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Should We Fear 'the End of Work'?
By Frank Koller
In this 2012 Making Sen$e report, "Man vs. Machine," Paul Solman examines the future of the American worker.
Paul Solman: "Man vs. Machine." Long the staple of science fiction, the "end of work" now beckons as reality. Journalist, author and Friend Of Making Sen$e (FOM$) Frank Koller attended a conference on the debate at Cornell University recently. He was accommodating enough to file this report.
Koller's book, "Spark," fired our renewed interest in the remarkable Rust Belt manufacturing firm Lincoln Electric, on which we reported in the early 1990s and again in 2011, with Koller prominently featured. A firestorm of comments followed, which we summarized on the Making Sen$e Business Desk. Finally, Koller himself weighed in. Now for Koller's take on the future-of-work debate.
Frank Koller: Story One goes like this: "If you're talking about 100 years from now, all jobs will be gone ... including the creative ones."
Story Two sounds like this: "The recovery of jobs is not all that bad ... it's moving in the right direction."
Okay, are these two folks living on the same planet? Yes. In fact -- amazingly and thankfully -- they were in the same room, sharing ideas about changes in the American workplace brought about by new technologies.
Four years after the Great Recession officially ended, millions of Americans are still unemployed and millions more remain underemployed. (For most, the distinction is unimportant: they're all hurting.)
The economy has been growing slowly, but corporate profits have soared as businesses have embraced new labor-saving technologies, doing everything and anything they can to avoid hiring permanent workers, leaving governments from Washington to Smallville struggling to figure out how to ensure the survival of America's beleaguered middle class.
To be accurate, it's not just governments who are struggling to understand what's going on. Almost everyone -- in business, technology, finance, labor, academia and society at large -- seems unsure about what's happening, which makes figuring out what to do next exceedingly hard.
MORE FROM FRANK KOLLER:
This challenge has been made more difficult because there have been very few times when a truly broad group of people from opposing corners of the economic landscape has come together to share their experiences, their worries and their expectations for what is clearly a national crisis.
So, to help get a dialogue going, Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations recently brought together 40 leading economists, policy makers, engineers, bankers, corporate executives, social scientists, philanthropists, journalists and statisticians for a day-long exploration of how technology is shaping -- or misshaping -- the American workplace.
Coming up with answers was not the goal: Cornell's belief was that searching for consensus in a one-day meeting would be futile. Initially, I wondered about the utility of that, given the gravity of the economic challenge facing the country. But it was a good decision. The range of views on what's happening was so wide -- and surprising -- that reaching realistic solutions would have been, well, unrealistic. Precisely because this kind of a meeting has been so rare, the meeting imposed the Chatham House Rule on attendees: we could talk afterwards about what was said, but not about who said it. (I later asked some of those who attended if I could quote them directly; almost all said yes.) If I had to sum up a fascinating day -- well, let's save that for the end, after you've seen the amazing diversity of views on the future of work.
Here's perhaps the fundamental question about what's going on in the American economy as it struggles to recover from the Great Recession: "How is this recovery different from other recoveries?" Or is it?
To put it in economese, is the persistently high level of unemployment a result of cyclical factors (the traditional ups and downs of economic growth) or structural factors (new game-changing technologies, dramatic shifts in the global economy)? The NewsHour has covered this debate several times, including economists duking it out in one recent instance.
From one decades-long leading student of the American economy came a succinct one-liner in favor of cyclicality: "This isn't a jobless economic recovery as everyone insists on calling it; it's simply just not yet a recovery."
In other words, as painful as the waiting certainly is, the economy will heal -- and once again, create jobs -- in time.
