The middle class is disappearing and the problem is deeper than politics. How will we understand work in the coming age of robotics?
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Last April, the MIT economist David Autor published a report that looked at the shifting employment landscape in America. He came to this scary conclusion: Our workforce is splitting in two. The number of high-skill, high-income jobs (think lawyers or research scientists or managers) is growing. So is the number of low-skill, low-income jobs (think food preparation or security guards). Those jobs in the middle? They’re disappearing. Autor calls it “the polarization of job opportunities.”
These days, all of us, from President Obama on down, are thinking about jobs. The unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, we’ve watched the ground disappear from under Detroit and Wall Street, and there’s a pervading sense that other industries might be next.
It’s not that the issue isn’t getting attention. The Princeton economist Paul Krugman is out there telling Congress to spend more money to create jobs. The former secretary of labor Robert Reich is arguing for tax breaks for the bottom brackets so people can buy stuff again. Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant.
In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”
The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete.
People say America doesn’t make anything anymore, but that’s not true. With the exception of a few short lapses, manufacturing output has been on the rise since the 1980s. What is true is that industrial robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders since they appeared in the 1950s. Today, a Japanese company called Fanuc, Ltd., has industrial robots making other industrial robots in a “lights out” factory. (That’s the somewhat unsettling term for a fully automated production facility where you don’t need lights because you don’t need humans.) That’s where we’re headed.
It’s not just manufacturing, either. Automated call centers are replacing customer-service agents. Automated checkout stations are replacing grocery-store clerks. When the science of computer vision advances sufficiently, we’ll have algorithms, not humans, evaluating X-rays at airport security checkpoints and screening user-generated content for sites like Facebook.
Robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders.\n
Meanwhile, personal robotics, the kind we’ve been promised by science fiction, are getting closer to reality. Researchers at a Silicon Valley–based company called Willow Garage have been teaching their PR2 robot to fold laundry, play pool, and fetch beers for its engineers (you can see it in action on YouTube). The PR2 isn’t ready for the commercial market, but it’s closer than you think. Willow Garage has made the code for the PR2’s operating system entirely open, which means scientists and hobbyists all over the world can contribute to its development, and it recently started selling PR2 models for $400,000 each.
Keenan Wyrobek, a codirector of the Personal Robotics Program at Willow Garage, told me that the company’s robots might soon be able to help our aging population stay independent for a few extra years by doing simple tasks around the house. That would be great, but it would reduce the number of nurses and assisted-living attendants we would otherwise need.
Economists will remind you that new technologies create new jobs as they destroy old ones. That’s true. When you have robots, you need robotics engineers. But those aren’t going to be mid-range jobs.
On the low end of the spectrum, we have physical jobs that we can’t automate yet (yard work, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, we have creative and cognitive jobs that we can’t automate yet (law and management, for example). But as technology advances, and it certainly will, more people are going to be elbowed out of the workforce.
We may be heading toward a future with plentiful high-end jobs and plentiful low-end jobs, and not much in the middle. What if only doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers can live a decent life, buy a house or apartment, and pay for their children to get specialized degrees? What if a liberal-arts degree on its own prepares you for little more than work as a security guard? What if the skills that prepare one for a job with decent pay get increasingly hard to attain?
Addressing this challenge requires a response more profound than tweaking the tax code or extending unemployment benefits. But it also provides us with an exciting opportunity.
If this polarization continues, a whole cohort of people who expected to be middle class—or at least financially stable—might find themselves living a very different reality. Then they might start asking questions about why they are in that position. If it gets increasingly hard to pretend that the average liberal-arts degree prepares a student for a decent job, there may be broader support for a sober assessment of our education system, and the reforms it needs. If the skills and talents that are truly financially rewarding become harder and harder to acquire, people who would never consider themselves students of Marx might start questioning whether, given the circumstances, it still makes sense to pay people based solely on the demand for their skills in a marketplace that would be demanding very few skills.
If market forces and increased automation leave the average person without any prospects for a decent job, we may have the chance—or perhaps even the moral obligation—to recast the opportunity to do meaningful work not merely as a privilege, but as something everyone deserves.
Illustrations by Jennifer Daniel