We're Witnessing the Third Industrial Revolution Playing Out in Real Time

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Where did all the jobs go, and who will bring them back?. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

When I pitched this post, I planned to write about the future of jobs — as in, what are young people going to do when computers and robots take over all the work? What are the people whose jobs have been automated out of existence going to do? I was finishing Martin Ford’s "The Rise of the Robots," in which he suggests there won’t be many jobs, and that instead we'll need a guaranteed annual basic income for citizens because there won’t be much for them to do. It's a controversial position, but one coming from Martin Ford, author and mere mortal.

But then entrepreneur Elon Musk had something to say about it, promptly making it a political issue, even though he said much the same thing, telling CNBC:

"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation.Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”

Musk thinks it will all work out fine, because people will do other things that are more interesting.

“People will have time to do other things, more complex things, more interesting things. Certainly more leisure time."

Musk’s statement was poorly timed, coming a week before the election. The outrage was huge, people calling it socialist, blaming immigration, free trade, and bringing back the makers vs takers rhetoric. “We don’t want handouts, WE WANT JOBS.”

But in fact, the problem all along has been the digital revolution, automation and robotization. That's what has been eating all the jobs. The United States produces more stuff in its factories than it ever has; it simply does it with far fewer people now. This trend is not going to stop, and all over America, people are worried about jobs, what they will do, what their kids will do. Whether the solutions being promised will make America great again is another story altogether.

Martin Ford
The robots are coming for your job.

FYI: The robots are coming for your job.

While jobs have been created since the Great Recession, they have not been the kinds of jobs that guarantee long-term security. It's really no wonder that people are worried and upset. Ford writes:

The crisis had wiped out millions of middle-class jobs, while the positions created over the course of the recovery were disproportionately in low-wage service industries. A great many were in fast food and retail occupations — areas that, as we have seen, seem very likely to eventually be impacted by advances in robotics and self-service automation.
Figuratively speaking, of course. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Ford also notes how it gets politicized, and how it has damaged the environmental movement:

History shows clearly that when jobs are scarce, the fear of even more unemployment becomes a powerful tool in the hands of politicians and special interests who oppose action on the environment. This has been the case, for example, in those states where coal mining has historically been an important source of jobs, despite the fact that employment in the mining industry has been decimated not by environmental regulation but by mechanization. Corporations with even small numbers of jobs to offer routinely play states and cities against each other, seeking lower taxes, government subsidies, and freedom from regulation.
cover, the wealth of humans
The Wealth of Humans. (Photo: Ryan Avent)

Economist Ryan Avent’s new book, "The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power and Status in the Twenty-First Century" covers many of the issues raised by Ford and notes that we have seen this all before:

The industrial revolution destroyed old social orders in a similar way — wiping away whole swathes of employment, replacing workers with machines, widening inequality, and contributing to the marginalization of once-powerful political and social institutions. Radical new political movements then rose in response: labour unions; progressive social campaigns, which pushed for expanded suffrage, investment in education, temperance, and all sorts of other goals; and radical ideologies, such as anarchism, communism and fascism.

The second industrial revolution, also known as the technological revolution, occurred between 1870 and 1914. Avent writes:

This was the era in which modern sanitation and indoor plumbing were developed, and in which cities grew to truly modern size, in scale and population. It was the period that gave us what are still today the most advanced personal mobility technologies: the automobile and the airplane. It was this period that made the modern world what it is.

But it was also an era of great turmoil, giving us two world wars, which also played a big hand in making the modern world what it is. What we're seeing now is the third industrial revolution, the digital revolution, and the turmoil it's causing. Avent writes:

... he digital revolution is very much like the industrial revolution. And the experience of the industrial revolution tells us that society must go through a period of wrenching political change before it can agree on a broadly acceptable social system for sharing the fruits of this new technological world. It is unfortunate, but those groups that benefit most from the changing economy tend not to willingly share their riches; social change occurs when losing groups find ways to wield social and political power, to demand a better share. The question we ought to be worried about now is not simply what policies need to be adopted to make life better in this technological future, but how to manage the fierce social battle, only just beginning, that will determine who gets what and by what mechanism.

Looking at the election through this lens provides a different view. There are a lot of ugly things going on, including some racism and misogyny. But as one scary article in the Boston Globe, looking at a West Virginia town notes:

The sources of the resentments are multilayered, but close to the core lies the economic devastation that has rocked the region, as coal mines have fallen into bankruptcy and tens of thousands of workers have been laid off.

People are mad about everything, and they're talking revolution.

“What it boils down to is the American dream is going to be lost,” said John Myers, a 60-year-old independent voter who worked in construction and the coal mines. “We’re voting for the survival of the United States,’’ he said. “It’s like a war. And we’re fighting back. This is all we can do.”
truck driver map
Apparently, everybody is a truck driver now. (Photo: NPR/Census)

In a recent post in TreeHugger about self-driving trucks, I noted how the employment world had changed. In 1978, the most common jobs were (in order) secretaries, farmers and machine operators. By 2014, there was just one state in which secretarial work was the most common job, no machine operators and truck drivers dominated the scene. Now that self-driving trucks are on the roads, what is it going to look like in five, 10 or 15 years?

The changes we're going through are massive and frightening. It's no wonder people are upset and disoriented and unhappy. No wonder they want to go back to the way things used to be, even though that way of life no longer exists, gone the way of all those secretarial jobs. Hillary Clinton took serious flak for her “deplorable” comment, where she was “grossly generalistic” and claimed that many of Trump’s supporters fit in one basket. But she got it right in the next paragraph:

" .... but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he [Trump] says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

She's right. The world is changing and leaving so many behind. It's no wonder the American election is so divisive and contentious. We are in the middle of a digital revolution that is disrupting lives everywhere. Nobody has any idea where we're going and what we'll do. Avent concludes:

We are entering into a great historical unknown. In all probability, humanity will emerge on the other side, some decades hence, in a world in which people are vastly richer and happier than they are now. With some probability, small but positive, we will not make it at all, or we will arrive on the other side poorer and more miserable. That assessment is not optimism or pessimism. It is just the way things are.

No matter who wins or loses this election, we all need to face the fact that this revolution is just getting started.