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OP-ED | Who Will Celebrate Labor Day In 2034?

by | Aug 29, 2014 8:00am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Business, The Economy, Jobs, Labor, Opinion

For more than 100 years workers and their unions have designated a day to parade and celebrate labor, working people, the jobs they do and advances they have made. Over that time, the nature of that work has transformed dramatically from farms and factories to offices and cubicles.

Those changes were hard on many as they fell by the wayside in the struggle to keep up with the need to improve skills and fit into the next level. But as hard as it was for some, the transition we will all soon face will be much faster and wilder and more difficult to keep up with than most will ever imagine.

With every previous change in work, in all of the revolutions, some jobs were destroyed but others were created. Humans always got a step ahead of the complexity and remained smarter than the labor-saving devices they created. By doing so, they kept the jobs to run them. The reward of that progress was a steady improvement of the standard of living for those who kept up.

We are now entering the next job revolution — the robot revolution. Debates are raging in academia, high tech, finance and in the military, about the impact all the new machines will have on humans and jobs. Every day new technology is launched that exceeds yesterday’s capacity. Technology cost is dropping so rapidly business hits the easy button to switch over and the ubiquitous transition from human jobs to automation is seen merely as a curiosity, like the receding sea before a tsunami. It’s quietly happening while most of us are just too busy and distracted at work to see the robot tidal wave coming or to focus on a plan to build a new economy around it.

Jobageddon is coming and many futurists believe we’ve passed the tipping point as job losses will accelerate over the next two decades. The proportion of Americans in the labor force has declined steadily since 2000 but now it’s being noticed more. An Oxford University study released last year suggested that half of American jobs can be automated by 2035, and a follow up study found the same for Europe.

Meanwhile the business press tells us not to worry — jobs are lost every day and new ones get created. Always have. Always will. That’s like saying we can survive nuclear war because we survived previous wars. Things change.

And change is happening as Google and others launch their robot vehicles — cars, trucks, cabs, buses, bulldozers, and forklifts that move smarter, faster, cheaper, safer than humans. America has over three million jobs in transportation and hundreds of thousands of others with humans in operated machines. As humans are replaced at the controls some people will still be hired to manufacture,  service and manage them, but far fewer than the jobs they displace.

Job replacing robot stories are just starting to be reported in main stream media. The Courant’s recent story about the new Saint Francis Hospital automated lab was big news. A machine tests blood samples and reports out results faster, better, and more accurately than the humans in those jobs. And by the way, it cuts “operating costs.” In other words, fewer lab workers jobs. But that wasn’t the main theme.

If you think your job is unique and only a human can do it . . . think again. Computers double their abilities every 18 months and costs are dropping rapidly. In 20 years they will be 8,000 times faster and smarter than they are today and dirt cheap. Everyone is now getting in the game.

A couple of college kids just invented a machine in their garage called Monsieur. It takes your drink orders from the Monsieur app and pours a perfect cocktail to your specs and remembers it so it can pour the next one exactly how you like it. Monsieur is coming soon to a bar near you. So, there’s a few hundred thousand bar keeps that’ll be looking for work, while a few thousand new Monsieur sales and repair jobs will be created . . . of course as technology races forward a Monsieur-fix-it-bot won’t be far behind.

It is not a matter of if most human jobs will disappear it is only a matter of when. Then we will be faced with significant social and economic policy meltdown. Unless we begin to act now.

Many workers, unions and activist groups are pushing hard to raise the minimum wage to $10 or $15 per hour. Opponents say it will harm the economy, drive up costs, and cost jobs. Supporters say humans should be able to pay their bills, and the wealth gap reduced.

Both sides ignore automation which becomes more cost effective as workers become more expensive. We need to improve wages and benefits, and make sure humans are funded but we also need to be aware as we do so that we are racing the robots to jobaggedon.

Raising the minimum wage puts the jobaggedon issue in play sooner and that’s good. The debate needs to include everyone with more focus on the future. We won’t stop the advance of technology, and we really don’t want to. We do need to plan smarter to be ready to adapt to rapid change. That includes activating commissions on the future of jobs and organizations and politics that work on the policies needed to ease us into our new future.

