Machines destroying occupations

The scariest article I have read about the economy lately comes from the AP entitled: “Recession, tech kill middle-class jobs”. The article is about the accelerating pace at which smarter and smarter machines and software are replacing workers. Its the new reality that we all need to understand and respond to. Its a must read article!

The authors write: “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.”

AP’s key findings:

  • “For more than three decades, technology has reduced the number of jobs in manufacturing. Robots and other machines controlled by computer programs work faster and make fewer mistakes than humans. Now, that same efficiency is being unleashed in the service economy, which employs more than two-thirds of the workforce in developed countries. Technology is eliminating jobs in office buildings, retail establishments and other businesses consumers deal with every day.
  • Technology is being adopted by every kind of organization that employs people. It’s replacing workers in large corporations and small businesses, established companies and start-ups. It’s being used by schools, colleges and universities; hospitals and other medical facilities; nonprofit organizations and the military.
  • The most vulnerable workers are doing repetitive tasks that programmers can write software for — an accountant checking a list of numbers, an office manager filing forms, a paralegal reviewing documents for key words to help in a case. As software becomes even more sophisticated, victims are expected to include those who juggle tasks, such as supervisors and managers — workers who thought they were protected by a college degree.
  • Thanks to technology, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index reported one-third more profit the past year than they earned the year before the Great Recession. They’ve also expanded their businesses, but total employment, at 21.1 million, has declined by a half-million.
  • Start-ups account for much of the job growth in developed economies, but software is allowing entrepreneurs to launch businesses with a third fewer employees than in the 1990s. There is less need for administrative support and back-office jobs that handle accounting, payroll and benefits.
  • It’s becoming a self-serve world. Instead of relying on someone else in the workplace or our personal lives, we use technology to do tasks ourselves. Some find this frustrating; others like the feeling of control. Either way, this trend will only grow as software permeates our lives.
  • Technology is replacing workers in developed countries regardless of their politics, policies and laws. Union rules and labor laws may slow the dismissal of employees, but no country is attempting to prohibit organizations from using technology that allows them to operate more efficiently — and with fewer employees.”   (Emphasis added.)

At the core of Michigan Future’s work has been the belief that globalization and technology are mega forces that are and will continue to transform the economy.  And that both are more powerful by orders of magnitude than policy or politics. This means that the individuals and communities that will do the best are those that adapt to –– rather than resist –– these new realities.

This article makes clear the scale at which smarter and smarter machines are going to destroy jobs and occupations. More and more work that humans have done in the past  –– at all skill levels –– are going to become obsolete.  And its unclear whether the economy will produce enough new jobs to replace those that have automated away.

What is clear is that how we construct a successful career will look, for nearly all of us, a lot more like rock climbing than ladder climbing. There are fewer and fewer career ladders where there are linear known steps up that allow one to be prosperous over a long career. Rather those that succeed will need to be able to identify both the challenges and opportunities brought on by constantly smarter machines and have the agility and skills to take advantage of new opportunities. Pretty scary, but reality.

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