The Future of Work Is Going to Be More Human
Institute for New Economic Thinking, 2019
How will society survive the rise of “white-collar robots”?
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According to economist Richard Baldwin, “globotics” – a fusion of globalization and robotics – has triggered an industrial revolution that will hit service industry workers hard. The speed with which offshoring and software displace white-collar employees in the knowledge sector will be staggering. Yet Baldwin’s message is ultimately hopeful. In a candid conversation with economist Rob Johnson, Baldwin explains how society will adjust with time. But the transition to that new reality may be bumpy. Consider yourself forewarned.
- The coming “globotics” revolution – a fusion of globalization and robotic technologies – will displace masses of service employees.
- Previous industrial revolutions hit manual labor and jobs in the manufacturing sector; globotics will impinge on white-collar jobs in the knowledge sector.
- As robotic software and telemigrants displace increasing numbers of skilled, educated white-collar workers, social upheaval may ensue.
- The globotics revolution will create new jobs in fields that can’t be automated or exported, such as negotiation, the application of ethical standards and education.
- Governments can prepare for the upheaval by retraining its citizens in relevant jobs, regulating all service industries to hinder telemigration and automation, and dialing up employment protection legislation to facilitate a gentle transition to the new reality.
Two previous industrial revolutions – first, the mechanical revolution and, second, the information and communications technology revolution – displaced masses of manual labor jobs and jobs in the manufacturing sector, respectively. As society traversed these transitions, the locus of value shifted from land to capital to knowledge. A hollowing out of the middle led to a growing gulf of inequality.
“In the long run, AI will do what it can, and telemigrants…will do what they can, and we will do that they can’t.”
A third revolution will see “globotics” – a combination of globalization and automation – disrupt white-collar knowledge work, an employment sector that emerged from previous revolutions relatively unscathed. “White-collar robots,” software that automates informational processes, are replacing knowledge workers in jobs that require “rule-based manipulation of information.” As digitization evolves, automation will assume many of the intellectual processes previously completed by human workers, such as reading and following through on email requests, for instance. The displacement of these workers, who feel a sense of entitlement due to their education, will create an atmosphere of injustice and upheaval within a large, powerful subset of the population. To avoid a potential uprising, society must ask, “what will the future of work be?”
“We don’t actually know how fast [displacement is] going to go…It could be a few million spread over 20 years. No problem. Hundreds of millions spread over five years? We’re talking social revolution.”
The globotics revolution will see an employment shift from service jobs to “sheltered service jobs” – that is, work that can’t be automated or exported. These jobs require physical proximity to other people or machines, as well as uniquely human skills, such as adapting to unpredictable situations; empathizing; answering ethical questions; creating and innovating; or inspiring, teaching or managing others. Thus, “the future of work…is going to be more human.” Jobs will be more local. Workers will be more productive and therefore wealthier and more generous. Governments can adopt three strategies to slow the pace of change and facilitate a smooth transition. First, they can commit to retraining and aiding displaced workers throughout the transitional period. Second, a policy of “shelterism” – by employing health, safety and privacy regulations rigidly, for example – can slow the progression of change, staving off telemigration and automation and giving service sector personnel time to adjust to the shifting job market. And third, since many service industries are unregulated, the government can enforce “employment protection legislation,” raising the cost of firing people to slow the pace of layoffs.
About the Speaker
Economist Richard Baldwin is the author of The Globotics Upheaval.
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