In a 2015 piece for The Atlantic entitled "A World Without Work," Derek Thompson discusses the shift in industry from serviced-based labor to automated labor, bringing the impact of this shift upon society and lifestyles into focus. However when discussing black folk in America, in terms of historically unprivileged and systematically marginalized people, such atomization of labor brought by automation and technology can appear to be especially troubling.
How extensive and comprehensive the shift and atomization of labor will be is hard to measure? Will the US face mass unemployment? And if so, how much will this contraction in the demand for labor negatively or positively affect historically-marginalized communities?
In this essay, I look at Bureau of Labor of Statistics and Census data in order to highlight where industries are expanding and where they are contracting. From this data I make 3 major speculative assertions about the affect of labor market shifts on black communities in America:
1. Blacks, particularly, African and Hispanic Americans will suffer less from short term job loss
2. Technology may Automating and Creating more Jobs than originally thought.
3. America will embrace more populist and socialist policies such as Basic Income Guarantee
Atomization, Automation and the Shifting Need for Human Labor
Atomization is a term from chemistry has been applied to economies and industry. In the same way that a molecule may split off of some large chemical compound or structure, so to is there a fragmentation occurring in labor markets today.
This atomization is making work to fragment into more niche and specialized crafts.
The great possibility being explored by various social, entrepreneurial and policy leaders is that the ability to create and innovate will become the new set of desired skills. Human work will no longer be a matter of how much physical or computational work you can do. This shift away from serviced-based work will be similar to the shift away from agriculture and manufacturing.
Jobs are becoming more specialized as software and hardware carry out more mundane and formulaic tasks. Human customer service work will diminish in quantity, while also increasing in the quality and value added to the customer, as well as, more expensive.
Such fragmentation inherently leads to optimization of both quality and pricing.
...in a skills-based creative economy in which continuing professional education becomes vital to American workers, the demand for tutoring and education providers could also increase.
For employers and founders, new technologies save them tens of thousands of dollars in labor per employee, and eliminate the natural market inefficiencies inherent to a human labor force. Many banks, supermarkets and convenience stores, for example, have for the last decade aggressively replaced their human workforce with self-checkout machines and hyper-functional ATM machines.
Moreover, while technology has created jobs, modern software allows for new large employers like Google and Apple to hire relatively fewer workers than the giants of yesterday such as IBM and Home Depot. This is a point made by Thompson in his article:
... In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees—less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday."
But is Economic Chaos really at the Doorstep of Black Folk?
However, when one looks at numbers reported by the Bureau Labor Statistics, you notice that while some sectors are losing jobs, other sectors of the service industry are gaining jobs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of service jobs in America have actually increased by 9.9 million jobs between 2004 and 2014, with dropoffs only in: Utility, Information, Financial Activities, and Federal government services.
The industries with highest growth in the last 10 years have been: educational services; private (+1.5%), healthcare and Social Assistance (+2.3%), and Leisure and Hospitality (+1.6%). Overall, the service industry increased its number of jobs by 0.9% and is expected to grow over the next 8 years.
In more simple terms, atomization and automation only seem to be deleting certain types of jobs at the present, and are not getting rid of service jobs as a whole. Even if BLS projections of 0.7% service job growth over the next 8 years are simply wrong and we suffer a net loss in service jobs, the more important reality is that certain sectors will gain jobs.
Home aids and senior care roles will likely increase in importance and number as Baby-Boomers age. Moreover, in a skills-based creative economy in which continuing professional education becomes vital to American workers, the demand for tutoring and education providers could also increase.
In effect, the service industry is not dying at the moment, but is, instead, shifting.
More specifically, the areas in which employment is expanding at the quickest rates are in industries and sectors in which many work class americans, especially African Americans and Hispanic Americans, out other groups of Americans.
For example, in the top three fastest growing sectors of education, healthcare and hospitality, African Americans often are out-indexed by 50%. While only make up 13% of the United States, African Americans make population, they make up 25% of Healthcare Support, 19% of Protective Services and 17% of Healthcare Practitioners.
Hispanic populations account for 17% of the US population but account for 24% of Food Preparation and Service, 22% of Transportation and Material moving and 21.9% of Production Occupations.
Meanwhile, various European and Asian American groups should be concerned at how optimization will affect them in the near future. Among Asian americans, for example, Koreans, Japanese and Filipino Americans have over 30% of their labor force in the sales, operations and support roles, according to US census data. Learning Machines and Apps can do those jobs.