How will our economy function with many fewer human incomes and more free time?  Who will buy stuff if no one is working? Keeping the economy ticking over may require clawing back some of the wealth that has been accumulating at the top. Governments can employ people to do the things that robots still can’t, like teach and take care of folks. Some nations are already experimenting with giving every citizen a stipend. There is a small but growing cadre of people and countries that get this and are beginning to act — but we’re not and we surely need to get moving. The transformation is not that far away and big changes in our lives are coming soon.

When robots end up doing all the work we hope they and their unions will keep the tradition alive and celebrate Labor Day . . . and maybe we can watch the parade, we’ll surely have the time to do it . . . If we start planning now.

Leo Canty is a retired labor and political activist. James Hughes Ph.D is the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(6) Archived Comments

posted by: ocoandasoc | August 29, 2014  5:03pm

This story is right on the mark. For the last decade I’ve been encouraging young people NOT to get into careers building or making things, or retail service. Instead, see if you can be good at selling things, fixing things, of creating the companies, systems, or technologies that will keep everything running smoothly. We may be moving inexorably into a future in which the drones will far outnumber the workers.

posted by: Fisherman | August 29, 2014  8:44pm

How true… and how sad that union workers will have to learn this lesson the hard way… their leadership is never going to tell them that 1) every day your jobs are being moved to China, India and Mexico; and 2) asking for more money and better benefits only speeds-up the process. These workers would be better served by spending their union dues on higher education… as long as they don’t select “poet”, “artist” or “writer” as a career path.

posted by: shinningstars122 | August 30, 2014  11:09am


Not what I was expecting when I clicked on the link…but it is very true.

The more power and authority we continually give to corporations and the plutocracy will only expedite this future.

I mean honestly you can’t stop it folks.

These companies have no social responsibility or morality except to profit.

Robots can play a valuable role in our future but they should not dominate it and replace workers in all fields.

I for one are on the record that all robot repair persons should be union labor.

As for fans of BSG this is for you. Stop the fraking toasters!

The bottom line is that American labor needs to be united not divided.

Just remember we are the ones being distracted and not them.

posted by: RJEastHartford | August 31, 2014  9:16am

@ =Fisheman, higher education, technical skills, even experience is no longer a “fail safe” to a good earning career as a result of the new business / corporate paradigm. Yes, all types of jobs are outsourced. However, a lot of STEM, Data, and Financial jobs are being “insourced” using the guest worker program, H1B Visa. Many, right here in Hartford, are losing good paying jobs with benefits and being replaced with H1B guest workers compensated as independent contractors at a much lower scale. The company receives a federal tax credit, and the state collects only a 1%  service tax and these “services” are exempt form sales tax HTML<http://www.ct.gov/drs/cwp/view.asp?a=1513&q=268390>, no unemployment tax etc is paid by the company. In fact, a lot of these jobs are posted with only H1B eligible to apply. So if your son or daughter is in college and looking at these types of jobs, they will become even more scarce as time goes on.  The American Worker is learning the hard way as big money changes politics. Take a look at pension “de-risking” for another example. Unions need to step it up, especially in education, organizing professional unions, and lobbying.  Many of these practices were prohibited not so long ago, but the laws, accounting rules, and politics have all changed. Humans and experienced workers who cost too much because they require benefits, some retirement security, earnings to pay for college, in other words what your parents had.

posted by: artythesmarty | September 1, 2014  7:10pm

this is only true in the private sector. For example, my town has 110 firemen yet 1/10 the fires that occurred in 1960 without any decrease in manpower.  Our school system has gone from 15000 to 8000 students- Board of ed employees went from 801 to 792.  DMV offices are staffed like the 70s too.  Pensions and seniority still are intact in govt/public ed.  How can this continue when all the bad things mentioned only happen to 85% of workers not govt employed. It does not seem fair or viable

posted by: RJEastHartford | September 2, 2014  10:09pm

@artythesmarty, yes it is happening predominantly in the private sector right now because of this paradigm shift. American workers have ben told collective bargaining power and unions are inherently evil. This, “I am a conservative B.S.”  is nothing but a distraction while history repeats itself. Only with collective power can you lobby to change some tax laws, employment laws, pressure accounting standards and rules, or perhaps just accept ii all?..my children will not have the opportunity I have, etc. Remember what President Lincoln said “Capitol is only the fruit of labor and labor is superior to capitol” Now labor must be cheap and capitol is king…the paradigm shift, with the help of both Republicans and Democrats. When are workers going to be upset about all this and begin to demand change? And yes, unions need to be a part of this…in the private sector.

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