A thread of thought began last June while I was attending a lecture presented by the Institute For Emerging Issues, a department within NC State University. From this lecture, one bit of information really stuck out, and has stayed with me.

That was a prediction that within the next decade or thereabouts, technology will likely replace 25 percent of all current jobs in the workplace. That’s right, one in every four jobs. It makes interesting speculation, and it’s important because of its potential societal impact, not just the cold statistical loss of millions of jobs in a changing marketplace.

If the prediction comes true, the ramifications are enormous, but it’s not something most people are even aware of, much less planning toward. Yet, if it isn’t addressed, the law of unintended consequences could be catastrophic to life and society as we know it.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as an isolated prediction from a lifetime academic. But during the year, other reports came out that essentially forewarn of the same development. In a recent TED Talk, the speaker revealed the pace of development in artificial intelligence and robotics, and how those things alone will cause an enormous disruption in life as we know it in the very near future.

Take, for example, self-driving cars. We’re on the cusp of such vehicles, likely a common sight in the next 10 to 15 years. What does that mean for the future of 1.86 million truck drivers, taxis and delivery services like UPS and FedEx? Millions of jobs. Gone.

But the implications are far more reaching than I can even suggest. One piece I read predicted that if driverless cars could be summoned on for most travel, it would drastically reduce the number of cars on the road. Sounds great so far, but what would that do to the economies of the world’s car manufacturers and their well-paying jobs?

If a smart little robot can take your order and deliver your meal to the table, what’s the future of waiting tables? Need legal advice? Google it. If artificial intelligence can do surgery and learn to diagnose diseases better than humans, what is the future for doctors?

Multiply the effect across scores of industries — the whole economy, even — and imagine the impact on society as a whole. Consider what happens if a quarter of the workforce suddenly finds itself no longer working, no longer spending to support the retail sector, no longer able to pay their mortgage or rent, or buy a car, no longer able to buy groceries, no longer able to travel.

We saw the federal government’s response to a small-scale version of this when the Great Recession hit in 2008. The feds threw hundreds of billions at the problem — propping up banks, lengthening unemployment benefits, buying stock in General Motors, etc. But at worst, the unemployment rate stayed under 10 percent back then. Now, overlay a doubling of the problem over a single decade. How could the government react that quickly?

The idea of a 30-hour week is tied into this simply because it represents 25 percent of the current full-time work week. If jobs disappear at the rate predicted, in order to continue to have near full employment, enough to keep the American dream alive at least, remaining jobs may need to be spread out more among the workforce. One obvious tactic would be to lower the hours worked.

There’s nothing sacred about a 40-hour work week, after all. It worked for the economy of 1938 and is now taken for granted. After decades of abuse by companies toward workers, the law offered some enlightened measure of protection. Lowering hours will be seen as enlightened societal self-protection.

Don’t forget, 50 years ago, when computers first came online, the trumpeted promise was that technology would do just that: lessen work hours, create more leisure and creative time, relieve us of mundane tasks, and let us live better.

Of course, there will be new jobs created, and entrepreneurs born in the backwash. It may not be enough to offset the losses.

Like the current gig economy, there will be uneven and uncertain results for workers, many of whom will hold multiple jobs, work way more than 40 hours as a result, and face a future where nothing is constant or even predictable.

There would likely be increased pressure to bring jobs back to the U.S. from offshore sourcing, to impose trade tariffs and import taxes, and abandon free trade pacts. That could gut global trade and the world economy.

Whether you believe globalization is the right course or not, the word “disruption” isn’t big enough to describe the potential ramifications.

It’s likely that if 25 percent of jobs in the U.S. go away due to technology, that some kind of similar number will go away in other industrialized nations.

The greatest danger from such unrest could be a growing willingness to turn government and institutions upside down, elect a strongman president to “fix all the problems” by fiat, and to reshape the government to fit the moment. So inclined, one might even draw some parallels to the current state of affairs.

So, will our elected representatives and senators in Washington and Raleigh have the political backbone to actually address a problem this big and this overreaching before it’s a full-blown crisis? Will they even begin to talk about it? A decade in the future? Hahaha.

That would be a different column altogether.

 

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