Saturday, July 06, 2013

The End of Work?

Uh... what exactly does that mean? Depends who you talk to:

Should We Fear "the End of Work"?
[...]  Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations recently brought together 40 leading economists, policy makers, engineers, bankers, corporate executives, social scientists, philanthropists, journalists and statisticians for a day-long exploration of how technology is shaping -- or misshaping -- the American workplace.
Coming up with answers was not the goal: Cornell's belief was that searching for consensus in a one-day meeting would be futile. Initially, I wondered about the utility of that, given the gravity of the economic challenge facing the country. But it was a good decision. The range of views on what's happening was so wide -- and surprising -- that reaching realistic solutions would have been, well, unrealistic. Precisely because this kind of a meeting has been so rare, the meeting imposed the Chatham House Rule on attendees: we could talk afterwards about what was said, but not about who said it. (I later asked some of those who attended if I could quote them directly; almost all said yes.) If I had to sum up a fascinating day -- well, let's save that for the end, after you've seen the amazing diversity of views on the future of work.
Here's perhaps the fundamental question about what's going on in the American economy as it struggles to recover from the Great Recession: "How is this recovery different from other recoveries?" Or is it?
To put it in economese, is the persistently high level of unemployment a result of cyclical factors (the traditional ups and downs of economic growth) or structural factors (new game-changing technologies, dramatic shifts in the global economy)? The NewsHour has covered this debate several times, including economists duking it out in one recent instance.
From one decades-long leading student of the American economy came a succinct one-liner in favor of cyclicality: "This isn't a jobless economic recovery as everyone insists on calling it; it's simply just not yet a recovery."
In other words, as painful as the waiting certainly is, the economy will heal -- and once again, create jobs -- in time.
"Brace yourselves," countered Eric Brynjolfsson, from MIT's Sloan School, co-author of "Race Against the Machine," a much-talked-about recent book which argues that the introduction of new transformative technologies has only just begun, and that we're dangerously unable to perceive what's actually going to happen. (Brynjolffson was featured in a Making Sen$e broadcast story in 2011.) He added:
"Many of our intuitions about what's coming next are going to fail us. All the disruptions we've been talking about today about the past 10 years, the past 20 years -- as important as they've been and as hard-hitting as they've been for so many people -- are just a small glimmer of the much bigger disruptions that we think are in store for us in the next 10 and 20 years, at least the ones that are related to technology."
Princeton University economist Alan Blinder, who served in the 1990s as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, took a more measured view. He believes that both cyclical problems and disruptive technological change are at play, along with the changing face of the global economy:
"In terms of the number of jobs, it looks like an awful lot of the problem is cyclical. That's the first problem.
"The second problem is the lagging average wage. Until a few decades ago, India, China, and the former Soviet Union were isolated and not really participating in the world economy. But now they have roughly doubled the world's labor force, in a couple of decades.
"What did they bring to the table? Capital? No. They had almost none. But they had a lot of labor. So, if you double the amount of world labor and you don't change the amount of world capital much, then loosely speaking, the returns to labor are going to go down while the returns to capital go up. And this is about to end. And it's not mainly about technology.
"But then there is the third problem: what's behind the trend toward greater wage inequality? The non-economist in me wants to think about institutions and social norms. Some of the increase in inequality has to stem from changing attitudes in our society. I just don't believe that it's only technology."
The Promise and Perils of a Machine that Can Make Anything
The role of automation in the decline of manufacturing jobs has been front-and-center since the end of the recession. (Well, since the Luddites in the 19th century, but let's move on.) Cornell University's Hod Lipson is one of the country's most prominent experts on the interplay of robotics, IT and manufacturing. Lipson's next book is titled, ominously, "The Promise and Perils of a Machine that Can Make Anything." I found his presentation both powerful and unsettling:
"Machines are better at learning than humans in many different areas. So now the question is, what will they learn and what's the end game?
"Are we talking about the future of jobs in the next five years, 10 years, 50 years or 100 years?
"If you're talking 100 years, there's no doubt in my mind that all jobs will be gone, including creative ones. And 100 years is not far in the future -- some of our children will be alive in 100 years."
Trained years ago as an engineer myself, I get the enthusiasm for technological solutions to manufacturing problems. But given the persistent levels of unemployment, I asked Lipson if the engineering profession didn't have to take a broader view. His answer was blunt -- but also open to the possibility of change:
"In a way, we cannot help ourselves. We try to automate every difficult task that we see. It is rooted in the fact that the mantra of engineering has always been to try to alleviate drudgery and increase productivity -- that was the good thing to do. That's what we still train our students to do.
"But what I'm hearing here is that maybe we should redirect our efforts, and try to solve a new kind of problem. I'm not sure what that problem is. But I'm sure that if you can define what the problem is that we need to solve, then we can start thinking about how to solve it, using the same engineering tools."
Thomas Kochan, the co-director of MIT's Institute for Work and Employment Research, jumped in on that point. Decades ago, MIT was one of the first engineering schools in the country to focus on the public policy implications of engineering innovations. (Full disclosure: I'm an MIT grad). Here's what he had to say:
"Instead of focusing on how do we drive labor out and how do we eliminate variability by standardizing everything, we need the engineering profession to think about the world's big problems, and then to understand that it's the interaction between skills, the way in which we organize our work, and the technology that really drives productivity.
"The engineering profession needs to catch up with the understanding of how technology can be enhancing to society, without just thinking about how it drives out labor, through innovations. I think if we focus more on enhancing human skills, we'd get a lot more societal benefit out of the next generation of technology."
Lipson and the other tech experts took some pointed, albeit well-mannered, heat from people worried that more efficient production is nearly always equated with eliminating human workers. As one participant put it: "optimistically inventing stuff" with too little thought for the social consequences. [...]
There is a lot more, but I can't excerpt the whole article. I can't say what is going to happen, but there is plenty food for thought here.

1 comment:

ZZMike said...

I think humans are programmed to work - they just have about a million ideas about what work is.

There was an old fantasy about machines taking over all the physical work, leaving people free to contemplate the Forms, write poetry and music, dance, play games...

After a while, most of those people would go stark raving mad, needing something to do.

I'll be thinking about the Cornell meeting.