As the Economy Changes, Our Social Guarantees Will Need to Change With It

Google has unveiled its newest robot, and…well, see for yourself.

This is early stages yet, but there’s little reason to believe that within a few decades we won’t be seeing machines incorporating this technology to take over a lot of manual labor and personal assistant jobs moving forward. Meanwhile, car manufacturers are moving at full speed to make mass-produced autonomous cars a reality, which will ultimately have dramatic impacts across the economy. Keep in mind that there are approximately 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States alone and almost a quarter million cab drivers, and while not all those jobs will disappear in an instant, they will certainly be hugely impacted.

Restaurants are also being increasingly automated both in the kitchen and with digital displays increasingly taking the place of servers. These trends are multiplying across almost every sector of the economy, to say nothing of the generally disruptive impact of the internet and big data on previously stable industries from bookselling to research.

There is some question as to whether there will ultimately emerge enough STEM and tech-based jobs to replace all the ones being lost, but there is no certainly no guarantee of it. We are told that there is a skills shortage in which America needs a dramatic increase of engineers for tech jobs, but as Paul Krugman explains, that’s not really true:

Kudos to Adam Davidson for some much-needed mythbusting about the supposed skills shortage holding the US economy back. Whenever you see some business person quoted complaining about how he or she can’t find workers with the necessary skills, ask what wage they’re offering. Almost always, it turns out that what said business person really wants is highly (and expensively) educated workers at a manual-labor wage. No wonder they come up short.

And this dovetails perfectly with one of the key arguments against the claim that much of our unemployment is “structural”, due to a mismatch between skills and labor demand. If that were true, you should see soaring wages for those workers who do have the right skills; in fact, with rare exceptions you don’t.

Ultimately, even many of these tech and engineering jobs will be replaced by programs that teach themselves. Even the vaunted financial sector is becoming increasingly automated as programs learn to trade stocks more efficiently than most fund managers.

Whether all of this will actually lead to an employment crisis is the subject of hot debate among economists, with some insisting that automation always leads to more and better jobs, and others insisting we’re headed to a crisis. But there’s little doubt that in combination with offshoring and globalization, the American worker feels more precarious than ever. Long gone are the days when someone could assume that they could stay with the same company for a lifetime; now, it’s not even certain that your job will exist in 20 years. That’s a difficult thing for people to deal with, and all the entrepreneur-speak about dynamism and flexibility won’t substitute for people’s desires to know what they can count on to build lives, families and futures.

Dave Dayen recently noted the other way these trends impact society and politics in creating a “1099” economy of unstable gig workers who must constantly sing for their supper and cannot count on defined pensions, healthcare or reliable income. These folks tend to be especially subject to populist economic appeals from right and left, and for good reason.

Ultimately, policymakers who celebrate the modern economy for its innovation and dynamism will also have to deal with human needs for economic security and stability beyond only taking care of those who fall deepest through the cracks. That much ultimately mean a series of universal guarantees: retirement and healthcare among them, of course, but also education and even ultimately a universal basic income or guaranteed work program.

We’re not quite to the point where this issue is on the front burner. But we’re starting to see it move there at increasing speed, and the underlying issues are part of the reason for populist politics here and around the globe. We’ll likely have to confront some major adaptations to the economy and our conception of the social safety net sooner rather than later.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.