The End of Work

Posted by on Jan 12, 2014

raceMachSo, where did all the jobs go? And where are future jobs coming from? I recently read the 2011 book Race Against The Machine by Brynjolfsson and McAfee and these guys have an interesting view on these questions.

To answer the where did all the jobs go question the authors take another direction than the standard “the economy is not growing fast enough” or “the economy is stagnating and productivity has stopped rising” reactions. They came up with the End of Work argument, which I don’t think I have heard somewhere before as the reason for the current – and constant – high unemployment.

This End of Work idea states that we don’t have too little technological progress, but instead too much! Fewer people are needed to produce the goods and services we require, and all of this is caused by computer automation. But, not only automation of the “dump & easy” repetitive tasks, also more advanced work is evaporating. Think of translating a conversation in real-time or driving a car. 15 years ago this was almost science fiction but today Google is pretty far with these technologies. And once these jobs are gone they just won’t come back anymore.

The big question is who will be effected most by this End of Work. This is actually the interesting part. If we divide the labour market in low, middle and highly skilled workers, surprisingly the workers in the middle category will be effected most, and not the low skilled workers. Why? In an era of more and faster automation it probably is easier to automate the work of a bookkeeper, translator, call-center agent or taxi-driver, than the work of a gardener or hairdresser. For the latter types of jobs you would need very sophisticated and expensive robots, while a translator will be easily substituted by a free Google Translate service. Imagine the impact this will have on our society.

Here in Holland the babyboomers are leaving the workforce since a few years. This would mean more room for younger people on the job market. But I still don’t see any positive effect on the unemployment rate. Two years ago I even did a SAP BI project myself to fully automate the work of two office employees that were about to retire. And they indeed weren’t replaced by new hirees anymore…

Obviously the jobs that require a lot of teamwork and creativity will stay in high demand. I was happy to see that they specifically named jobs in data visualization and analytics as highly valued, so we are probably safe for now. On the other hand, if you are in a traditional type of job where someones tells you exactly what you have to do every day, you will get in real trouble sooner or later…

Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – ISBN: 978-0984725113

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