It is this type of work which could be the first to go, along with a lot of skilled blue collar labor.
While robots and other technology could eventually be used to automate various aspects of service work, it may take a while before a machine is entrusted with the duties once held by a nurse, a pre-school teacher or a home attendant.
Thus in a sense, the unemployment caused by automation and machines in the next 10-15 years should adversely effect Hispanics and African Americans less than Asian and European Americans, given their employment-sector positions.
Holes in the Data- UnderEmployment and the Innovation Wild Card
Chase and many other commercial banking companies have aggressively replaced tellers with machines
But let's not get "it" twisted though- technology and innovation does not care about what the Bureau of Labor Statistics thinks will happen in terms of jobs.
Technology moves quickly. There were no popular 10 year projections in 2006 that forecasted the rapid adoption of on-demand transportation or a siege on the hotel industry by Air BnB. Thus, all of the projected job gains by the BLS can all be nullified by new technology.
Platforms like Zapier and others which leverage algorithms and artificial intelligence learning machines to complete routine and formulaic administrative tasks could wipe out hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs in just a couple years.
However, jobs could be created in industries that do not yet exist.
20 years ago, many digital design, application development and social media jobs which exist today simply didn't exist.
As solar energy increases and travel becomes easier with self driving cars, who knows what industries will be either hurt or helped? Virtual and Alternate reality technology, similarly, open upon new economic frontiers and revenue streams.
America will need bolder Leadership and Policies to Handle Economic Shift
In addition to the wildcard of technology, there's even more to the story than what has been stated through this BLS and Census data.
For example, these numbers do not state how many of these new or lost positions are full-time or part time. These numbers also state only that employment will increase. And the data says nothing about real wages.
Thompson points out that wages are being outpaced by the productivity of American workers:
"The share of U.S. economic output that’s paid out in wages fell steadily in the 1980s, reversed some of its losses in the ’90s, and then continued falling after 2000, accelerating during the Great Recession. It now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid‑20th century.
Machines and Algorithms seem perfect for employers who seek to boost productivity but not wages. However, what happens to all of those people loosing their jobs? View full report here
However, the more important question in this era of applications and algorithms is: How will our attitudes towards work change? This shift in attitude will determine our ability to customize school and university curriculums to prepare more Americans for this shift.
It will also determine our collective willingness to increase wages for those who are employed and to provide a basic income for US Citizens.
Failure to properly address the challenges raised by new technology with bold solutions will negatively affect Americans in a dramatic fashion. In particular, historically neglected communities may be left further behind if their laborers are not trained or retrained in an adequate manner.
Currently, groups such as African, Native, mixed-race and Hispanic Americans report unemployment rates that are 50% or 100% more than the national average.
This difficulty in finding full-time work may only intensify as Americans citizens may continue to compete with ambitious foreign talent in addition to software and learning machines.
I predict that if we do in fact experience increased "worklessness," that Americans will embrace more populist and progressive social policies.
On immigration, we may begin to question our assumptions about citizenship and boarders. More Americans may feel more compelled to explore life outside of our borders for new opportunities which may no longer be as available here as they are elsewhere.
Or better yet, we may look at welfare differently, embracing the idea of a basic income guarantee. By spending less on armed conflicts and military aid, we could provide American citizens with a monthly stipend so that Americans can meet the basic needs of housing and food- needs which would have been covered by more full-time work.
Platforms like Zapier and others which better leverage algorithms and artificial intelligence learning machines could wipe out hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs in just a couple years.
Just imagine if we spent half of the US $6.5 billion foreign military aid budget in domestic infrastructure projects and educational services?
Lastly, voters may push their elected officials to work with business leaders on more innovative tax codes so that we can increase our investments in public infrastructure and social services- services which private businesses inevitably benefit from.
Technology will push Americans be more honest with itself and its citizens. For the last 20 years, the American worker has been in a state of denial about the economy and their position within it. Startups and their crazy new ideas shock the worker into a wild and new reality.
However, the era of artificial intelligence and algorithms may make us more human, elevating professions and industries wherein interpersonal and social skills are valued. Humans, in a creative and social economy, become more than just capital and means of production.
In short, the future is full of surprises which may likely exceed the expectations of government data. And, that may not be such a bad thing.
Medvis Jackson is a web designer at Hindsite, curator at Kulchah and avid cricket fan. You can follow him @medvisjackson for his random thoughts. He primarily covers startup, tech and small business ecosystems and resources.