January 11, 2012
Technology...some unintended consequences
I was working on an article that would have outlined the amazing technology that has been developed over my lifetime when it suddenly dawned on me that the creation of these many, many labor savings devices has actually caused some negative unintended consequences. There can be no doubt that these devices have caused our lives to be much easier. However, what I hadn't really thought much about was how this new technology has helped cause much of the unemployment that we are experiencing. We are ending up with more and more technology to help make our lives much easier, enjoyable, and productive, but at the cost of many traditional jobs that will never be replaced. Almost any job role depending on human labor that can be replaced with any sort of automation simply will. These jobs are gone forever.
We all know that many millions of jobs have been sent offshore to allow companies to reduce labor costs. I would be willing to bet $1 that many times more have been lost to technology. Part of these losses are simply due to automation. As one example, imagine how many workers were required to assemble an automobile even a few decades ago vs. today. Recently I had the opportunity to tour the BMW plant in Spartanburg where they manufacture every X5 SUV for the entire world. I was amazed at the amount of automation and the relatively few workers on the assembly lines. I would guess that today's auto assembly requires perhaps one tenth the number of workers compared to the "old" days. Now apply that to every other formerly labor intensive manufacturing business. I remember when almost every management level person had a secretary who provided administrative assistance. Today the word "secretary" is almost completely missing from our vocabulary. Technology has replaced this role almost completely. Remember when you either looked up phone numbers in a paper phone book...or if you were a bit lazy you dialed 411 for operator assistance. Paper phone books are on the way out and telephone operator jobs have been massively reduced and will eventually disappear completely as robotic speech recognition technology just keeps improving. When was the last time that you called any large business and had a human answer the phone? Those jobs are gone forever.
Consider what the Internet has done to contribute to the shrinkage or total elimination of jobs or even entire industries in the past few decades. We often hear critics point out that the Post Office is a great example of why government management of enterprises just won't work. In reality the Internet more than any other factor has been the real culprit that is literally forcing the Post Office out of business and will eventually have cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Look at how our buying habits have changed due to the Internet. Today when you can shop from the comfort of home and compare prices and product ratings, why would you make a trip to a bricks and mortar business? When you do make the trip to one of the big box stores have you noticed how few employees are around to help with purchases? They cannot compete with the Internet based retailers if they have to maintain the number of employees they once had. I just read in the WSJ that Best Buy pulled out all the stops to compete with Amazon over the recent Black Friday shopping period. They had some success with total sales, but their profit margins were far from acceptable or sustainable. As the technology and our personal experience improves, Internet shopping will increasingly dominate our buying and selling of goods and services. How many jobs will be lost can only be speculated at...but the numbers will be huge.
This leads to the question about jobs for our future citizens. Specifically where will they come from? We clearly will have fewer of the types of the labor intensive jobs that we had in the past. It seems impossible to consider otherwise. As we watch our elected leaders struggle with effective job creation ideas...maybe the truth will begin to dawn...they have simply been unwilling to honestly acknowledge what they have known for a long, long time. Our world as we knew it no longer exists. Solutions from past paradigms won't work in our dramatically changed future. Add in the complexities of a true global economy and you end up with some very difficult choices that must be made by our leaders and our citizens. I shared this article with one of my older and wiser friends over the phone, and then asked him what he thought. He said quite simply; "I think the article should be titled "we are in deep s___!" One thing that seems certain to me is that we shouldn't be wasting our time and energy in waging wars of blame between the 1% vs. the rest of us. Technology, globalization, and unenlightened leadership are the key culprits that have tossed our world and lives upside down. We can't and shouldn't reverse the first two...but we must find the personal courage to address the latter. We must replace the old guard in Washington as soon as possible and find fresh new leadership.
These are my opinions. What do you think?