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From Harper's Index Apr 2014:

Portion of US jobs held by humans today that are at high risk of being automated by 2024: ½
Harper’s cites The Oxford Martin School at Oxford University.  Harold Myerson seems to be referring to the same study in a Washington Post op-ed called “The Coming Job Apocalypse.”  

When computers first emerged in the public’s consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s, it was something of a running joke that these machines would eventually put humans out of business. I remember an Allan Sherman parody from the early sixties called “Automation”, sung to the tune of “Fascination.”  The song’s storyline concerns a businessman who loses his beloved secretary to a “ten ton machine” which then proceeds to straddle over and sit on the boss’s lap (“When she said ‘I love you’ and gave me a hug/ That’s when I pulled out…the plug!”).  

It was a joke then, but I’m not laughing now.  Almost every day I notice or hear about some previous source of gainful employment that is no longer necessary because of computerization or the internet.  NPR recently carried a rather mournful item about a movie projectionist’s last day at work.  His multiplex was converting to all-digital projection, and only a button-pusher would be needed in the future.

For decades, the response has always been that new fields and opportunities would open up to replace those that are lost.  And this may have happened to some extent through the late 20th century.  But it seems we are reaching the critical mass where so much employment will be squeezed out that we can’t possibly hope sustain the full employment levels we are used to.  

A segment of people who are either exceptionally talented or have other advantages will continue to do well, maybe very well.   But what about all the average Joes and Janes?  Up till now, most of them could find careers that might not have been the most fulfilling, but at least provided a comfortable middle-class existence.  That is becoming increasingly difficult.  What are all the people replaced by voice-mail systems and internet apps going to do with their lives?  

We are constantly bombarded with boosterism about our high-tech future.  Only a handful of critics like Jaron Lanier have tried to take a serious look at the dark side, in particular the extent to which the internet sucks middle-class employment out of the economy.  One of Lanier’s examples is that the now-defunct Kodak employed around 140,000 people in well-paying middle class jobs.  By contrast, Instagram has 13 employees.    

What the solution is I’m not sure.  Digital socialism, in the form of some kind of guaranteed income for all?  If not, we may have half the population living in squalor, not a pleasant prospect for any of us.  And even if we go the guaranteed income route, what effect will it have on society if a large percentage of young people have little or no chance at fulfilling careers?  

It won’t affect me personally (I’m too old), but I worry about the future my kids and their contemporaries will be living in.  Jaron Lanier is optimistic that we will find a solution.  I hope he’s right.  In any case, it’s something we should be facing up to and planning for.  

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