What we’ll encounter on the path to the jobless future

What we’ll encounter on the path to the jobless future

In just two short decades or so, we’ll enter a jobless future.

Thanks to highly disruptive advanced technologies, jobs — even industries — will soon vanish, becoming remnants of a distantly remembered past. Other positions will be more efficiently done by machines, eliminating the need for human employees. This has happened before – indeed, since the dawn of the Industrial Age – but never in history at the same speed and scale. It’s the advent of the “labor-light economy,” as defined by noted MIT researchers Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, who have explored the benefits and downsides of rapid technological advancement.

At the same time as machines displace most of us, our fundamental needs — think of Maslow’s basic hierarchy — will be met through the application of technologies. Food, energy, shelter, and health care will be free or so low cost that they’re virtually free. Even education will be eventually be free.

But the path to that the jobless future won’t be easy or simple; here’s what will happen over the next 15 to 20 years.

We’re already entering the first stage: a trough phase where a massive repricing of labor will take place. This is inevitable as the number of jobs and available industries shrinks. The relative purchasing power of labor will become more even across domestic and international markets – which means, as a plus, the cost of American labor will become more competitive. Companies won’t necessarily have to locate manufacturing plants overseas; the financial considerations will no longer be as compelling. As a result, we’ll see medium-skilled manufacturing jobs come back to our shores. Service jobs will replace low-skilled manufacturing as options for some, not all.

But there will also be greater division through the rise of a powerful class. Those with specialized skills and abilities, who cannot be conveniently replaced by machines, will enjoy better employment and the resulting capital spoils. Think of this much smaller subset of people as the new 1 percent. Those who can’t compete in this rising paradigm will struggle, because technologies haven’t yet made food, shelter and healthcare free or nearly free, although that day is clearly coming.

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