"Brace yourselves," countered Eric Brynjolfsson, from MIT's Sloan School, co-author of "Race Against the Machine," a much-talked-about recent book which argues that the introduction of new transformative technologies has only just begun, and that we're dangerously unable to perceive what's actually going to happen. (Brynjolffson was featured in a Making Sen$e broadcast story in 2011.) He added:
Princeton University economist Alan Blinder, who served in the 1990s as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, took a more measured view. He believes that both cyclical problems and disruptive technological change are at play, along with the changing face of the global economy:
The Promise and Perils of a Machine that Can Make Anything
The role of automation in the decline of manufacturing jobs has been front-and-center since the end of the recession. (Well, since the Luddites in the 19th century, but let's move on.) Cornell University's Hod Lipson is one of the country's most prominent experts on the interplay of robotics, IT and manufacturing. Lipson's next book is titled, ominously, "The Promise and Perils of a Machine that Can Make Anything." I found his presentation both powerful and unsettling:
Trained years ago as an engineer myself, I get the enthusiasm for technological solutions to manufacturing problems. But given the persistent levels of unemployment, I asked Lipson if the engineering profession didn't have to take a broader view. His answer was blunt -- but also open to the possibility of change:
Thomas Kochan, the co-director of MIT's Institute for Work and Employment Research, jumped in on that point. Decades ago, MIT was one of the first engineering schools in the country to focus on the public policy implications of engineering innovations. (Full disclosure: I'm an MIT grad). Here's what he had to say:
Lipson and the other tech experts took some pointed, albeit well-mannered, heat from people worried that more efficient production is nearly always equated with eliminating human workers. As one participant put it: "optimistically inventing stuff" with too little thought for the social consequences.
Among the worried was Gary Marcus, a psychologist at NYU who has written widely on cognitive development and artificial intelligence. Marcus himself is very tech savvy: among other involvements, he's a registered app developer for Facebook. But he worries about where the new jobs for a whole society will come from, a society under increasing stress:
And what did happen to all those hundreds of thousands of people working in the auto industry when they lost their jobs? It turns out, surprisingly, that we don't really know, even in this age of so-called "Big Data," which is now a driving force in everything from social marketing to NSA intelligence gathering.
As Jaison Abel, senior economist at the New York Federal Reserve, said, there is a huge difference between those graphs in the media showing the dramatic erosion of incomes for millions of middle class workers and actually understanding what happens to individuals' lives:
Lars Vilhuber is a Cornell labor economist who's previously worked with the Census Bureau. He echoed the call for more accurate information about who's being hurt and how:
Disruptive Change Is Accelerating
From people who work and live in the economy day-to-day, the stories were of relentless, often disruptive, change that is accelerating. David Paratore, CEO of Nanosteel, has a long history in manufacturing, from aerospace to jet engines to super conductivity, and had this to say:
But for Hanan Kolko, a labor lawyer in New York City who represents many unions and most recently, the new Freelancers Union, the steady introduction of new technologies that demand us to "know more" and the now all-too-normal elimination of jobs that happens soon afterwards is ultimately self-defeating -- and not just for those who are running those businesses.
And yes, confirmed Steven Berkenfeld, a managing director in the investment division of Barclays Capital, the reluctance to hire any new employees at all has now become very widespread, for understandable reasons:
And finally, from one of the attendees who asked to be unnamed, came a reminder of how incredibly hard it is for the millions of Americans who are essentially out of the economic mainstream, just off the grid:
Okay, So Now What?
By now, if you're feeling like the views expressed are all over the map, bewilderingly so, and wondering "okay, now what?," I'm with you. The challenge for the American economy in the 21st century -- how to compete successfully in an ever aggressive global economy and yet ensure that a wide swath of Americans benefit from that success -- is dauntingly complex. We're only just starting to grapple with what's coming and what's needed.
If there was a conclusion, it centered on the responsibility of leadership in society and its institutions -- in not surrendering to a paralyzing sense of inevitability about the march of technology and the jobs it is trampling in the process. From his seat on Wall Street, Steven Berkenfeld targeted the business community:
Let me finish with Thomas Kochan's plea for a renewed sense of national activism to forcefully change the course of an economy that just doesn't seem to be working for the benefit of the vast majority of Americans. In Kochan's words, it just doesn't have to be this way:
"If we don't start to take the leadership," Kochan concluded, "it isn't going to come from anywhere else."
Frank Koller appeared in our 2011 story on Lincoln Electric.
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