for the next slowest. The increase in productivity was great for the employer, not so great for society – more people dependent on the tiny income they get from disability, more people unable to stay home when they’re sick, more people becoming nervous wrecks, with high blood pressure, heading for disability. There is always a hindmost for the devil to take in this economy. Better to work as you can, and get paid well enough to be a consumer, but no single employer is going to follow that reasoning.

True, that. Only citizens can end this cycle, Voting wisely (and remembering how bad policy happens) is only the first step. The next step is organizing.