The Economically Displaced

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My career has offered the opportunity to visit all sorts of industries, manufacturers, wholesalers, real estate owners and more.  On the one hand it’s all very interesting to see how things get made and occasionally meet the people who moved ideas forward to create companies and, one hopes, personal wealth.  Back in High School, it didn’t really take a careful eye to discern those that were moving forward immediately into college or a specific trade based on their interest.  The rest… I really had no clue what their next steps were and didn’t dwell upon it.  Having visited employers over the years, I’ve seen the jobs that people take when they lack skills and/or a higher education.  In other words, I’ve seen a lot of crap jobs that I’m thankful that I don’t have to do.  Operating a machine press.  Fileting chicken breasts.  Sewing garments.  “Material handlers.” Rendering.  De-shelling shrimp.  Logging.  There are many more, which involve either the extremes of manual labor and/or mindless repetition. 

Wall-e

Thank you, Henry Ford.  Tradespeople used to develop advanced skills, guaranteeing their livelihood until the production line simplified tasks and made human labor interchangeable, increasing productivity and lowering per unit costs via wage reductions.  Fast forward to one of my favorite movies, WALL-E.   The people who have fled Earth are on a spacegoing cruise ship until the despoiled Earth may recover.  Over generations, they have lost muscle strength and possibly bone density due to space travel and the lack of a need to work.  Other than being obese and possibly lazy, a question is how appealing that future is, to recreate full-time and be served by robots.  As I occasionally think to myself, “I was born for a life of recreation but wasn’t provided the financing.” Drat.

That vision expectation demands, as underpaid (ahem) fast food workers would declare, social engineering solutions so that everyone by virtue of being born can enjoy their deserved bounty.  After all, if the Kardashians get all the toys, why can’t everyone?   Closer to reality, I have a broader appreciation of the trends I’ve witnessed… exporting of jobs due to global competition and lower wage costs, warehouses with automated picking and sorting equipment, individual tasks replaced by robots that are safer, more efficient, and reliable, etc.   For a business owner, there’s a lot of pressure to provide products at a price that will sell.  Quality has to be exceptional to command a high price (iPhones) or productivity has to be super efficient to make a profit in intensively competitive products (Amazon).  Viewed another way, if you were a business person, would you prefer a larger workforce with the assocaited wage increases, increasing benefits costs, vacation schedules, absenteeism and a host of other issues, or a more predictable production environment aided to the greatest extent possible by automation?  At a minimum, those tasks that do not require skills  or are repetitive are ripe to go.   Need that chicken cut up into sections?  Get a robot with appropriate software to scan it, analyze and calcualte the optimal cuts, and engage a high pressure water jet to cut and trim it.  While you’re at it, build a smart conveyor system that sorts and sends the parts to the next stage, be it breading, packaging, individual quick freeze, etc,   Multiply that by however many production lines there are and…  you’re not only competitive, but as a business owner, you’re probably profiting more.   It’s not just manufacturing, wholesale or agricultural jobs where machines are dominating.  Driver-less taxis may be next.

How about logging?  It’s difficult and very dangerous work.  Can it be automated?  You betcha.

 

In this case, that machine displaces three additional employees in a crew, and outproduces manual methods by a high multiple.

Well, those are just issues for unskilled laborers, right?   Not so fast.  Let’s say you’re young, not worried about eye diseases but want a new prescription.  Get out your smartphone.  Buy an app and save on the expenses of an optemistrist visit.  Society (and parents!) has encouraged its youth to get into high-tech, and they’re great at it, writing code that essentially replaces the “thought product” of humans and coupling it with systems that work great… while displacing people from their jobs or occupations.   Here’s a lengthier article with some specific examples. 

I’m not arguing for/against or assigning blame.  Economic disruption doesn’t just upend businesses, but people as well.  We all know that from the impact of a Wal-Mart in a small community, the same Wal-Mart we shop at because we’re controlling our personal costs just like employers.   Still, for the moment, it seems that the people with “job security” are those who build automation and can service/repair it.  For a time.  A healthy consideration should also be given to the trades that affluent or well educated parents would caution their kids to avoid, but plumbing, electricians, etc… those are jobs that require skills and knowledge… and can’t be automated.

As the media wage war on the Top 1% of wealth holders vs. the rest of the population, I’d expect the wealth gap to worsen… and we’re reminded regularly that it already is.  Perhaps that’s the result of technological advancements moreso than the attributed uncaring greed.  If Wal-Mart is going to sell your favorite product at a price you can afford, the suppliers have to reduce their own costs.   Taken to it’s logical end, how do all those displaced people get by?  Taxation of the 1% can’t feed, clothe, and shelter the… let’s say 80%.    Where the dispossed become suitable numerous and motivated, societal upheaval ends may be ugly.   Well, I’m cheery today, so let’s see what Steven Hawking is getting at when he warns of “technological socialism.”  The headline gets it wrong, but I’d generally agree with the possibility that he suggests.  We’ll always have our poor, but the recent downturn in the economy displaced many who could not and still can not find jobs to return them to their prior incomes.  Certainly part of that is economic shrinkage, but faced with cutting employees, consider the improvements that companies made in efficiency out of the pure necessity of it.  Leaner management, smarter operating systems, fewer positions.  

And finally, an article about paying people for being alive, something which we do for a sizeable portion of our population already.  With this kind of progressive thinking, the future is awesomely bright for mankind on all fronts.  We just have to figure out who will pay for it, and leave WALL-E to clean up the mess.

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